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COVID-19: How the Stress is Affecting Your Relationship


Part 2. In Part 1, we reviewed some key reasons why the pandemic is causing anxiety onset or increase in most of us. In sum, it has changed all of our lives, and our immediate future changes frequently and without our control. Now imagine there are 2 highly stressed people in love. Although they are trying their best, this unprecedented time makes related in in old ways ineffective. Here are some reasons why.

Mental health symptoms are up 

Given the lack of efficacy and predictability we have over our own lives, it's no wonder that rates of anxiety, followed by rates of depression, have increased since the coronavirus crisis took hold. If you or your partner have ever had an "off" day, you know that it can quickly impact your relationship. Misunderstandings arise as we tend to be both more sensitive to triggers and less able to offer compassion to our partners. Now imagine that both of you have an off day today, tomorrow, the next day, and for the foreseeable future.  Discord or disconnection may compound, especially if we lack the skills to address our symptoms and stress. 

We are sheltering-in-place (together!) 

When we first fall in love, bonding chemicals are released from our brain that make us think "How wonderful it would be if we could spend every hour of every day together." In a successful partnership, we may have devised a great system of managing home and work. If we're lucky, we look forward to connecting over an evening meal and catching up about our individual days. Now many of us are working at home with our mates and our thoughts may have shifted to, "How can I miss you if you don't go away?" Even if one or both partners are leaving the home for work duties, we aren't able to carry on with individual pursuits - I'll make dinner while you go to the gym. You make dinner while I go to book club tomorrow. Combine this with no control over stay at home regulations and no certain end in sight, and it makes sense that sheltering with our partner can feel like another loss of personal choice. In other words, we're trapped. 

We may have philosophical differences about how its managed

How COVID-19 is managed has become nearly as divisive as the last presidential election. There is the stay at home until there's a vaccine camp juxtaposed with the "open up (enter your state here) camp."  We have opinions about what our state and national leaders say and do along with opinions about what our neighbors say and do to manage current circumstances. We may not agree with their choices. What happens if our partner's ideas about managing our household during the pandemic differ from our own?  One partner may view new protocols, staying away from people at all costs, as imperative while another may value pre-COVID rituals and seek to adjust them, e.g., inviting friends to visit on the porch steps rather than inside, so that life can have some normalcy. This crisis has social, emotional, financial, and even political implications so chances are reasonable that two people in relationship may not see eye to eye on all aspects. As with any other broad sweeping issue, many couples may lack skills to compromise effectively. Worse yet, they may avoid communicating about needs and expectations altogether. 

In our search for toilet paper, we may have neglected higher needs 

If you took a Psychology 101 class, you may recall Abraham Maslow's hierarchy of needs. Dr. Maslow, a 20th century American psychologist, proposed that when one is preoccupied with basic physiological and safety needs, such as toilet paper and hand sanitizer, then other "higher level" needs, such as love and emotional connection, go unfulfilled. In this way, we are not as good at multitasking as we may think. This makes sense. There are various degrees of the fight or flight response. The fight or flight response makes us hard-wired to kick the sympathetic nervous system in to gear. It's important that we have the adrenaline needed to respond appropriately for the level of emergency that we perceive. In repeated exposure to crisis, we may also have energy on reserve in order to be "at the ready." When we remain concerned about getting sick or even about obtaining rice and flour, it's difficult to hold space for our relationship too.  To preserve energy, our default mechanism becomes turning away from our partners rather than turning towards them.  In practical terms, we may forget to share appreciations with our partner, check in with how they are doing, and we may take them for granted. We may be more irritable in general and dating may be a distant memory. 

By now you may be wondering what to do about the negative impact on your relationship. Stay tuned for Part 3: Caring for your relationship while navigating COVID-19 stress.

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