Ideasroom

Protecting your relationship under lockdown

The University of Auckland's Dr Jessica Maxwell and Professor Nickola Overall offer some advice on how to maintain your wellbeing and relationships under extreme conditions

As life in lockdown becomes our new normal, you may be asking how you can maintain your wellbeing and relationships under these conditions.

Here are some tips based on psychological research that will help you cope, get in routine, and make the best of the lockdown experience.

Tips to help you 

Acknowledge this is a scary time

It’s okay to feel scared or anxious. These emotions are natural responses that help us deal with and survive situations of danger. A common way we cope with these feelings is to ignore them, bottle them up, and just “get on with it”. Instead, try to balance the need to be strong with accepting and expressing your worries. Often, suppressing fear, anxiety and frustration prolongs and intensifies these feelings, leads to poorer health, and stops us from figuring out how to make the situation better. Recognising these feelings can help us think about the situation more effectively and get the support we need from others. For resources to help you manage your mental health during this time please see here and here.

Focus on the positives, get in a routine and try something new 

Accepting our anxieties can allow us to think about the situation in ways that alleviate worries and create effective solutions. Instead of getting focused on “everything is shut down”, remind yourself that the places we really need (e.g., groceries stores, medical centres) are open. Instead of thinking “I am going to go stir crazy at home”, focus on the benefits of spending more time at home, such as having more time to spend with your family, or to garden, read or relax, or even to start a new hobby. Most important, focus on what you need to do to establish a routine. Get up at the same time and structure your day around a regular schedule of work, meals and chores. Exercise and spend time outside - this is essential to guard against stress and boost mood. This is also a great opportunity to reflect on what is good in your life; being grateful improves our health and wellbeing.   

Reach out to people

Remember we need to keep physical, not emotional, distance from others. Now more than ever it is important to connect with your wider social network. People with stronger social ties have better immune systems and are more likely to stay happier and healthier. Try to phone or video call your family and friends, rather than only texting them. Research suggests that hearing others’ voices is more comforting. Reaching out to your family, friends and colleagues can help remind you how many people you have in your corner. Talking about your worries and concerns also helps others cope by knowing they are sharing similar experiences and, by expressing your concerns, people who care about you know how to provide you with support.   

Tips to help your relationship

Acknowledge conflicts and face challenges together

Social media is filled with jokes about the spikes in divorce following quarantine. Being stuck at home creates opportunities for people to get on each other’s nerves, especially since we often take out our frustrations on the ones we love. Many couples will also be facing additional challenges that are very stressful, such as loss of income or trying to manage additional childcare. Stress often creates conflict and depletes our ability to manage conflict effectively. Try to follow these three Cs to manage conflict. 

Communicate: Resolving conflict requires couples to understand each other’s perspective, which can’t happen when you try to stifle your dissatisfaction with your partner or withdraw from each other. Try to express what is upsetting you so your partner understands how to help address the issue, and in turn be prepared to address your partner’s concerns by being motivated to solve any problems that arise. 

Cool off: Being overwhelmed with anxiety or anger interferes with our ability to listen to our partner and express negativity in a constructive way. If negative emotions run high, allow each other to cool off (go to separate rooms or take a walk if you can), and make sure you agree to regroup to discuss the issue more calmly when you are ready.

Commit to being a team: Working through negativity and conflict provides the opportunity to improve relationships. Committing to getting through the lockdown as a team puts any frustrations in context; this is a hurdle you can overcome together in ways that can strengthen your relationship.

Support one another

This is a time in which we need to lean on each other. Support is the single most important thing we can provide our loved ones and is essential to stay healthy and happy. Yet, support is not always easy. Providing too much support can make people feel like you don’t think they can cope with the situation. Providing too little support just leaves people feeling unloved and uncared for. To get the right balance, try to follow these two support rules. 

Responsiveness: Providing good support means being responsive to what your partner needs, not what you would find supportive. Do they want or like emotional comfort, or do they like practical advice to deal with the situation? Do they just want a hug, or do they want to stay up reading the latest news together? Listen and try to match what your partner needs, which might mean just being there without giving comfort or advice. 

