While a small transgression, like an interruption during a work call, may not be a big deal on its own, in the pressure cooker of lockdown it can go from a minor annoyance to the source of real strife. And if social media posts are any indication, jigsaw puzzles are the new Ikea furniture: the truest test of a couple’s stress levels.
Step away from the jigsaw puzzle. Give each other a hug or a high-five and let’s talk about what’s going here. “I often tell people, your partner isn’t the problem. The problem is the problem,” said Kiaundra Jackson, a marriage and family therapist. Forced isolation with the same people for weeks on end is offering us a crash course in communication. None of us are perfect at expressing our feelings all the time, but we can all try to be better when conflict does happen. Of course, it’s understandable if you’ve found yourself with a shorter fuse lately. Even the most serene among us are dealing with frayed nerves, waves of panic and unyielding stress — without an end in sight. While there’s potential for more squabbles at home, there’s also an opportunity to meet challenges your household is facing as a team.
Embrace a team mind-set. This might feel silly or unnatural at first, but Jackson suggests expressing positive affirmations together every morning. Say something like, “Today’s going to be a good day! You’re going to get your work done. I’m going to get my work done. It’s going to be great!” Every evening, share how your day went with each other. Don Cole, a licensed marriage and family therapist, calls these debriefing talks stress-reducing conversations, during which we listen, show empathy, stay on our partner’s or roommate’s side and avoid problem solving. As clinical director of the Gottman Institute, an organisation that brings research-based assistance to couples and trains therapists to be more effective as relationship counsellors, he knows these conversations help promote a sense of partnership and closeness. So, “when the stressful moments come,” he said, “we’re not as reactive.” Have difficult conversations sooner rather than later. It’s tempting to sweep rising friction under the rug, but that would be a mistake. Negative thoughts will fester and, ultimately, boil over. “You don’t want to shy away from any issues,” Jackson said. If you need the trash taken out or help with cooking or watching kids, verbalise it. Negotiate ways to maximise your time and space. “Establish workable boundaries for all parties,” said Jenny Wang, a licensed psychologist. Perhaps roommates can stagger their cooking times so they don’t get in each other’s way, or partners can take turns doing chores while the other does something they enjoy. If you need distance, a tacked up bed-sheet or closed door can give temporary reprieve. Noise-cancelling earbuds or headphones can help create a sense of space, too.
You can also elect to adopt housewide guidelines to promote harmony. “Consider agreeing to a quiet time in the home, 30 minutes maybe, each day where you agree with the person you live with to keep things slow and volumes low,” said Shawna Murray-Browne, a licensed certified social worker and founder of Kindred Community Healing. “If you have young children, consider establishing this time during nap time or teaching them independent play as a quiet activity.” — The writer is a journalist
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