Thoughts on navigating relationships
amid the stress of the COVID-19 crisis;
from a burgeoning relationship
scientist and clumsy yet
Written and illustrated by:
Dave Smallen M.S.
Doctoral Candidate in Human
Development and Family Studies
at University of Wisconsin-Madison.
LAST UPDATED: 3.30.20
Our close relationships are essential resources to help us cope with stress in this uncertain time. Yet, even in “normal” times of life, stress can have a major impact on our relationships, ramping up challenging emotions, sparking conflict.
To be anxious or overwhelmed in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic is a reasonable response. Most of us are extremely flustered right now, worried about loved ones at a distance, taking care of our children and family members close by, unsure about our jobs and finances. Our routines - the habits that gave reassuring structure to our lives - have suddenly shifted from the ritual ebbs and flows of me-time and us-time and family-time into mushy chaos. And the news is not often reassuring - every day more lives are lost.
It only makes sense
that we experience
struggles under all
this stress and change.
This is to be expected!
In challenging times,
we have to adapt
and it can take some
time to regain
relational balance. Having struggles now does not mean there is anything wrong with your relationship - we just simply cannot always function at full capacity as partners when there is an international emergency requiring everyone to suddenly shift their lives; as we watch helplessly while the world dangles on the brink of the unknown.
My goal for writing this is to help you and your partner hone your strategies for connection amidst this chaos, and hopefully to mitigate some of the struggle that results from big stress. Yet if you feel like your personal mental health or the health of your relationship is really suffering right now, please contact a mental health professional - therapists are still working hard and taking appointments over video. Therapy is awesome and super helpful!
If you don't feel safe being in your home, there is help available.
Stress in Relationships
When we are overwhelmed we are not able to use our entire brains. Under stress, the wisest parts of our brains, that developed as we reached adulthood, go off-line to clear the way for more ancient brain areas that automatically respond to threats - brain structures that evolved many many eons before humans existed to keep reptiles from the grip of jaws and claws.
Stressed-out reflexes to flee or fight or freeze helped creatures reflexively grapple with predators in evolutionary antiquity, yet in the modern context of relationships, these automatic responses can be difficult for us and our partner to navigate - ratcheting up the overwhelm, making us irritable, causing confusion, hurt feelings, disconnection, misunderstandings, conflicts, etc.
Everyone responds to stress in their own way, and so it may be useful to discuss with your partner how each of you
tends to feel and think
and act when you're
building a shared
as best you can.
In chaotic times like these, we will have meltdowns and arguments, get panicky or grumpy, step on each others’ emotional toes, or freeze into stressed statues – stoic on the outside and sizzling within - again, this is to be expected when life has been upended, when people we love are at risk, when the economy and our jobs are in peril, when we have to scramble to meet our family’s basic needs, when our children need even more attention and care. Being stressed and reacting in a stressed-out way makes sense, what you and your partner can each work on is finding ways to get back to calm. Once you have been able to soothe yourself or each other, your wise mind will come back on-line and you can forge ahead again together.
Know Thy Stress
In order to prepare for effectively calming the pressures that stress brings to your relationship, it may be useful for you to first take stock of your own personal needs at this time, especially exploring what you need to manage stress: How do you best cope with stress? What helps you calm down when you’re overwhelmed? What kinds of habits or routines feel restorative to you?
You can enlist your partner’s help in engaging in these activities, which sometimes may mean asking them to take on some of your usual responsibilities so you can have some time to regroup – and of course, you can do this for your partner too! There might not be a lot of actual time and space for de-stressing in this moment, but if you can slip away to take some breaths, grab a comforting hug from your partner when you pass in the hallway, get to bed a half hour early, or exercise for just a few minutes, it can help!
If you are able, you and your partner can set aside a calm moment to write down ways that you each best manage stress and put them in a place where you can find them when you’re struggling – these are your official “protocols” for calming down from overwhelm. You can each seek out these protocols when useful discussions suddenly twist into pointless conflict, when you are crying and shouting over some tiny detail. Think of these as directions sent from your wise-mind to your stressed-mind describing the way back home.
