As we quarantine with our loved ones, we might find ourselves getting into more conflicts, disagreements, or feelings of disconnection from our partners. This is natural and not necessarily a sign that you shouldn’t be together. Many of the ways we cope when we’re not getting along with our partner are not available to us right now. Taking a break, for example, by going to work or going to lunch with a friend, might not be an option.
According to John Gottman, a psychologist and mathematician in Seattle, the average person needs 23 minutes to come down physiologically from the state of fight or flight. Feeling stuck inside with nowhere to find that 23 minutes of de-stressing is a reality that many of us are facing. Here are three things to do:
Find that 23+ minutes on the other side of the house perhaps. It’s important that your partner know what you’re doing, however, to prevent feelings of abandonment or rejection. “I need a half hour to reflect on this disagreement; can we meet back here and resume our talk then?”
Begin your time of reflection by doing some deep breathing and progressive muscle relaxation. Start at the top of your head and relax those muscles, and then move slowly down your body to your toes. Once you are in a slightly more relaxed state, try to focus in on your feelings. You might at first notice the secondary feelings of anger or frustration. See if you can go a little deeper to the primary feelings. Is there sadness? Loneliness? Abandonment? See if those softer, more vulnerable feelings are related somehow to something in your past; perhaps a parent or other loved one that wasn’t there for you when you really needed it. Unresolved traumas or relationship hurts can bring crumbs of that old hurt to the present. As you reflect on the feelings inside, see if you can feel it in your body.
When you get back to your partner, tell them in the least accusing or attacking way possible what your primary feeling is. Start with your body: “I’m feeling a tightness in my throat, almost like I’m trying to hold back tears.” Then talk about the feelings: “I’m feeling frustrated and also sadness, like we’re not on the same team anymore, and I realize I miss feeling like your special person.”
I hope that your partner can listen without getting back into their frustration. If they can’t, it might mean that your confiding felt like an attack to them. Take that as a sign that you need to confide with even more vulnerability. “I think I might have said that with an edge of frustration; let me try again…”
The secret to the success of this process is how vulnerable you can be. Usually, confiding vulnerable feelings to your partner pulls them closer. If this doesn’t happen, you might need an Emotionally Focused Therapist to help you identify the negative cycle of disconnection and move toward more emotional safety so that you can be vulnerable with each other. The book Hold Me Tight by Sue Johnson is also a great resource for couples to guide them through this process and/or support EFT therapy.