Reciprocity: People cope best when they are able to give as much support as they receive. Be open and express your concerns to provide the opportunity for your partner to provide support in return. This can mean sharing the household load, having turns taking a break or talking about your concerns, and balancing the stress of the situation with quality time together.

Reach widely. Understand that your partner is stressed too, which can make it difficult for them to provide the support you need. Reaching out to your wider support network, like your family, friends and colleagues, can reduce the pressure on you both and help restore the resources you need to support each other. 

Spend quality time and grow together

You might finally get to binge-watch that movie or series that you have been meaning to watch together. Watching movies and TV shows together can even strengthen your relationship. A recent study found that couples asked to reflect on the relationships portrayed in movies were less likely to divorce. See this list of movies to watch and questions to discuss with your partner.  

Another great way to boost mood, be connected, and lower stress is having sex. The jokes on social media predicting “quarantine babies” arriving in nine months do capture a truth: slowing down our busy lives creates more opportunities for intimacy. But, remember that it is normal for anxiety to reduce sexual desire. Just being emotionally and physically affectionate (for example, cuddling, joking around) can help lift mood and combat stress. Taking the opportunity to reminisce about good times in the past, play games and have fun, try new activities together, or dream about what you would like to do in the future, are great ways to feel closer and more connected. For some fun couple activities to increase intimacy, see 36 questions you can ask your partner; eight "dates" to have with your partner at home or learn together by taking a free online course on the science of happiness, or on how to cook

Tips to help your family

Acknowledge your child’s emotions

Children are very sensitive to others’ emotions. Effectively managing your own stress and anxiety can help alleviate your child’s anxiety. Engaging in two-way conversations with your child to share how you are both feeling will help children build a sense of greater understanding and control of their emotions. Some children may be too young or aren’t comfortable enough to discuss their feelings, and instead their emotions cause sudden changes in their child’s mood or behaviour. For example, a child who senses their parent’s anxiety but is unable to communicate their own concerns might have a behavioural outburst (i.e., tantrum or is “acting out”), or may even become more cuddly than usual and be upset if you leave them even for a brief moment. If this happens, taking a moment to stop what you are doing and connect with your child will help calm the storm that is brewing inside. Articles here and here have tips on how to talk to your child about Covid-19. 

Parent together as a team

This sudden change in family routine (for example, spending a significant amount of time together) can be challenging for parents. One parent might interfere with the typical parenting routine of the other, or parents might communicate conflicting information about what children should be doing. To parent well together, try to follow these three tips.

Share expectations: Effective co-parenting involves working together to establish shared parenting rules and expectations. Get on the same page of how you want the family to operate during this time (e.g., a regular school-like schedule balanced with TV and outdoor activities, or a holiday schedule of family time), and then try to share the responsibility of keeping this routine.

Support each other: Try to be realistic about each other’s parenting—you aren’t going to be “perfect” parents during these uncertain times. Be supportive and appreciative of each other’s parenting efforts and be understanding when it doesn’t go as you hoped. Feeling like you are a capable parent is needed to remain responsive to your children during these times. 

Show a united front: Work together so that routines and expectations are consistently communicated to your children. Showing children that you are a united front helps children feel secure and enhances the wellbeing of the whole family.

Of course, some people are parenting their children on their own. The tips above also apply. Try to establish routines and shared expectations with your children, be kind and patient with yourself when things don’t go as planned, and try to be consistent in communicating your expectations so that you and your children feel like you are in this together. 

Spend quality time and grow together as a family

Finally, take advantage of this time together. One of the most important things that parents can do during this time is to remember to take time to engage in fun family interactions such as playing board games, reading, doing some baking, or even some household chores. See here for more tips about managing family time at home by developmental scientist Associate Professor Annette Henderson.

The REACH research group is led by Professor Nickola Overall and Dr Jessica Maxwell from the School of Psychology in the University of Auckland’s Faculty of Science.

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