2020 was some year, wasn’t it? We dealt with (and continue to deal with) COVID-19, political turmoil, a damaged economy, and the effects of climate change. Add to that all the issues that were happening even before COVID took over, and some people still might not want to come out from under the covers. Happy 2021 indeed!
I noticed last year that I got more calls from couples seeking help than ever before, and it made me wonder about the connection between what goes on in the world and relationship satisfaction. Couples reported struggling more, since COVID, with isolation, feeling cooped up, boredom, finances, increased arguing and decreased sex.
It seems the environment’s effect doesn’t stop when you get home, no matter how tall your hedges are.
This is nothing new, of course, it just feels more intense. It is hard to attend to your partner when you come home after a bad day at work, but what happens when you have that bad day at work just four feet from where they are also working? What about if your bad day is because you have been laid off for months from your job? What if our bad day is because of how often they interrupt us? How do we keep from taking out our fears and frustrations on the one person we see the most? How do we minimize the affect the world has on us and our relationship?
These are big questions, but fortunately the answers are within reach. And the good news is that couples can use skills they have already developed to create positive change at home. First, we have to be able to recognize what is invading our home, where it is coming from, and where we do and don’t have control over it. Second, we have to have a clear vision for what we want our relationship to look like not only during this time, but after, because that is the motivation to do the work. So let’s dive right in, shall we?
EXTERNAL/INTERNAL INFLUENCES: We are products of our environment as much as we are products of our genetic line. The old tug-of-war between nature and nurture has mostly settled on a draw–both assert influence on our development. We don’t have much control over either influence initially, but as we become adults we can at least make choices other than our default reactions, and change our environment if we wish to. Still, some external influences are far-reaching and hard to escape, and they end up seeping into our relationships.
The “biggies” that affect the couples I work with are, of course, racism, culture, homophobia, and sexism, and the effect they have on relationships can depend on one’s race, family of origin, sex, gender, and sexual orientation, but they are not limited to those boundaries. Racism, for example, can affect us all, just in very different ways.
Some of these external influences become internalized as well, making it easier for them to come, with us, into our homes. They affect our relationship when we find ourselves acting out these attitudes and ideas with or toward our partner, sometimes without even being aware that we are doing so (the fish is not aware of the water). In some cases, the person who is oppressed in the world will become an oppressor in the home.
External–COVID-19: Who knew, in 2019, that we would be entering into a pandemic? Nobody had it on their 2020 calendar, that’s for sure! And yet, the pandemic came into the world, and into our homes. As mentioned above, its affect on relationships spans the gamut from finances to sex and even decisions about getting married or having children.
In some cases, couples are isolating together 24-7, and in others, they are isolating from one another, and what I see quite often is a disagreement on safety protocols regarding COVID. Choices we make on how to interact on the outside now affect our partners in ways that they never did before. And it doesn’t help when the information changes as the science progresses.
The good news is that external influences don’t generally create new problems with couples, they instead amplify what is already happening (good or bad) or reveal what has not been acknowledged. For these reasons, this is an ideal time to finally address the issues that have been pushed aside–couples can come out of the pandemic better than how they entered it! Fortunately, couples who were doing well pre-pandemic are doing as well or better now, since their strengths have been activated and amplified.
External–Culture and “isms”: In this article I will only briefly talk about the many “isms” that can affect couples from the outside, because even though the sources may differ, the effect is often similar. External “isms”, whether it is racism, sexism, or homophobia, can invade the home in damaging ways. Men who are sexist rarely leave their sexist tendencies at the doorstep. Racism can show up in couples in the form of colorism or classism, either as a strain economically due to marginalization, as internalized prejudice acted-out on each another, or as depression and anxiety.
Another population where internalized prejudices can show up is in LGBTQ relationships, simply because all marginalized populations grow up learning the same prejudices that non-marginalized people do. Gay men in particular struggle with internalized homophobia expressed directly or indirectly toward themselves or their partners, since biases against gay men are historically stronger than those toward lesbians.
The effect of these external cultural “isms” is that hidden resentments, fears, and biases may contribute to lack of connection and trust between couples. One way to address this is to talk openly about what is explicit and implicit, and a couples therapist can help to identify the issues and guide the conversation so the result is greater understanding, empathy, and connection.
Internal–Trauma: Trauma is defined as the response, not the event. This is why some people are traumatized by things others are not fazed by, and vice versa. It depends on our individual histories and sensitivities. Unprocessed trauma usually rears its head in relationships, because our partners inadvertently trigger it! Trauma can also be triggered by external events–either local or global, and the result is disconnection–when we are triggered we want to create distance between ourselves and the trigger.
Internal–The Four Taboos: I teach couples that there are four taboos during times of conflict: criticism, defensiveness, demands, and dysregulation. This comes from the Inter-Analytic Couples Therapy approach, and it is similar to the Gottman’s Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse in that they always result in disconnection. These stressors show up in the relationship even though they are learned externally and stored internally. In other words, they are adaptive, meaning that we learn them in order to protect ourselves.
