How to Resolve Relationship Conflicts During a Crisis

THE WELL's Director of Head and Heart offers 12 tips for navigating tough times with those closest to us so we can come out stronger.

couple reading in bed

One unifying factor brought on by the coronavirus pandemic: We are all in this together. Each of us has been impacted in some way and is experiencing an adjustment on some level, whether radically or minimally. 

However, there are two very distinct categories that we fall into as we “stay-at-home:” those of us who are alone in our space, and those of us who are cohabitating with partners and/or children. 

When our homes become our offices, the restaurant we visit three times per day, the place we educate our children and the location of all our date nights, it also has the potential to breed more conflict. Friction is a natural occurrence when any two things rub up against each other, which becomes particularly frequent when we have less physical space. 

As a modern love therapist and Support Circle facilitator, I interact with more than 50 people every week. As a human, I live with my partner and daughter, which has challenged me to practice what I preach. 

Below, I share my three-part guide for enhancing the relationship with your partner, your children and yourself while you stay home.

Friction is a natural occurrence when any two things rub up against each other, which becomes particularly frequent when we have less physical space.

IF YOU'RE IN A RELATIONSHIP...

In our “past lives” (three weeks ago…) we had access to various resources — our gym, yoga studio or other sacred spaces — that helped us meet our needs. Now, we still have the same needs (or even more), and yet less opportunities to have them met. It is not our partner’s job to meet all of these needs, but it can be really challenging not to look to them for soothing when they are in our lines of sight all day and all night. 

Set clear expectations.

Just because you are cohabitating doesn’t mean you have to share every meal and experience. Be sure to differentiate when you are “on a date at home” or “at home together.” When you set boundaries with your partner, it invites him/her/them to be closer to you by letting them know your personal need for space. It also helps to reduce the incidence of misunderstanding and confusion when both parties are clear on the right mix between sharing space and taking space.

Not everything needs to be shared. 

The spectrum of emotion you experience during this period may range from joy and peace to sadness and distress. Try seeing them as trends, rather than discrete emotions. Remember, feelings are not facts. Feelings are transient and do not always need to be acted upon or shared, but they do need to be acknowledged. Rather than share every snapshot of your internal experience, identify what emotional “trends” you want to share with your partner, rather than every single feeling you’re experiencing. 

Revisit the division of labor.

The way you shared household responsibilities before may no longer be the right distribution. Track your own internal resentment — the “eye roll” response that lets you know you are giving too much — and take it as a sign that adjustments may need to be negotiated. The couples that describe their union as equitable and fulfilling are not the ones who have the most in common, but the ones who negotiate their different preferences with respect and care.

Deepen connection and take breaks from venting.

Complaining can feel incredibly cathartic, but research shows it doesn’t have long-term positive impacts on our personal or relational development. It can be easy to fall into venting all day long about our current situation to your partner, and while this can be helpful sometimes, you might be able to use your time together to connect with your partner in a more meaningful way. 

Rather than watch the news and rehash fears, try asking some unusual questions to get away from the monotony and restriction of your days. For instance: What made you feel appreciated this week? What can I do differently next week to be more caring toward you? When was the last time you felt alive? What do you want to do together when this is all over? How has this experience changed your life negatively? Positively?  

Make the implicit explicit.

Although it is our birthright to have our needs met, it is also our responsibility to express them. By giving our partners a roadmap to what would make us feel good (or even just “more okay” in this moment) we are setting him/her/them up for success. 

Take inventory of your needs, and identify which ones can be met outside of the relationship. In addition to parsing out your relationship needs from those you may be able to get fulfilled elsewhere, it may be helpful to ask your partner, “What do you need right now?” This not only indicates that you care, but also gives you the tools to meet one another exactly where you are.

Tap into fantasies.

When reality is dreary, accessing our fantasies can be liberating. We all inhabit rich and imaginative internal worlds, many of which remain unexplored and therefore unrealized. Meanwhile, sharing our sexual fantasies can have bountiful benefits in our relationships. When we talk about our secret desires, our partners, directly or indirectly, learn how we hope to feel during sex. In order to be collaborative and consensual in the exploration of your fantasy world, ask your partner how she wants to receive your fantasies. Would he prefer a seductive or playful tone? Should you describe it to her in a detailed letter? Would they wish for you to show rather than tell, with consent? Sexual fantasies can be discussed before, during, or after sex — exploration need not be feared if we remove the pressure to act on them.

