Relationships can be a source of great support through life changing events, yet they can also be put under strain. Since entering the pandemic, I have seen countless articles noting the risk period of Covid-19 for our personal connections and how to cope if you’re in a relationship. As a relationship counsellor, I expected a period of lockdown would peak needs in my client group, much as referrals tend to peak after holidays and Christmas – the times when we are in an organised lockdown with partners! I have been thinking about risks for relationships during Covid-19 now for the last ten weeks, and wanted to share some reflections on this, importantly noting how to keep ourselves safe and supported in our relationships in the ongoing weeks and months.
How COVID 19 may be Impacting our Relationships
– Practicalities> Stress> Intimacy> Safety
Relationships need some degree of practical coordination, and to navigate changing roles and lifestyles. The first effect of Covid-19 I suspected for many relationships was how it may impact their very pragmatics. Living with a partner under lockdown may look very different than before with changing structures to the day. Loss of independence and social isolation from other connections may place heightened pressure on any primary romantic relationship to offer all of one’s emotional support.
This support requirement may in turn look different under stress. Covid-19 will be making us feel uncertain and worried for a variety of different reasons, and as individuals we may respond in a variety of different ways. I often think with couples how a response to a loss is like a grief response- we pass through a number of different emotions – denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance. However, we may not smoothly transition; we may jump between different steps, and a partner may be in a different stage themselves. Our starting mechanisms to manage stress may also vary, for example by using distraction or discussing emotions. We can often be attracted to opposite coping mechanisms in a partner, but this can be complicated when we are both simultaneously exposed to stress.
Without understanding differences, conflict may be more likely when under strain, and our intimacy will be impacted. We may feel less emotionally close. Covid-19 is also likely to be impacting physical intimacy as many of us have concerns around health. If symptomatic of Covid-19, there will be a need to remain at distance from one’s partner. Many relationships may be under strain on connecting physically for the concern around potential illness. Conversely, as physical intimacy may be used as a mechanism for managing stress and anxiety, there could be links between Covid-19 and a baby boom or sexual addiction. There has been a rapid increase in sales of sex toys. Cautions need to be considered around maintaining contraception and safe sex practices.
From safe sex to safety in full noting, risk is imperative as unfortunately not all relationships are supportive from the start. While overt physical violence may be evident, recognition of this can be difficult and signs of emotional abuse are even more likely to go unrecognised. During Covid-19 we have already seen peaks in rates of domestic violence aligned to escalating conflict, and it being harder for people to escape from dangerous environments with concerns around social distancing/lockdown requirements. Perpetrators may also harness the stressors of the pandemic to excuse their behaviour.
Staying Safe and Supporting our Relationships during Covid-19
-Safety> Routines> Communication> Intimacy
Considering risk, maintaining safety is the first priority in any relationship. Some relationships are not supportive, and so building communication and intimacy would be unsafe. To maintain safety, recognition of risk is important. If you feel unsafe, or have noticed escalating conflict or criticism, it can be really important to reach out for support. Many of the signs of emotional abuse can be subtle – from a chipping away of an individual’s control around contact to others or finances, to ‘gaslighting’ in which a perpetrator may convince a partner that their own said behaviours and actions haven’t happened. Threats may also be made around mental health – that separation may lead to a perpetrator self-harming or even committing suicide.
Having an action plan is important around an emergency. Firstly, lockdown measures DO NOT APPLY for leaving an unsafe environment. Other steps may include..
- Having contacts for support organisations stored in one’s phone under another name – e.g the National Domestic Abuse Helpline, a 24 hour service accessible on- 0808 2000 247
- Packing a bag with essentials – contacts, ID, money- that is readily accessible as a practical step to ensuring a safe exit.
- Calling the police safely – after calling 999, if remaining silent on the phone, there is a ‘silent solution’ option to press 55 on a mobile so that safety can be maintained with a police officer asking yes or no questions in case a perpetrator is in close proximity.
With safety established in supportive relationships, the first step to maintaining our connections instead moves to managing practical challenges by organising some routines. Some conversations could include-
- Working arrangements – Specific requests for help with tasks or time alone for work.