And these taboos work. At least if your goal is to distance yourself from the threat. They are also reinforced by many of the popular movies and songs we consume and love, because they create great drama and high emotion, at least if they are happening to someone else. But the reality is that when they affect our relationships, they are no fun at all, nor are they in the least bit romantic. When they are used during conflict, they can strengthen resentments and lack of understanding, and result in anger and sadness. Right when we need our relationships to be a “port in the storm”, the ship starts to sink.
HOW TO WEATHER THE AFFECTS:
I wish there were a magic button we could use to eliminate negative effects on our relationships, but there is no such button. That does not mean that we don’t try to find one! Substances, shopping, sex, affairs, media, and food are all used to minimize or ignore what is going on in the outside world. The problem is that these “fixes” are only temporary, and they can cause new negative effects on their own when used to excess.
Tool #1: Fortunately, there are ways we can minimize the effects of the world on our relationships without working too hard. The tool I talk about the most (and I am not the only one!) is mindfulness—the ability to pay attention in the here and now without judgement. Mindfulness is our best tool because, when practiced, it gives us the chance to make mindful choices about what we think, what we say, and what we do.
The difference between a mindless choice and a mindful one is that the former is a reaction while the latter is a response. We have more control over our responses than we do over our reactions, and when we respond to what is going on we have an opportunity to get the outcome we prefer.
How to we practice mindfulness? Well, there are many ways, some more disciplined than others, but I often recommend meditation, yoga, sitting in silence, or simply paying more attention to the task we are engaged in at the time. I remind clients that our brains are not wired to remain in the present moment, but we can train our minds to spend more time there before darting back to the past or the future. And when we are focused in the present moment, we are more likely to stay regulated (right brain and left brain engaged), meaning we can make choices influenced by who we are now rather than who we were in the past.
Mindfulness does not change what is happening out in the world at the moment, but it can change how it effects us and our relationships. It is preferable to ignoring the world or distracting ourselves, because it builds resilience and compassion, two elements of a good life.
(Read: “How To Practice Mindfulness”)
Tool #2: In my training to be a couples therapist, I learned that there are three actions that strengthen relationships by building closeness and trust. These are called the “Three T’s”, and are Talking and Listening (The Dialogue of Intimacy), Time Together (quality not quantity), and Touch (affectionate and sexual).
When attention is paid to all three T’s, relationships find they can weather the effects of the outside world as a team, and though we can handle things on our own of course, research has shown that pain is lessened when we are holding the hand of our loved one. I let couples decide how to divvy up the three T’s because this depends on their relationship priorities (for non-sexual relationships touch can be non-sexual), but when one of the T’s is forgotten, the relationship will feel off balance, and we become more vulnerable to outside negativity.
Each of the three T’s attends to a different aspect of right-brain connection:
- Talking and Listening: increases understanding, empathy, and connection
- (Quality) Time Together: increases safety, trust, creativity, and intimacy
- Touch: increases passion, imagination, vulnerability, risk-taking, and closeness
Note that intimacy and passion are different sides of the connection coin, and both need to be attended to if you value having both in your relationship.
Tool #3: Finally, there is a question that I ask all of my clients who come in to discuss the effect of the COVID-19 pandemic on their lives and relationship. That questions is: “Who do you want to be after this is over?” Here is the thing–pain is just pain, hardship is just hardship, until we assign meaning to it. Without meaning, we lose purpose for putting up with something, since assigning meaning gives purpose to what is happening.
Ever hear that statement “Everything happens for a reason?”. Well, I don’t agree with that at all! I don’t think things happen for any particular reason whatsoever, but we can decide if there is a reason for us to endure what is happening. That decision can make the difference between us just suffering, or learning and growing from an experience.
The pandemic is no exception. Who do you want to be once the threat is diminished and the world opens back up again? How do you want your relationship to look afterward? Do you want to be the same as you were when it all started, or do you want to be someone who is a bit more compassionate, more patient, more mindful, healthier, simpler, and closer to those you love? The difference between being the same (or worse) or better is intention—choosing to improve yourself as a response to what is happening that is out of your control.
It is my intention to help my clients and my readers “weather the storm” in a way that moves them closer to being the person they want to be in the world, and in the relationships they want to be in. There is so much that happens that is completely out of our control, but I am always impressed by those who spend zero time complaining and most of their time responding.
Without exception, I notice that those who respond with care and compassion towards themselves and others tend to be more at peace with the world, rather than at war with it. Their relationships serve as that essential port in the storm, where resilience perpetuates more resilience. We can’t outrun the world, but we can make mindful choices about how much it affects our relationships; as a result we become more accepting of whatever happens, knowing that we get to decide what it means!