Everyone has their own individual preferences for how they would like to be supported during stressful periods of life. Some people may benefit from big expressions of reassurance, others really could use your assistance making dinner. It may be helpful for you and your partner to articulate what actions are most supportive to each of you at this time. Some different styles of offering support to a partner are:
The tricky thing here is that your partner’s preference for how they would like to be supported may be different than your preference for how you would like to support them. Together exploring both your preferences and your partner’s preferences allows for:
Opening up to your partner
about your feelings and
thoughts during this time
helps them to know what
you are experiencing and
allows them the opportunity
to adjust their behavior to
meet you where you’re at
Opening up about your experience also gives your partner an opportunity to respond with attentive care, which may help you to feel comforted and connected, calming your stress and allowing the wisest parts of your brain to come back on-line so you can make decisions from a balanced state. Through this process, we can assist one another in finding footing for resilience in this unprecedented time.
When your partner opens up to you, listen for clues about their underlying emotions, and allow them some room to express their fear or frustration with the world, as all sorts of emotions will surface at this time, and all of these emotions are legitimate.
We cannot choose the emotions we experience, as feelings spark in unconscious recesses of our body-mind far beyond our reach, and therefore feelings are never good nor bad, they are simply weather patterns moving through us, sometimes sun, sometimes rain – neither you nor your partner is ever feeling the wrong thing.
Whether your partner is afraid or angry, hopeful or helpless, brave or bereaved, sad or satisfied, you can help them by acknowledging the reality of their feelings, and being present to them while this emotion runs its course. If they are feeling happy, you can also encourage them to savor their joy or gratitude – we need these feelings right now!
Once a feeling is allowed to be felt in the body it will pass in just a few minutes if no new thoughts or events rekindle it. So allowing your partner the safety and support to simply experience their emotions without judgment can help them to regain their balance.
A few communication habits to avoid when your partner opens up:
All of us have more or less well-intended habits of responding that actually function to shut down our partner. This can lead to hurt feelings, and even if our intention is to be supportive, these behaviors might backfire and erode trust:
Interruptions - Simply being able to safely express our feelings and to know that we have been heard can be powerfully soothing. Try not to jump in and interrupt your partner when they open up to you. Pause to allow them ample space to share.
Bright-Siding – Telling someone to look on
the bright side or seek a silver-lining can
feel really invalidating, as if their feelings
aren’t being taken seriously. Hope is useful,
but it helps to honor your partner's distress
before pointing to the positive. "Don't worry,
it will all be okay" is not as useful as, "It
makes sense that you feel that way, I'm
Advising – When we want to help our partner feel better, we may have a surge of ideas about how they can work through their stress or accomplish their goals. When we offer unsolicited advice, though, we often are missing an opportunity to validate the emotional expression of our partner, and instead leave them feeling unheard. We also set up a situation where we may feel hurt when our partner rejects our advice, which can escalate into conflicts that you probably don't have time for right now. If you have a great idea for your partner, try honoring their feeling first, and then asking if they would like to hear your idea, knowing that they might not want advice right then, and might not agree that it is the best coarse of action for them.
I've compiled a more complete list of not-so-useful communication habits here.
Successfully being present and supportive to our partner when they open up to us is what relationship scientists call “responsiveness” or "being responsive.”
A highly responsive response to someone who discloses their thoughts and emotions to us will leave them feeling:
Because responsiveness depends on your partner’s unique perception that you are understanding, validating, and caring for them, there is no specific script for what will feel responsive to any given person. It may therefore be useful to explore what kinds of responses feel responsive to you and sharing this with your partner, as well as inquiring about how you can best be responsive to them. Sometimes the most responsive thing we can do is simply listen to our partner open up and demonstrate that we are giving them our full attention - it is actually just a really special and comforting thing to be simply witnessed and heard.
