Relationship Counselling during the Pandemic Shutdown
Lots of journalists are contacting Relationship Therapists to get some tips on how to handle relationship issues at a time when the country has gone into lockdown mode and people are either forced together or forced apart until who knows when and who knows how this curve will subside and it is safe again to pick up the pieces and venture out into public life.
The conventional questions that get asked are what works well to give you a more desired outcome in your relationship: how do you get emotional closeness, feel understood and express your emotional connection with a level of physical intimacy that makes each person feel loved (and attractive)? And how do you best deal with conflict or differences, which is also a normal part of relationship.
There is a one size fits all answer that all relationship therapists agree on and are trained in, whatever the flavour of the therapy model or personal style. It is to slow down a disagreement or disconnect and give the couple relationship tools to aid with communication and conflict management, when a personal crisis has pushed them into therapy.
Looking to a friend or a magazine article for advice or help with a relationship issue is a good thing, but talk to ten different people, including your mother and your best friend and you will get 10 different answers, whereas an experienced, well trained relationship counsellor will have a good understanding of how and why conflict occurs, will see what the presenting couple’s real underlying issues to resolve are and will have a bigger tool kit of tried and tested exercises to facilitate learning how to deal with conflict more effectively.
A basic tool used in therapy is facilitating active listening or empathic listening, helping each partner to learn and practice this majorly helpful relationship tip: listening to understand the other’s perspective rather than listening to respond defensively. And turn taking as well, so that each partner gets an equal chance to feel heard and understood. That’s it folks, all your partner wants, is to be “got” (and to have good sex too but we can talk about that another time!) Learning how to listen empathically isn’t the simplest skill to learn when a couple is feeling stressed, triggered or stuck in an old circular argumentative pattern.
And now these classic relationship issues are happening in a different space, with partners either being forced together or forced apart 24/7, for an indefinite period. In my own practice, I have seen the pandemic’s knock on effect in relationships it in all its shapes and forms. Couples who dated and had time to lock in together, couples who had to stay living apart and now struggle with connecting to their partner and singles who no longer have the same dating opportunities.
What relationship tips would I give now, in these new unprecedented circumstances? I have found in Online Therapy that people, whether living together or apart, are a little more anxious of rocking the boat, so I try to make conflict management tools a little easier and less triggering for clients.
For example, instead of saying “you / it makes me angry or I feel angry when you… don’t do that please”, try calling out the behaviours you don’t want by putting it like this “I feel distant from you when… followed by: I feel close to you when…” Do it with 3 things in a row and each taking a turn to express your wish list. Do it regularly to build up a new couple conflict management muscle. There is very little danger in that method. The added benefit is that with frequency, it builds up a reservoir of appreciation to draw from. And who doesn’t like the feeling of appreciation? People have had the same relationship issues for thousands of years!
Remember also that you can’t force another person to change or make them think what you want them to think, you can only change yourself or lead by your own example. So do more of that too and take responsibility for yourself. Try to understand rather than change and see the difference that it makes, in giving you a more desired outcome in your relationship.