Take time to accept and repair ruptures.

We should expect that the stress of the global pandemic will weigh on our relationships. We will likely have more ruptures during this challenging time. However, we must also make time to repair after conflict so that it doesn’t have a cumulative effect on the relationship. Before communicating about a conflict, reflect on your role and identify what you are willing to own. 

For instance, you might be craving a running partner, but your partner doesn't like to run. This doesn't mean you're not compatible, but does mean that your partner can recognize your needs, without meeting them. Instead, consider digital group exercise classes, or doing FaceTime workouts with a friend.

Or maybe you’re wanting to have a conversation and your partner is working and doesn't have the capacity. Who else in your life can make you feel safe, soothed and seen?

dad-playing-with-daughter
Try not to dismiss your children’s feelings, but instead, make room to listen and help them express their emotions.

IF YOU'RE A PARENT… 

As adults, we set the emotional climate of the household for our children. As Tina Bryson, PhD, author of The Whole-Brain Child writes, “As mammals, our brains are held captive to one another. Our chaos or calm are contagious, especially to those we spend the most time with. If you’re panicked, chaotic internally, and obsessive about the news, this will dial up your child’s anxiety and will focus on what they can’t control.” 

This is not meant to shame parents who are doing their best to manage a very difficult situation and keep the household engines running, but to remind us that taking care of our ourselves matters too (think of the airplane analogy of putting your mask on, first!).

Set realistic expectations. 

Did you ever anticipate that you would be a full-time employee, parent and educator, all at the same time?! I bet not. Our responsibilities in the home have increased exponentially, and likely your fatigue has as well. It is important to continue to ensure that our children’s brains, bodies and hearts are being nurtured and to maintain rituals and routine, but not at the expense of our own mental health. 

This may not be a time to be the “best” at anything, but instead to set realistic expectations for yourself as a full-time caregiver. Perhaps it is time to bend rules on screen time and nutrition. In order to feel alive and well, our nervous systems need to experience challenges and overcome them. Setting small and achievable goals will give us a sense of esteem and achievement, continuing to motivate us into action.

Designate and alternate between lead parents.

If you’re in a two-parent home, identify a time frame when you are “lead parent” and when your partner is in the driver’s seat. This is perhaps 30 minutes or a couple hours of “work-free” time when you can take care of YOU and execute on choices to boost feelings of empowerment and autonomy. This may mean doing laundry and cooking, or taking a walk and reading your book. 

Share and listen to feelings.

When children feel seen and heard, they feel safe and cared for. Similarly, it is important to be honest about our feelings with our children, without making it their responsibility to take care of us. Avoid dismissing children’s feelings by being overly positive or telling them how they should feel, such as “Don’t worry, you’re okay and safe.” Instead, make room for listening to their stories and helping them put words to the emotions and sensations in their bodies. This will help to calm their nervous systems and reduce the overall stress of the household environment. 

IF YOU'RE ON YOUR OWN...

Alone time may feel luxurious to you, or it may feel unbearable. Regardless, bell hooks, author and social activist, reminds us that we must learn to be alone so that we don’t use others as a means of escaping ourselves. 

Explore what it is like to be you without restriction.

This is a time that may have more room for your pain, memories you haven’t accessed in years, stories you haven’t told, dance moves you’re too shy to express in public or phone conversations you always wanted to have. You may want to give yourself the permission to make this about you and not who you are in relation to partner(s). Give yourself space to journal about your sexual fantasies, get to know and develop a deeper sense of what feels good to you through masturbation and movement or record and archive your life story on StoryCorps.

Intentionally digital date.

If you would like to continue dating, it may be a good time to get to know others more authentically. Research shows that people are more inclined to be themselves online, as there is less risk when face-to-face interactions are not at play. Get clear on what you’re wanting from the digital dating experience: Is it for sexual and erotic play, coffee dates to get a sense of who you might want to meet in person or for long and windy dinner conversations? Identifying your intentions for dating will allow you to have a more targeted, and therefore fulfilling, experience.

Whatever our reality is, the more we lean into it, rather than pull away, the less suffering we experience. Try to shift the goal from making things better to being with the way things are in a slightly different way, which can help create more possibilities in your relationship with yourself, and your loved ones. 

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