The almost magical thing about
responsiveness is that through
understanding, validating, and
caring for our partners when they
open up to us, we actually develop
more closeness and trust in our
relationship - more emotional
intimacy. We are demonstrating
that we can be there when our
partner feels vulnerable, that
we are a refuge, a space of
emotional safety in their world.
2. You interpret what your partner shared
3. You respond to your partner
1. Your partner opens up to you
4. Your partner interprets your response as understanding, validating, and caring
THE RESPONSIVENESS PROCESS
One caveat: Providing excellent support to our partner can sometimes come at the expense of our own well-being. If you are already really stressed out, trying to show up perfectly for others can burn you out, which ultimately undermines your altruistic goals: burn-out exhausts your sense of empathy.
It’s important to take stock of your own feelings and to be honest with yourself and others if you are too stressed to be supportive in a given moment. You will be better able to show up for your loved ones once you have taken care of yourself and worked to soothe your own stress, taking action (or inaction) to restore yourself. Gently requesting a pause to do the things that you know calm you down and center your emotional balance will ultimately benefit you and your whole family, even if it disappoints others in that moment.
We may want to influence our partners in stressful times, trying to get them to do things for themselves, for us, or for others. It is useful to use positive means of influence. Guilting, nagging, or hounding your partner into action can flare up flames of resentment, and even if your partner changes their behavior positively, it may come at a cost to your connection.
Positive influence might look like: gentle encouragement, praising positive behavior or accomplishments, patiently helping your partner understand the benefits of a certain action. And remember, no one is perfect in normal times, so in the current collective uncertainly and struggle, we will all show up quite imperfectly, especially if we are scared that our partner could put themselves or others in danger.
Modern culture puts huge pressure on our partners to be everything to us: our best friend, our economic partner, our fitness buddy, our emotional confidant, etc. While it is amazing when we are able to achieve this, these are historically broad expectations to be placed on just one relationship. In times of stress, when we are working with limited emotional resources, such expectations may be especially difficult to live up to. It may therefore be useful to spread out your support team beyond just your partner, if you can.
Reaching out through the many portals of technology to family and friends for additional help, connection, or entertainment can add solid pillars of support to you and your relationship.
It also may be a gift to your partner if you ease your expectations of them a bit at this moment, not to the point of excusing rude behavior, but noting that they are stressed too and doing the best they can given the circumstances - and maybe the best you both can do some days is survive, not thrive.
Moving Towards, Moving Away
Often partners fall into a pattern where one partner tends
to approach the other and the other starts to avoid;
one partner desires to connect and the other
partner desires some alone time. As
one of you moves toward the other to
hang out, talk through feelings, address
issues of the day, the other retreats.
This can lead to hurt feelings and
frustration on both sides, and can
become a habitual point of conflict.
This pattern can arise when partners
seek physical proximity, but also
- and importantly - when they
desire emotional connection.
Being isolated together for a long stretch will likely exacerbate this pattern, and it will need management from both partners. If you tend to be the one who seeks out connection and your partner enjoys their alone time, try to notice what you are feeling - maybe loneliness or anxiety or boredom. You can share this with your partner and enlist their help – come up with a plan together to address your desires for connection. Maybe after they finish what they are doing you could plan to talk for a bit? Your job then is to work through your emotional experience on your own until your partner is available - and if you are really stressed out, don't forget your "protocol" for calming down!
If you tend to be the one who pulls away, do your best to honor the emotional experience of your partner – they aren’t trying to annoy you, and just because you feel frustrated doesn’t mean your partner is doing something wrong. You do not need to drop everything and give all your attention to your partner if it is not an emergency, but you can do your best to empathize with your partners’ experience at feeling disconnected in that moment and make a plan to connect in a little while.
It may be especially helpful to schedule some routine points in the day to have some alone time together as a couple (if possible) for both of you to connect. A partner who feels compelled to seek out their partner can hold some things back for that meeting, and a partner who tends to distance themselves can emotionally prepare for some close connection.
