In every relationship, couples have natural ways they connect and natural ways they have conflict. When life is easy the connecting part is easy and the conflict can be more easily be overlooked. As life becomes more stressful connecting gets harder while the conflicts get exposed.
Stressors Expose Conflicts
There are several stressors that can have this affect on a marriage such as parenting, career challenges, other family relationships, health issues and any major life changes. Since at least March most marriages have been impacted in some way by the stress of the Coronavirus pandemic as it has had a drastic affect on the careers and parenting of most people.
How Can We Deal with Conflict and Remain Connected?
In times of stress, the best ways for dealing with conflict aren’t that different than other times, they are just more necessary. Here are a few ways to remain connected and settle conflict that are always good but can be especially helpful in this stressful season.
Learn to ride the waves
In many relationships when one person is feeling a strong emotion the other person often has a strong emotional reaction to that person’s emotion. One spouse’s anger might spark the other’s fear. One spouse might feel anxious when they see that the other is sad. It’s not bad to be affected by other’s emotions; it’s part of being socially connected beings. What isn’t healthy is when he can’t tolerate the strong emotions that come up in us when we see our partner feeling something strongly.
What often happens is one person’s strong feelings create such distress in the other person that they feel the need to change or shut down the first person’s feelings. For example, let’s pretend that when Pam gets frustrated it makes Jim anxious. In order to make his own anxiety go away, Jim might try to make Pam’s frustration go away by avoiding the subject, invalidating her reasons for feeling frustrated, or trying to solve the problem. This can lead to all kinds of problems as it might leave Pam feeling less validated and also less likely to express her feelings. The upside for Jim is that he might experience less anxiety but he loses connection to his spouse.
Can You Tolerate Uncomfortable Emotions?
What we need to do instead to be able to tolerate the uncomfortable emotions of others is learn to tolerate the uncomfortable emotions we have in response. This means to become more aware of what we’re feeling. When the other person expresses an emotion that is uncomfortable for us what emotion happens is it that we are then feeling? Once we identify our own feeling we can begin to keep ourselves regulated which allows us to better listen and help our partner.
This Emotion Isn’t Forever
It’s important to remember that our emotions will not last forever. They are like a wave that increases in intensity, peaks, and then diminishes. If we try to ignore the emotion it will only get stronger until we give it our attention, but if we give it our attention and learn to ride the wave it will be over sooner. In order to ride the waves of our partner’s emotions, we have to learn to ride the wave of our own feelings.
Sometimes this means recognizing what we are feeling and taking a deep breath to calm ourselves down so we can listen or respond thoughtfully. When the emotion is anger on both sides we might need to take a timeout and get physical space apart to ride our wave. Sometimes we need to join them by expressing the difficult things we are feeling We often think that connection in relationships only happens when we feel happy together but we can also feel connected in our shared pain, fear, and sadness. These things don’t feel good but they can’t be denied when they are being felt and are better felt with another person by ours side.
Pandemic life requires a lot of adaptation and it’s easier to adapt when we have a structure that we are starting from than when we are trying to make sense out of chaos. As a result, it’s really important to set clear expectations with your spouse about how you hope your life and family will function in the midst of the pandemic.
As work and children’s school schedules look different than ever it’s a good idea to have a general plan for what a typical day will look like. Who will get up with the kids, who will help with school at different times, who’s in charge of what household tasks when you’re both stuck at home, how much time do you reasonably need for work, exercise, etc. If you find that one person seems to be I charge of all those things then you probably have resentment brewing and need to discuss what’s appropriate and fair.
Most of these things probably have a normal routine already but as major life shifts happen it’s important to re-evaluate expectations and ask for changes you think would help you get through the long pandemic days. This doesn’t mean every request can be accommodated but learning to ask for what we need is a way to open up larger conversations about what we’re experiencing which promotes connection.
As flexibility is needed it is very important that changes one person wants to make are communicated to other person. Especially in cases where you both might have zoom meetings lined up all day while trying to facilitate online school with kids it can be helpful to check in each morning to talk through a daily schedule. This daily check-in is helpful not only for having shared expectations for the day but as an opportunity for connection as well.
It’s easy for couples to keep score in their mind as to who’s doing more parenting, working, or keeping up with the house and it’s rarely ever helpful. Especially in times of stress, we can get so focused on all that we have to do that we don’t notice all that our partner is doing. We begin to form a story in our head that we are doing more and they are doing less and this often leads to resentment that we hold onto.
Change the Script in Your Mind
It’s easy to make a list in our head of all the things we do. One exercise I ask people to try is to write down a list of all the things your partner does. Don’t write a list of what you do, you already know. The list of what they do might not be as long as your own but it is likely it will be longer than you thought it was and this new information helps us recognize that the other person is also working hard. This new information helps us formulate a different, more nuanced story in our head about who our partner is. This also opens the door to gratitude allowing us to inject some positivity into our relationships.
This doesn’t mean we accept an imbalance in the division of labor in our family but it means we need to be proactive in talking about it so resentments don’t fester. When having that conversation we need to make it focused on ourselves and not our partner. We need to learn to say “it would help me if…..” rather than “you need to do…..”. We also need to be open to our partner making similar requests and willing to participate in the process of change. Often we can hold onto the resentments we have as a source of personal righteousness but it’s not worth it if it creates disconnection.
The Power of Imperfection
Lastly, we have to accept that all the things might not get done and that’s ok. Nothing is perfect right now. What we need even more than a functional structure and a clean house is feeling emotionally connected to our partner. This takes work when life is easy and even more work when we’re in crisis we must be prepared to put in the effort.
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