The coronavirus crisis has many psychological consequences: realistic fears of contracting the illness, anxiety stemming from apocalyptic scenarios, tension surrounding an actual or potential blow to one’s income, and the need to cope with dramatic changes in personal and business-related plans. When you factor in the element of quarantine, which forces stressed-out people to live together for two weeks without being able to refresh themselves – the flames licking the bottom of this psychological cauldron intensify.
As a couples and family therapist, I know that even without the virus, spending time crowded together with the family is quite a challenge. After Rosh Hashanah and Passover there is typically an increase in the start of divorce proceedings.
In light of the dramatic developments we are experiencing now, I asked some couples therapists to share some of their professional experiences with couples who have to survive quarantine. Following is their advice.
Talk about your fears
Couples that enter quarantine together are similar in some ways to couples who are about to move in together and are afraid of the intensity involved in that, says Aliza Ohayon Ovadia. Often one of the two is afraid of being forced to share a common space all the time, while the other is happy about the change and is almost unconcerned about it.
My main advice is not to ignore the fear but to discuss it. It’s very important for each member of the couple to be able to express his fears. Moreover, in the event that they are not actually dealing with illness but only with being in preventive quarantine – it’s a good idea to allow room for positive expectations about the good things that could happen during the time together.
In technical terms, if there is enough space in the apartment, I recommend designating areas for the private use of whomever feels a need for some quiet. Creating such a separation is a healthy measure that enables movement between closeness and distancing.
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I’m sharing this advice hesitantly, because I know that it’s likely to be perceived as unrealistic, or even as irrelevant for anyone in quarantine, says Diana Eidelman. Quarantine can present a very strange and unique opportunity to be creative in your shared space. Usually there are cupboards and closets to organize, paperwork to do, bank accounts that should be perused together and a chance to survey everything you might want to remove from your home because there’s no need for it. This is also an opportunity to conduct joint Skype conversations with friends or family living abroad.
Every day you can choose a film that you want to see together, or watch TED talks on any subject in the world that interests you. It is important to decide on a time to watch together, so you can share your focus on the experience. For couples with older children who don’t have to be kept occupied, I recommend conducting an evening of “36 Questions” to get to know one another better. This involves a questionnaire in which two people (in the original exercise, they are strangers) are asked 36 questions and their answers help increase intimacy.
The main recommendation is to remember that this is an opportunity to learn something new from or about your partners, to teach them to perform household tasks that you’re tired of doing, or to introduce something they’ve never done before (cooking, baking, using a certain software program, playing poker and so on). Of course, it’s also an opportunity to play board games, to create a playlist for one another and play songs that everyone likes, and to dance together in the living room. To turn this event into a celebration.
At the same time, it’s also important to reserve time to be alone: for meditation, an afternoon nap, occasional conversations with those remaining in the outside world, to practice playing an instrument and to work.
Share your feelings without being judgmental
According to Hilit Kadosh, the coronavirus epidemic is changing our lives from one moment to the next. The experience of quarantine is likely to cause a partner in a relationship to feel alone, and arouses feelings like fear, anger, sadness and pain. We all have a natural tendency to vent our emotions in the presence of those close to us. But that type of release now is likely to cause emotional upset and lead to insults, and end up in quarrels.
The ability to talk about what each of you is feeling is very helpful in reducing tension, so try to talk about the fears, the anxiety and the pressure caused by uncertainty and the loss of security. Share your feelings with one another, without being judgmental or critical. Avoid dismissive statements such as “you’re exaggerating,” “you’re hysterical” or “calm down already.”
Being there for each other and showing mutual understanding will reduce the intensity of negative emotions and strengthen the sense of togetherness, which is necessary in times of crisis.
Quarantine is a temporary situation
Nobody likes to be on forced leave from work, says Lina Lifschitz Rozen. but let’s be honest: How much time do we get to spend time together without juggling another 1,001 things? There are families for whom the quarantine will be a bonding experience, while for others it will increase tension and make the atmosphere to be more explosive. It’s even more upsetting when you recall that home quarantine is part of a situation at present that for some of us can be threatening – both financially and in terms of health.
You should be attentive to the fears and concerns of your partners and remember that this is a temporary situation. It’s important to identify the possible weak points and to devote time to thinking about things – together and separately – that could help in coping with the difficulties. Prepare a list of relaxing activities that diminish pressure and tension, and which are possible even under conditions of isolation.
Without negative loops
And now my two cents: In every significant relationship, loops – i.e., repetitive patterns of behavior – are created between people. This stems from two basic human conditions: First, we are almost never identical to the person close to us in terms of our abilities, character traits or situation at any given point in time; secondly, our behavior is affected by the behavior of the other people who are in the same situation as we are.
Loops in themselves are neither positive nor negative. The danger lies in becoming fixated in our roles, thereby reducing the potential that each of us has. In a couples relationship the big danger is that we differ in our manner of dealing with the sense of threat we feel regarding that relationship.
For most couples, one partner regulates his behavior through moments of introversion and taking time-outs, while the other regulates himself through closeness. The problem is that the way in which one person calms herself down may push all of her partner’s buttons, over and over again. Physical proximity increases the risk of contagion – not only in the case of the coronavirus but also when it comes to reactions to stress and exacerbating a negative loop.
We recommend trying to look both at the fears you have and at your way of dealing with them, from the perspective of your personal style of coping and in terms of the negative loop that you may get stuck in.