Jennifer L. Baker PsyD MFT
“I don’t think I can stand this much longer. I’m thinking of moving out.”
“This is just not working for me. I want a divorce.”
There’s no question that the global pandemic has created a great deal of stress for everyone, but it’s especially difficult for couples who may have been struggling with their relationship before this unparalleled period began.
They may have told themselves, “We’re going through a rough patch, but if we can just . . . get through the school year . . . get through this new project at work . . . take a vacation . . . things will be better.” They may have distracted themselves from tension in their marriage by long hours at work, a focus on their children’s activities, and evenings out with friends. Now work has changed dramatically. Children’s activities—all of them, have evaporated. And even if you could have an evening “out” with friends, where could you go?
Yes, I realize “we’re all in this together,” but that’s the problem. We are in this “together” all. the. time. Even those who say they are doing “fine,” are managing an underlying tension. Under such circumstances, it’s hard to be happy and content as an individual, let alone as a couple. In fact, if you are relying on your partner to save the day for you in some way, you are probably in for some serious disappointment.
We simply do not know how long the impact of COVID-19 will continue to felt, but many experts are telling us to prepare for a “new normal” that will extend for some time. Our employment may be secure at the moment, but we know this could all change in a heartbeat. We know because two months ago, few if any of us, saw the current situation coming. The complexity of working at home, schooling at home, and existing at home 24/7 may feel overwhelming. It is truly difficult to know what to do in such ambiguous circumstances and it’s easy to be discontent.
When we are unhappy or depressed, we often look to the people and circumstances around us as the source of our discontent. We expect these people or situations to make us happy (or less sad) and when they do not—at least not in the way we’d like, our tendency is to blame them for a dark mood. What is needed, we may start thinking, is a change. A change in partners, employment, neighborhood.
It’s very easy to see these things as the key to contentment and sometimes they do make a difference. The problem is that you take yourself with you to the new partner, job or neighborhood. As the saying goes, “Wherever you go, there you are.”
If the basis for our misery lies in part, or in whole, within us a change in circumstances will not solve the problem. Perhaps a consequence of the pandemic is that without all the distractions to which we are normally accustomed, it is impossible to get away from ourselves. Sadly, we are often unaware of our own contribution to the problem. Given the research indicating couples unhappy in their marriage who divorced were less likely to describe themselves as “happy” five years later than couples who stayed together, it is worth considering this reality.
Personal Responsibility for Surviving and Thriving
Thriving in your marriage may not seem possible right now, but what about surviving? Is it possible to survive in a reasonably healthy way until a less stressful period? Here are three survival strategies to consider:
1. Focus on making at least five or more positive comments to and/or about your partner every day.
Now’s not the time for criticism or critique. Everyone is under a lot of stress. Instead of complaining about wet towels on the floor, household chores left incomplete, or dog hair on the couch . . . or any one of a multitude of issues, let it go for the time being. Make it your aim to express your appreciation as often as possible. Remember, we tend to see more of behavior that is rewarded in some ways, including with kind words.
2. Pay attention to the story you are telling yourself.
Most of our problems are related to what we are telling ourselves about a particular event or issue. If our partner is grouchy or irritable we might say, “What’s wrong with her? Why is she so bitchy? She never appreciates a thing I do.” Or, we could ask, “What’s wrong? You don’t seem like yourself today? I know this situation has been stressful on all of us.” You can choose the story you tell yourself and everyone is likelier to be happy, including you, if you make it a more grace-filled one.”
3. Offer lots of grace.
Most of us can be compassionate when we know another is going through a difficult time. We also need to consider that what makes something difficult for one, many be different for another. Introverts have adjusted well to stay-at-home orders; extroverts are struggling. Think about your partner’s personality. What might be difficult for him or her right now? Being generous with compassion and grade can go a long way in helping you survive in stressful times.
It’s tempting to think about getting out, making tracks, jumping ship, but decisions like this are best made in more settled times. Take time now to manage yourself, doing what you can do to improve the situation and you’ll make better decisions in the future.