As restrictions ease and re-opening strategies are implemented, we are all still wondering what life will look like in a post-pandemic world. Though many remain hopeful for yet a full return to the “good ol’ days”, others are already accommodating a new absence and vision for their future, convinced that everything has already changed. Either way, life in lockdown has left all sorts of emotional side effects- even scars- on people: anger, anxiety, fear, frustration, guilt, helplessness, loneliness, panic, sadness, worry…all laid bare by the inevitable challenges and uncertainty surrounding the pandemic, all inevitable companions to loss and grief. In essence, we are a global nation in mourning, as we accept the grim reality that a hefty, invisible virus has turned the whole world upside down. And, while a collective hope for a broad-scale vaccination program whimpers in its wake, let’s not forget that, in the interim, the ability to confront our vulnerable feelings also requires attention, for our state of mind and spirit are indelibly tied to our overall health and long-term well-being. Left untreated, we run the risk of not being able to protect ourselves against some of the more disabling effects of stress, and simultaneously end up hurting, or worse- infecting our most meaningful relationships.
Protect Yourself and Others, Too
Taking care of our minds is just as important as taking care of our bodies. Our emotions are there for a reason: they communicate that something is up and if we figure it out, this can motivate us into action. For instance, if the coronavirus finds you in a state of alarm or tension, unable to relax or sleep, it may just be your brain telling you what it is designed to do: to keep you and your loved ones safe. Normal. If however, after awhile, the distress is not managed or soothed by any healthful outlets or mitigating measures, this can have serious implications for both your mental and physical health. It may be time to seek professional help. More precisely, how you handle your stress and find ways to feel better can make a big difference not just in your own life, but also in the quality of your relationships.
We all know that lifestyle habits like good nutrition and vitamins, physical fitness and adequate sleep help keep the immune system healthy. What we rarely attribute or think about however, is that being in an unhappy relationship or a stressful marriage can also increase our chances of getting sick. When we are feeling miserable, pessimistic or troubled, our immune system actually suffers and produces more stress hormones, reducing our immunity and increasing inflammation. In fact, considerable research tells us that unhappy couples are at a higher risk for depression and cardiovascular disease. Conversely, having a loving and supportive partnership can reduce health problems as much or even more than the usual noteworthy health-promoting prescriptions like losing weight, quitting smoking and exercising regularly. Part of adopting healthy living habits, then, is knowing how to do relationships well.
Our loving relationships can be a powerful resource that can help us manage our stressful lives and preserve our emotional well-being. Feeling heard and understood by the one we love, and specifically during this time of prolonged uncertainty, can bring about immense comfort and connection. If truth be told, this is what all of us want and what great relationships are made of! Studies have repeatedly shown that couples who help each other alleviate stress through connecting conversation tend to stay together and, in general, feel happier and more fulfilled with their partnerships. However, knowing how to do so effectively, in order to sustain a healthy, happy long-term relationship, is a skill that is often learned, not natural or intuitive, as we would like to believe. In fact, many of us grew up observing a variety of ways of dealing with stress and conflict, the majority of which were probably not always very effective. This is not surprising, really, as we all come from more or less imperfect backgrounds- given that all human beings are somewhat flawed, or imperfect themselves. After all, such is the human condition. Most of us were raised with the notion of “falling in love and living happily ever after”. And that conflict was a sure sign of “trouble in paradise”. However, as anyone married long enough surely knows, this does not reflect reality. At all. It is not conflict itself that is the problem, rather how it is managed that ultimately predicts the success or failure of a relationship. The challenge, then, is having the awareness to recognize destructive forms of relating and to know how to shift it into positive growth, and in a way that skillfully minimizes damage.
When the voice carries a virus…
As far as relationships go, we all occasionally make mistakes while trying to communicate our disappointment or dissatisfaction, but when we continue to entertain bad habits such as not listening, shutting down, blaming and criticizing, not only do we eventually stop making efforts to repair the hurt and understand one another, we begin to resent each other and pave the way for contempt.* And, when it comes to couple communication, that can be lethal! Contempt is one of the top reasons for break-up and divorce, and the worst part is, too often, we don’t even see it coming. Like an insidious communicable virus, this communication pattern is often not apparent until it has already spread. So subtle are the put-downs at first, yet the unconscious mind takes hold and keeps track of all the relationship fault-lines that have since been pulling us apart, causing us to not only feel more and more judged, disliked and disrespected, but to continue to live a life amid constant acrimony, void of affection, leaving us believing and expecting the worst from each other. Contempt asserts a kind of “I’m right and you’re wrong” mentality and usually involves pleasurable feelings of power and superiority. Rejection is often the message received from a contemptuous act or tone of voice and most always develops into an internal narrative- one which is punctuated by the conviction that change is no longer possible and dissolution of trust. Over time, these long simmering negative thoughts about oneself and the relationship actually weaken the immune system. Contempt is a destructive negative emotional reaction, as it gnaws away at any foundation of love that may have existed before. Although not always volatile in nature, the mannerisms and words of contempt carry much pain. In fact, many couples at this stage of their relationship cannot even remember what attracted them to each other in the first place. Highly infectious, even contagious, contempt is often irreparable. It leads to more strife than any possible type of recovery or reconciliation. It’s that toxic! If not worked through, contempt literally spells doom for both personal wellness and for the relationship.