Connecting After Conflict
Disagreements are inevitable in relationships. Stressful times can make conflict even more likely as we will more quickly fall into fight or flight or flee reactions, which can heighten the intensity of our struggles. What matters in the long run is not whether you have conflicts or not, but that you do your best to to reconnect emotionally after the conflict subsides. There is room to come together after these fires and floods die down, to express love and appreciation.
If you catch yourselves feeling heightened emotions it might be time to find your stress “protocol” and to take some space for calming down. You can return to discuss the issue at a later, more balanced, moment.
What helps you and your partner feel connected again after a period of disagreement or disconnection? Explore this through trial and error – it may be physical affection, it may be offering each other reassurance, it may be having some fun or silliness together, it may be teaming up to accomplish something. Remember: you are not bad partners for being overwhelmed right now, you don’t have a bad relationship just because you have struggles in this anxious time.
When you do find yourself in conflict, try to avoid the following behaviors that tend to raise the intensity of the conflict to higher levels and become harmful to the quality of your relationship. These behaviors were identified through decades of research by leading relationship scientist, John Gottman, as consistently destructive to relationships:
Defensiveness – when we feel that we have been criticized or not lived up to expectations, we can feel defensive. This defensive feeling is likely there to try to protect us from a sense of shame. It isn’t wrong to feel defensive, but acting defensively usually raises the stakes of a conflict – it causes us to vehemently deny or to blame our partner, which will tip you both into a downward spiral of behavior.
Stonewalling – when we get overwhelmed with emotion, some of us shut down. This can make our partner feel abandoned or ignored, which for some can be a very painful experience. A shared awareness that this is your emotional tendency, can help you and your partner recognize that you are actually flooded with painful feelings or trying not to make things worse, not intentionally leaving them high and dry.
Criticism - We are criticizing our partner when we express disappointment with them as person rather than addressing the impact of their actions on us. Statements that begin with “You always…” and “You never…” are telltale signs that you might be criticizing your partner, as these words speak of them wholesale as a person, rather than addressing the impact of their individual actions.
Contempt - Putting your partner down, insulting them, mocking them, telling them they aren't good enough, just plain shatters the trust of your bond. If contempt is showing up as an issue in your relationship, please do seek professional mental health support. And again, if you do not feel safe being at home with your partner: help is available.
Notice and Celebrate Positive Moments
Finally, there are ways to strengthen our connections in moments of uplift or accomplishment, joy or relief. Whenever you have an opportunity, express gratitude and appreciation for your partner, give them a hug, pause and notice together that this is a very challenging time and you are coping awesomely together in
so many ways, even though this all feels really tough! When things feel less stressful for a moment, stop and savor that feeling. Consciously make a memory of these connected and positive moments so you can return back to them when you are struggling.
One way to strengthen the sense of safety and connection between you and your partner is to be responsive to the positive things each of you share with one another - what relationship scientists call "capitalization." Opening up about something you accomplished or are simply feeling relieved about gives your partner a chance to celebrate you, to say “that’s so great!” or “I’m so happy for you” or “I’m proud of you!" Capitalizing on our partner's good news lets them know we are paying attention to their emotional experiences (that we understand, care about, and are validating their inner-world). This helps your partner to feel safe and happy in your relationship - they know that you are attending to their emotional state, be it uplifted or downtrodden.
All day we communicate with our partners in little ways, seeking tiny moments of connection from one another - maybe our partner tells us something they just read on the news or heard in a conversation with their sister; maybe we smile at our partner across the room, or ask for help making a grocery list. These little “bids for connection” offer an opportunity to keep our relationship strong, by giving our partner a moment of our focus so they know we are there for them. When we respond attentively, we actually are doing important maintenance work for our connection, keeping the threads of our relationship tightly woven throughout the day.
This Is A Lot!
