North Forty News: Mental Health Matters: Pandemic-Proofing Your Relationship

by Tasha Seiter; published in North Forty News

Scary news about COVID-19 doesn’t stop at the CDC. As a marriage counselor, every day I see its impact on relationships. According to the New York Post, it only took a week of quarantine to double divorce inquiries and experts are predicting a sharp increase in divorce cases post-pandemic, once the courts reopen. A study conducted by researcher Xin Qin and colleagues found that increases in confirmed cases of COVID-19 have caused a correlating surge in domestic violence.

When confined to our homes, we are forced to address problems in our relationships from which we can usually distract ourselves. Add in a cocktail of stressors including worries about becoming ill, employment issues, increased childcare responsibilities, loss of usual sources of entertainment and social isolation and you’ve got a barrage of problems that can sorely stress even the happiest relationship.

All couples argue, but couples who end up having satisfying, enduring marriages communicate differently than those who end up divorced. 

Following are tips based on research by John Gottman and colleagues of The Gottman Institute that will help “pandemic-proof” your relationship:

  • Avoid criticism. “You are such a control freak!” When you’re angry or irritated with your partner, you may feel the urge to throw out a character judgment. But criticism only causes us to get defensive or fight back. Instead, “own” your own feelings by making a specific statement, using the formula, “When you did X, in situation Y, I felt Z.” In this way, your partner is clear about what they did and how it impacted you.
  • Don’t be defensive. When we don’t take responsibility for contributing to conflict, we get trapped in a game of “Who dunnit” instead of constructively working toward a solution. We all make mistakes so own up to your own errors.
  • Don’t stonewall. We need to be constructively engaged in conflict to work through issues in our relationships. Generally, people who stonewall do so because their bodies are biologically stressed, causing them to shut down. If you find yourself being overwhelmed, pause the interaction and practice self-soothing techniques. Deep breathe, visualize a comforting place and practice progressive muscle relaxation (tensing and then relaxing parts of your body.) These techniques can help you get to a place where you can participate and problem-solve.
  • Don’t speak with contempt. The biggest predictor of divorce is contempt — intense disrespect that comes out as hostile sarcasm, eye-rolling or belittlement.
  • Increase the positives in your relationship by showing gratitude and appreciation. The more you show how much you cherish and admire your partner, the more they will feel rewarded and supported by you to keep up the considerable effort required to make any relationship work.

This pandemic is hard on us all. Follow these tips and you and your partner can move from conflict to conversations that help you connect and support each other in this unprecedented time of need.

For a link to the published article, see:

Mental Health Matters: Pandemic-Proofing Your Relationship

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