Under the Microscope
Even the most loving couples aren’t given total immunization against relationship malaise. Considering the universal nature of human fallibility, every relationship will have its issues. Normal. Close-up, however, contaminated relationships often look like this: name-calling, finger-pointing, crossing arms, teeth-gritting, sarcasm, scorn, mean-spiritedness, mimicking, mockery, moral superiority, derogatory comments, disgust, disrespect, belligerence, insults, cynicism, condescension, character assassination, hostile humour, sneering and eye rolling. Such is the culture of contempt. Time and again, like multiple strains spawned from the same virus, it eats away at a loving relationship most rapidly. What is less visible about contempt however, is the steady drip of quiet emptiness and suffering taking place. On the surface things may even seem calm, with distancing and disconnection serving the illusion of feeling safe, but the psychological damage usually runs deep. And, even if a couple wants the relationship to work, they do not know how to feel loved and connected anymore as, over time, they have grown so accustomed to responding to each other in this way. Blind to their own faults and fears, they have unwittingly overlooked their patterns -or possibilities- of engagement and, out of emotional despair and neglect, so too have poisoned their love. By contrast, contempt is virtually non-existent in happy marriages.
Much has been written about how we could have nipped this pandemic in the bud, so-to-speak. Had we not stifled the alarm of this respiratory virus, had we been more competent, clear and communicated more from a compassionate, global initiative, early intervention may have literally prevented everything from face-masks to fatalities. As we know, the problem with hindsight is that it always comes a little too late. Woulda Coulda Shoulda- the same can be said about saving troubled relationships.
Good relationships are rarely taken for granted or neglected. Instead, they are prioritized. At the heart of a healthy and happy, long-term relationship is a steady stream of positivity; one that is, as a rule, flowing with admiration, affection and appreciation, making each partner feel cared for and loved. It's willful and intentional by design. In other words, happy couples are devoted to building and maintaining a fertile spirit of friendship because having a meaningful relationship matters to them. Perhaps what is less apparent is how this skill purposefully serves them when conflict eventually erupts. If, as couples, we keep building our friendship and feel connected, our positive view of each other automatically serves as a buffer -ie., helps cushion the blows between us- during our more negative exchanges. How? Whenever we communicate, we automatically tend to attach meaning or value, especially the feelings we hold for one another. If the overall feelings for our relationship come from our experiences of good times, respect, security, satisfaction and, especially gratitude, we tend to give each other the benefit of the doubt, listen better, and most importantly, receive each other’s repairs during distress. It’s a win-win situation. Why? Quite simply because our shared history reminds us that we really like each other, so we know deep down inside we matter to each other. We think about and see each other in mostly positive terms. Whenever we choose to do something thoughtful for our partner or just have fun together, we feel more connected and somehow help each other bounce back from setbacks and stress that much better. It is as if our positive, routine relationship practices create and maintain certain type of built-in safety measures which enable us to handle difficult situations as well as respond to each other’s needs. It’s like having our own own PPE! Similar to the way an antidote relieves, prevents or counteracts a disease, we are practicing preventative maintenance by being proactive and may not even be aware of it! So, fundamentally, the quality of a relationship depends upon the quality of those involved in it or more aptly, on what we each bring into the relationship.
Reporting from the Front Lines
While the daily practice of maintaining a great relationship requires many skills, the ability to respond to each other’s stress can keep it exceptionally strong. The truth of the matter is most of us have never experienced a health epidemic of this magnitude, so naturally, we -some more than others- may feel overwhelmed by strong emotions like fear or anxiety, as we learn to adapt to the ambiguity and uncertainty of it all. Regardless, accepting how we feel and sharing our concerns and feelings by giving each other our time and a welcoming space to talk and be heard can help us not only cope, but also strive to stay connected as a couple, and not feel so alone under these extreme circumstances. In this way, making each other a priority can also help us draw strength and create a compassionate support system around stress, benefiting both our individual and relational well-being. Most importantly, it can help us feel like we are in more control over protecting our sense of safety and future somehow, sending home the message of shared commitment and resilience!
