While you’re in isolation with your S.O., sow calm, not conflict.
Sure, you love your partner—why else would you have chosen to live with them in the first place? Still, when the stress of a pandemic sets in and “stay at home” orders become official, you might start to notice a bit more tension between you and your significant other.
“When stress runs high, our sympathetic nervous system kicks in and sends signals to our brain to let us know there is danger,” says Lauren Gorog, PsyD, psychologist specializing in mindfulness-based cognitive behavioral therapy at Gorog Health in Denver, CO.
Understanding Stress in Relationships
When activated, your sympathetic nervous system is responsible for causing the fight-or-flight response, triggering your breathing and heartbeat to speed up and your blood pressure to rise. It’s literally prepping your body to run, fight, or whatever it needs to do to react to the perceived danger.
“Relationships become strained when we aren’t aware of how our own stress manifests and clouds our thinking,” says Dr. Gorog. “With a quick fuse, we often get into communication patterns that are competitive [instead of] cooperative, and with heightened irritability, anything can get on your nerves.”
In other words, you’re not a bad person if your partner’s laugh starts to get under your skin. It’s just science, and you’re stressed out.
Do’s and Don’ts for Healthy Relationships
“We spend the most time with [our significant others] and they have the greatest emotional impact upon us,” says Dr. Gorog. “Investing in a solid relationship when things are particularly challenging will strengthen your bond and lend itself to greater intimacy, vulnerability, and resiliency when future challenges arise.”
Tread lightly when discussing serious subjects at this time. With both of you feeling on edge, sensitive topics like future plans, finances, or criticisms can quickly get blown out of proportion.
“If there is a problem, address it with tenderness, making sure to identify your own experience and solution that you will both collaboratively work towards,” says Dr. Gorog. Come to the table with possible solutions—not just complaints.
Another mistake is relying solely on your partner for stimulation and socialization. While you can’t hang out with your BFF in person, you can still use video chat or play games online (thanks, technology). That can help each of you fulfill all your emotional needs, which is hard to get from just one person. Here are more tips for finding emotional connection while social distancing.
One of the best things to do is to set healthy boundaries with your partner. This is good advice for everyday life, but is especially important during the coronavirus pandemic. This could include things like respecting alone time, avoiding yelling, or requesting breaks from conversations when you feel your stress levels rising and clouding your judgment.
“Healthy boundaries are key during a time of cultural and personal unrest when you feel depleted,” says Dr. Gorog. “Knowing and accepting your limitations is a form of self-preservation and a preemptive act of love for others.”
Finally, finding ways to manage your own mental health could help you avoid unnecessary conflicts with your partner. This may include continuing to see a therapist via video chat or phone, sticking to your medication, or simply managing your stress levels as best as you can. Try these stress-relieving strategies:
Coping with coronavirus: managing stress, fear, and anxiety. Bethesda, MD: National Institute of Mental Health, 2020. (Accessed on March 29, 2020 at https://www.nimh.nih.gov/about/director/messages/2020/coping-with-coronavirus-managing-stress-fear-and-anxiety.shtml.)
COVID-19 resource and information guide. Arlington, VA: National Alliance on Mental Illness, 2020. (Accessed on March 29, 2020 at https://www.nami.org/getattachment/About-NAMI/NAMI-News/2020/NAMI-Updates-on-the-Coronavirus/COVID-19-Updated-Guide-1.pdf.)Understanding the stress response. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Health Publishing, Harvard Medical School, 2018. (Accessed on March 29, 2020 at https://www.health.harvard.edu/staying-healthy/understanding-the-stress-response.)