- Home arrangements – Naming what new needs may look like in the context of additional challenges, e.g. managing parenting responsibilities with work simultaneously.
- Self and relationship care arrangements – Setting time aside to ensure you have space individually for self care and for time in your relationship daily and weekly.
Gaining skills in communication can really help with managing the added stress of a pandemic, and in building emotional intimacy. Key points may include:
- Optimising the time to talk – Not starting a discussion when Hungry- Angry-Late-Tired (HALT) or when likely to be interrupted or distracted.
- Shifting Language – Using ‘I feel/hear’ statements compared to ‘you said/are’ is important so that a conversation does not become defensive. Similarly avoiding use of absolutes such as ‘always’ and ‘never’ can ensure a conversation focuses into topics in a way that couples can work on concerns together rather than feel that things are fixed and irresolvable.
- Having a mechanism for conflict – It is not a focus to remove all conflict, but rather for couples to argue more agreeably. In conflict, one can become anxious and enter a fight/flight/freeze response – language may break down and one may not even be able to remember the discussion. A four step process that can help is to RECOGNISE – look out to notice anxiety or when conversation may be in a loop >NAME – have a phrase or word to name the difficulty, >WITHDRAW – agree a plan to withdraw for a set period, minimum 90 minutes (time to de escalate), >COMFORT/CONVERSATION offering some other comfort where able (see affection below) and setting a later time to talk
Individuals can have different wants regarding closeness, and this can be different at different times in different couples. Conversations need to be ongoing. A common exercise in Psychosexual work is to remove sex from the table first in order for a couple to instead reconnect on what physical closeness means in a wider way. Keeping a wider relationship focus is important, and the concept ‘love languages was developed by Gary Chapman who proposed 5 different ways we may build affection:
- Words of Affirmation – saying affirmative statements to one’s partner of things one appreciates.
- Acts of Service – doing tasks for one’s partner- anything from making a cup of tea to the day to day housekeeping.
- Gift Giving – this can be presents or gestures.
- Quality Time – having prioritised time with a partner- sharing activities (with the smart phone turned off!)
- Physical Touch – Any form of physical closeness.
While all 5 are valuable, optimising intimacy could start by shifting the methods in showing how we care – the two we give out tend to be the two we like to receive.
Further, moving from physical touch to having open discussions around sex can feel daunting for many. Key conversations could include:
- Health – Especially important in context of changing health provision during COVID, being open to discuss around concerns regarding health in a general way – physical cautions if one felt symptomatic of COVID, the role of a shift in mental health secondary to anxiety and communicating around how to maintain sexual health and contraception ahead of time can be beneficial.
Reach out to support at a sexual health clinic if there are any concerns here too. While provision may have changed there are at home testing kits, organised appointment slots and online consults, and some centres are even sending condoms by post to younger groups. Sexual pain and dysfunction can also be discussed.
- Challenges meets connection – Sex may have been a no go or challenge for weeks, months, or years – and often it may not have been talked about fully for as long, with us all holding many bias or assumptions. From discussing health concerns and what that may mean for sex, other challenges may include discussion around wider intimacy (as above) to exploring what hasn’t felt a fit in the past. Naming physical, emotional, and cognitive blocks can be helpful in order to move discussions onto what connecting in each of these ways may mean, e.g:
• Physical- uncomfortable/turn offs -> what feels good/turn ons
• Emotional- role of anxiety -> what relaxes
• Cognitive- what distracts -> how to stay present
With staying present for a blog post, I will end here before I expand onto too many topics. I recognise I have not turned to the arena of dating during lockdown, which will have its own thoughtful reflections. Overall, supporting our relationships is an ongoing journey and I hope that through lockdown we all stay safe in our connections and find space to bring affection to one another in new ways. I am also posting a further blog considering supporting one’s family further during COVID that may be a further read, and I include here a resource list with further information and sources of support for relationships.
Maudsley Learning offers covid-19 advice and support, find out more today. Keep safe, keep well, and keep connected.
Article written by Dr Camilla Tooley.