COVID 19: Managing relationships during the ‘Stay at home’ period.
All over the world, people are being asked to stay at home and help ‘flatten the curve’ of the coronavirus. Self-isolation and social distancing help slow the spread of the virus and prevent the NHS from being over-whelmed. At the same time, staying at home may be stressful and therefore emotionally and psychologically challenging. Whilst a couple who care for each other can deepen their relationship during this period, those who are struggling with the quality of their relationship may experience deepening desperation and anger. Other stresses result from not being able to have direct contact with elderly relatives –to give them love and support and/or to receive the same from them.
This article offers advice about minimising the difficulties you may experience, whether they relate to being separated from your family or being isolated with a partner with whom you have a strained or bad relationship.
Problem: My elderly parents/ grandparents are isolated OR or in a Care Home which has stopped all visits.
Many people describe ‘grieving’ for the lack of contact with their parents or their adult children. People are particularly worried if a parent has dementia and cannot fully understand the current situation. Change is particularly confusing for people with dementia. Worrying about loved ones invariably increases our anxiety.
What you can do
Maintain contact as far as you are safely able to. If you are a carer and deliver food to your family, you can continue to do this as long as you observe social distancing. At the start of the restrictions, some family members travelled to relatives’ homes simply to wave through the window. As new Government restrictions on non- essential outdoor activity have come into play, you will need to find alternative methods of communication.
1) Telephone your family. This is obviously the simplest way of maintaining communication. Arrange a daily time. Before you call, think of what you might want to say other than or in addition to talking about the coronavirus virus or health. Remember the purpose of the call is for both parties to lighten the load of the other.
2) If your family member is in a Care Home which does not have telephone connections in each room, you could call the Home to leave a message.
It is important to bear in mind that Care Homes are under great pressure at present and will not have much time to answer calls. When you get through, ask if there is a good time in the day to call.
3) You could also ask whether the Home has I-pads and could set up Skype/ Zoom or any other platform to enable you and your family to talk.
4) If your relative is in their own home with carers going in each day, liaise with the Agency which provides care and ask if they are able to facilitate contact.
5) Whatsapp: if your family member has Whatsapp, you could send voice
messages; if they have hearing problems, use text.
6) If your family member has a mobile, but has never used Whatsapp, you could ask the Home to set it up with them – i.e. ensure your number appears – and show them how to make and answer calls. Or you could request that a care worker is with your relative at a mutually convenient time. Obviously, if your relative is in a Nursing or Care Home, arranging contact with your relative will again depend upon the demands on the health professionals in the home.
7) Share photos and /or videos – these have an immediate emotional impact and may be a good way of communicating with elderly individuals with cognitive impairments. Sending audio files is also another way of communicating.
8) It is unlikely that the Care Home will encourage you to write letters until it is known how long the virus can live on paper.
9) Just remember that many of the elderly will have lived through at least one war and may well be more resilient than their adult children who have not previously experienced the stressors that this crisis confronts us with. Comparing the separation that many of the elderly experienced during the War – maybe as a result of being evacuated – with the current situation may help remind your parents/ elderly family members that they already have developed the emotional resources to help them manage.
10) Normalise anxiety and vulnerability: we are all trying to navigate the current uncertainty.
Problem: My partner and I fight all the time. We are now self-isolating at home. Can you help?
Let’s face it: if you didn’t get on with your partner before the virus, your relationship is unlikely to be improved by being confined with them! Whatever irritated you before will be magnified when you are unable to find a distraction. For many people, going out to work has played a valuable function in stabilizing their relationships; without this resource outside the home, domestic tensions are magnified. Additional worries – health, paying debts, our jobs, the health of our loved ones – are invariably exacerbated by being on ‘lock-down’. Limited space and the absence of outdoor space intensifies these stressors. The uncertainty about the current situation – particularly not knowing when it might end – may increase anxiety and shorten the proverbial fuse.
There are only 4 options when a situation seems unworkable:
1) Get out!
2) Put up and shut up!
3) Try and change the other person so they understand your point of view. 4) Change your response to your partner.
Option number 1 is clearly out of the question during this time. It just is not possible to start making arrangements to find alternative accommodation unless you are in an emergency and in physical danger. [In this case, you need to contact the police and arrange to go to a Refuge to keep yourself safe).
Option number 2 – putting up and shutting up – never works as you will simply build up resentment until such time as you either become ill or ‘explode’ – which will only make a bad situation worse.