Relationships can be mysterious puzzles even in the best of times - it is challenging enough to understand and relate to our own personal thoughts, feelings, behaviors, motivations, hopes and wounds - and when you put two people's psychologies together, things become immeasurably complex. We will never crack a secret code and become "perfect" partners, but we can always be learning to be more skillful in relating to our partnership, and gaining knowledge about who we and our partner are. People and relationships can adapt and grow to meet the challenges of stressful moments - often it just takes a bit more time and discomfort than we would like.
Of course, in this world-defining moment, things may be too chaotic and too overwhelming to process or practice any of this. Maybe the best you can do is to find thirty seconds alone with one another, without technology, without discussing practicalities of how to survive this time, to express just how much you care about each other.
- Hold Me Tight by Dr. Sue Johnson
- Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work by Dr. John Gottman
Thanks for spending time reading or skimming this!
If you found it useful, please share a link with people who might be interested too!
I plan to be updating this page with more information about relationships and stress as we continue along into the unknown of this pandemic, fixing typos and adding links to more resources.
About me: I'm a research psychologist
(and artist!) who studies relationships,
specifically how people experience
meaningful connections, and respond
to one another's vulnerability.
I have a Masters of Science in Human
Development and Family Studies from
University of Wisconsin-Madison - and
I am currently completing my PhD in
that same department. I also teach the
course, Family Systems, at Metropolitan
State University in St. Paul, MN.
Something that compelled me to make this page is that I have a bit of a head start being at home all day with my own partner under stressful conditions, as she has been working through a serious medical condition over the last year that has held a great amount of uncertainly for us, and requires me as her primary care-person to be mostly nearby (working at home). It's not always easy to be home together all day and often stressed out, but it can get easier with practice, and everything I have included here has been useful for us in this time.
If you would like to connect: firstname.lastname@example.org
A portrait of me, drawn
by my sweetheart
Feel free to check out my other projects:
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Bolger, N., Zuckerman, A., & Kessler, R. C. (2000). Invisible support and adjustment to stress. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 79, 953-961.
Craddock, E., vanDellen, M. R., Novak, S. A., & Ranby, K. W. (2015). Influence in relationships: A meta-analysis on health-related social control. Basic and Applied Social Psychology, 37, 118-130.
Finkel, E. J., Cheung, E. O., Emery, L. F., Carswell, K. L., & Larson, G. M. (2015). The suffocation model: Why marriage in America is becoming an all-or-nothing institution. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 24(3), 238–244.
Gable, S. L., Impett, E. A., Reis, H. T., & Asher, E. R. (2004). What do you do when things go right? The intrapersonal and interpersonal benefits of sharing positive events. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 87(2), 228–245. http://doi.org/10.1037/0022-3518.104.22.168
Gable, S. L., & Reis, H. T. (2010). Good news! Capitalizing on positive events in an interpersonal context. Advances in Experimental Social Psychology (1st ed., Vol. 42). Elsevier Inc. http://doi.org/10.1016/S0065-2601(10)42004-3
Gottman, J. M., & Silver, N. (1999). The seven principles for making marriage work. New York: Three Rivers Press.
Johnson, Sue. Hold Me Tight: Seven Conversations For A Lifetime Of Love. New York : Little, Brown & Co., 2008.
Laurenceau, J., Barrett, L. F., & Rovine, M. J. (2005). The interpersonal process model of intimacy in marriage: a daily-diary and multilevel modeling approach. Journal of Family Psychology, 19(2), 314–323. http://doi.org/10.1037/0893-322.214.171.1244
Reis, H. T., & Clark, M. S. (2013). Responsiveness. In J. Simpson and L. Campbell (Eds.), Oxford Handbook of Close Relationships. Oxford University Press.
Reis, H. T., & Shaver, P. (1988). Intimacy as an interpersonal process. In S. Duck (Ed.), Handbook of personal relationships (pp. 367- 389). Chichester, England: Wiley.
Stroebe, W., & Stroebe, M. S. (1996). The social psychology of social support. In A. Kruglanski & E. T. Higgins (Eds.), Social psychology: Handbook of basic principles, (pp. 597–621). New York: Guilford.