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Sharp Health News

The pandemic’s effect on relationships

April 22, 2021

Couple ignoring each other after arguing during isolation.
There are likely few people who need to be reminded of the challenges caused by the COVID-19 pandemic — isolation, illness, job loss, loss of loved ones and more. Put two people together during such a stressful time, and while the struggles may not double, new difficulties can arise in some relationships as people share their stress.

“During this pandemic, we all have experienced some form of stress,” says Lindsay Kramer, MFT, lead therapist of the Dual Intensive Outpatient Program at Sharp Mesa Vista Hospital. “We have been impacted by the losses of our daily and community infrastructure, our identities as fully functional people, and our certainty about the immediate and remote future.”

According to Kramer, the stress of the pandemic has put us in a prolonged period of tension, which she calls a “state of suspended angst.” It leaves us waiting for the proverbial shoe to drop and wondering when things will ever return to what we know as “normal.” Constantly waiting for things to get better — or having to brace for the worst — has a tremendous impact on our physical and mental health, activities of daily living, and relationships.

When stress spills over
“Even the healthiest relationships are not immune to stress,” Kramer says. “Stress often has a tendency to spill over into our relationships with the people closest to us, the people we’re the most ‘real’ with. They see the good, the bad and the gritty.”

When you go out into the world, Kramer says, you know that you have to exercise self-control in coping with stress in order to comply with social norms. Yet, if you’ve used up all of your self-control in “keeping it together” during the day, you may not have the energy left to spare for loved ones.

“Our guards may be down,” she says. “But our stress may not be resolved, so our partners subsequently experience all of the negative emotions we just can’t keep in anymore.”

Recognize stress can lead to relationship strength and struggles
Kramer emphasizes that this doesn’t mean that all relationships have suffered permanently from the pandemic. In fact, some relationships may have improved as couples dealt with the stressors together. However, it is inevitable that other relationships have worsened under such extreme duress.

“The stress of this crisis has been a constant that inevitably impacts how we communicate, emote, problem-solve and respond compassionately to one another,” she says. “If both partners are under stress and don’t have the tools to cope with their emotional and mental states, the negative impact may be exponential.”

Kramer reports that when each person’s stress impacts the other, the result can be that they begin to view their relationships more negatively, begin feeling less supported by their partners, and gradually start to shut down. “We don’t always have tools or resources to recognize this as it’s happening, so the result can be similar to that of a sinking ship, with both partners going down with it,” she says.

Safeguard your relationship against pandemic stress
To avoid allowing the pandemic to negatively affect your relationship, Kramer recommends that you consider the qualities of your relationship before the pandemic. Ask yourself if there are strengths in the relationship that are being overshadowed by the pandemic, and if you can you find a way to reconnect with those areas.

What’s more, you need to identify and confront the relationship’s challenges, pandemic-related or not:
  • Assess the sensitive areas in the relationship. Where are you already struggling and what are the hot-button items that need work? What are the situations or subjects that make it more difficult to speak constructively to your partner?
  • Tune into what’s happening on your end individually. Are there areas of your own stress that are spilling over to your partner that can be managed? What amount of energy do you have to give to the relationship, and are you working to “show up” for your significant other?
  • Look into how to de-stress, either individually or as a couple, to reduce conflict. Find ways, such as walks together, to get out of the house and intentionally switch mindsets away from the otherwise uncertainty of the pandemic.
In tough times, remember you’re a team
“It’s important to recognize who our safe harbors are and where our support comes from,” Kramer says. “If your partner is your number-one support person, it’s crucial to remember that this person is on your team.”

When it comes to challenging conversations with your “teammate,” Kramer offers a few tips to turn them into constructive talks:
  • Devise a plan for how to address challenging areas more sensitively and in a controlled manner. Rehearse potentially challenging conversations before you have them.
  • Try to see things from your partner’s side before having the conversation, so you can keep that in mind when emotions are running high and it’s more difficult to think clearly. Recognize where you might be susceptible to reacting unfavorably so you can come up with a plan and avoid saying something you’ll regret later.
  • Be clear about identifying your stress and your needs, especially if it’s about something that they didn’t do or don’t have control over.
  • Validate your partner’s stress and allow them to feel heard and seen, which is a helpful way to show support and feel capable during a time that otherwise can make you feel helpless.
Additionally, Kramer reminds us that the pandemic — and period of increased stress — will have an end. She encourages couples to have grace with one another, try to let go of grudges and blame, seek to choose forgiveness over condemnation, and take one day at a time.

“Ultimately, if any couple can survive this pandemic together,” Kramer says, “my bet is that they will be an incredibly strong couple when it’s all over because of the skills they’ve learned in the process.”

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