Option 3 rarely works either. It is hard enough to change ourselves, let alone try to change others.
So, you need to focus on option 4 – changing the way you react to your partner/ family member/ children.
What you can do
1) Active listening.
Often, when someone else talks, we are thinking how we are going to respond. Rather than listen to them, we are listening to ourselves. Sometimes this is because of fear that we won’t be heard or because we think that what we have to say is far more important than our partner’s view. Try simply focusing on their words and identify their concern.
2) Summarise their words back to them:
‘It seems that you are saying that ….’. This way reduces the possibilities of miscommunications. Couples in difficult relationships often say to each other, ‘That’s not what I was saying at all; you are twisting my words.’ If you listen actively and then let the other person know that you heard, you are lessening the possibility of conflict.
3) Sit with your partner/ family member/ person with whom you are having problems. Each person reflects what they think the other would like to see different in them.
If you find yourself saying what you would like to see different in the other person, catch yourself and STOP. Then start again. This is an exercise in self- awareness and self- reflection, not in criticising your partner.
4) ‘Have your say’ without criticising the other
Allow the other person to ‘have their say’ for 2 minutes. During this time, you must endeavour NOT to interrupt. Then you have your say. Remember this exercise is about respecting the other. No one likes to be criticised or insulted, but everyone wants to be respected. It is important to avoid accusing the other person; instead, state how it seems to you. Replace, ‘You make me feel…’ or ‘You upset me’ with ‘When you did that, I got upset.’ This way of talking also helps you understand that you have some control over your reactions… and therefore responsibility for your behaviour.
5) Time- out
if the conversation is getting unpleasant or over-heated, both partners should agree
to some time-out, in order to enable them to calm down and reflect on their own contribution to the situation. Go to another room!
6) Non-violent communication
This is a form of communication set out by the American psychologist Marshall Rosenberg. It uses practical tools to help us connect with – rather than distance ourselves from – people with whom we believe we are in conflict. Instead of attacking, blaming, insulting, and criticising, it is suggested that we think in terms of our or others’ vulnerability. Changing our language to express our own needs – what we feel, yearn for, fear or miss – and acknowledging the needs of others helps create emotional bonds and leads to reconciliation.
What NOT to do
It is important to understand that needs are not the same as your ‘diagnosis’ or analysis of your relationship. If you catch yourself starting a sentence with, ‘The problem with you is that [you never listen]’ or responding with, ‘’That’s just so typical of you…’, then you are not expressing your needs. Coming up with a strategy, for example, ‘If you do this/ don’t do that, then we will be fine’ is equally doomed to failure. Telling someone that if they acted in a certain way, all will be well won’t work. Replace your demands with your desires.
Four steps to improving your relationship:
1) State what you observe. Be specific in time (when) and context (where), e.g. ‘When you told me last night at dinner…’. Avoid words such as ‘always, whenever, frequently, sometimes, never, rarely’.
2) State how you feel, not your opinion: I felt sad/hurt/disappointed/ let- down/unheard/angry/hurt/helpless’ or ‘I am nervous/ irritated/ scared/disappointed.’ (If you say, ‘I felt that/ as if/like you were attacking me, you are referring to your interpretation or perception of the other person’s behaviour, rather than your own feelings. People can deny that they were attacking/dismissing/ disrespecting you. They cannot, however, deny your feelings.
3) Identify your needs/desire/expectation or identify what you sense the other person’s need to be. (Don’t blame yourself; don’t blame your partner).
For example, ‘When you shouted at me yesterday, I felt hurt because I wanted to hear that you care about me/ value me even though our views may differ.’
Or, you can try and express what you perceive the other person’s needs to be, e.g. ‘ It sounds like you are fed up/sad/ frustrated that I didn’t spend time with you because you want to feel that we are in this together’. This type of ‘sensing’ may lead to a dialogue where you can gradually learn the need behind your partner’s blaming or disappointment.
4) Request a specific action.
‘I’d like you to acknowledge something positive that I have done for you that you value’ or ‘I would like you not to shout at me when you don’t agree with me. Or ‘’I would like you to clear the table after dinner every night.’ Then follow these steps with, ‘Is this O.K.?’
If the response is a resounding ‘No’ and you are accused of being patronising or behaving like a therapist, try and be compassionate and see again if you can understand the unexpressed need of your partner.
If there just isn’t any empathy between you, it might be a good idea to find a relationship counsellor on-line!
Dr. Nikki Scheiner Consultant Psychologist April 2020
Jewish Care / CST