Relationship experts agree that these unprecedented times require frequent pulse checks with one another. The instability and stress surrounding the pandemic can easily exacerbate conflict for couples. For many people, along with the novel virus come uneasy feelings they may be experiencing for the very first time, so it’s incredibly helpful to lay down the groundwork for a healthy conversation. Intentionally checking in as a couple by really listening and engaging in conversation together, particularly with each person focusing on their own feelings or message when speaking but solely focusing on their partner’s perspective while listening- can not only enable couples to learn to keep their relationships strong but also improve many conversations and decisions related to present-day pandemic fatigue. So, for example, turning curiously toward your partner with, “You seem like you are a million miles away, would you like to talk about it?” And then genuinely listen in such a way without needing to upstage or rescind their stress by still remaining focused on them: “Tell me more…I’m listening” can invite even further fleshing out the details of the story and dialogue, making it that much easier to empathize or be present with their experience: “I know that you’re worried about having our friends over. I’m kind of nervous, too. After all, this virus is scary and unpredictable”.
Staying in sync this way, without resorting to typical communication barriers of “You’re always so negative”, or “Stop worrying so much, it’ll be okay!” or “Fine, let’s just call the whole thing off!”, allows us to feel safer in our distress as well as more emotionally engaged with each other. In other words, to truly connect through conversation means allowing your partner to be who -or where- they are. A major mistake couples make while talking is trying to fix things when this is not what is even needed or wanted in the first place. In fact, often no solutions are required -only acknowledgement, enabling couples to fully hear and understand each other. Compassion, quite simply, can be a very powerful communication skill. Whenever we can show care for our partner around some particular vulnerability, whenever we feel heard and understood without judgement or unsolicited advice, it can help us stay more optimistic with our everyday stress and feel even stronger together as a couple during more difficult times .
Altering the Course of Crisis
We already know that the pandemic revealed communication to be a big challenge for many couples. Learning to navigate life together under the best of circumstances is often demanding, but when couples are overrun by external stressors such as economic hardship or lack of social support- not to mention the real fear of contracting a viral illness- and fail to adapt, they subsequently run the risk of harming their relationships and mental health. Everything gets impacted: from being able to adequately focus on work, parenting, school, finances and other responsibilities, and most certainly for those of us where roles and everything else continues to collapse into one space! And when, in its midst, global movements with people protesting deep injustices, demanding economical, social and political change also grab our attention and manage to trigger even greater anger or worry, well, we end up amplifying our distress that much more!
To feel overwhelmed makes perfect sense then, given the many legitimate layers of uncertainty with the current world health crisis, notably the cumulative impact of challenges and consequences this pandemic has left on the core of humanity in so short a period of time, and in many ways we do not yet fully understand. Furthermore, as we grapple with the prospect of plural outbreaks and perhaps go into lockdown again, we need to be mindful that such dramatic changes may be that much harder to cope with while we try to make sense of the dystopian world we seem to be living in and try to keep each other safe. Make no mistake. We will get disappointed. We will lose our patience. We will get angry. We will get anxious and continue to experience frustration. We also know it will cause particular strain on our relationships. Time and time again. So, as we continue to wear our masks and wash our hands, and take all other necessary measures to stop the spread of this virus, let’s be a little more mindful of what we can also be doing for our partnerships. We can smile more often. We can talk more often. We can focus on what it means to truly listen and understand. We can show more appreciation and gratitude. We can immerse ourselves in nature. We can go for long walks. We can slow-dance. We can create a romantic picnic on the living room floor. We can give each other some space. We can inhale, we can exhale. We can soothe our own soul. And, we can humbly repair our mistakes. In other words, we can choose to become the person we would like to have in our life and show up the same way for each other. We can also remind ourselves that doing all of this is just as important today as it was before the coronavirus. Relationships flourish when couples invest-in and nurture them. Period. Maybe now going forward and armed with a little foresight, we can rethink our relationships, press the reset button and rediscover even a better version of ourselves, no matter how chaotic the future may feel. Crises and challenges, even everyday life, force us to adapt and change not just how we act but who we are. This virus is not going away anytime soon. This much we know. In the meantime, perhaps we can focus on a different kind of immunity which is also important to our survival- learning to love each other better by building a healthier and happier relationship together. Perhaps this much we can control and do. At the end of the day, it might be just the medicine we need.
*Please see www.gottman.com for the best research on contempt and all things related to couple communication.
Lydia Waruszynski is the founder and creator of LetsTalkAboutLove™. (www.letstalkaboutlove.ca) An accredited professional and a self-proclaimed "modern-day warrior of the heart", she has a passion for training the mind to serve the heart. With more than 25 years in private practice, she holds both a BA and an M.Ed degree from McGill University and is currently pursuing training and certification in GottmanTM Couples Therapy.
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Hi, I'm Lydia- a modern-day warrior of the heart with a mission to reconcile the mystery and mastery of Love.