dr. jennifer ballerini

DR. JEN'S BLOG

How to Not Ruin Your Relationship in Quarantine

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I remember reading a headline a few weeks (years??) ago that the divorce rate was increasing for Chinese couples post-coronavirus quarantine. And boy, do I get it. While some of us are cooped up alone and dealing with incredible loneliness (which is traumatic in itself), many of us are sequestered with our partners…all the time, every day, in a small space, during a time of incredible change, uncertainty, and anxiety. Gee, whatever could go wrong?

As I sit with my clients this week, I find myself often reviewing basic relationship skills, like how to communicate hurt, how to respond to a loved one's pain, and how to receive comfort. I'd like to share those tips with you now, in the hopes they will help your relationship be a source of strength and security in these troubled times. (And BTW, these tips apply to just about any important relationship — parent-child, close friend, or even your relationship with yourself!) An effective repair conversation with your partner is as easy* as 1-2-3:

Step 1. Notice what you're feeling and communicate it — vulnerably — to your partner. When something happens that makes you want to react — get critical, get defensive, pull away, shut down, nag, etc. — take a moment to slow down, check in, and ask yourself, "What am I feeling?" Anger can often be a cover for more vulnerable emotions. Honor that the anger is real and valid, but also ask yourself if you might be feeling a more tender emotion — are you feeling sad? Scared? Lonely? Inadequate? When you know what you're feeling and you can say it softly and vulnerably, it's time to share that with your person.

Step 2. When you receive your partner's feelings, your presence and care are the solution. So many of us respond to pain in our loved ones by inadvertently dismissing, minimizing, or intellectualizing. While we may have truly excellent advice to offer, it's important to remember that an activated brain can't take in any such guidance. We must first come alongside our loved ones and meet them at the emotional level vs. offering suggestions for change. In short, we must connect before we correct. We do this in 3 key ways:

a) Validation. I can totally see why that made you scared. I get it. I would feel that way, too, in your shoes.
b) Empathy. I'm so sad to know you're going through this. I feel such a pain in my heart hearing how alone you're feeling.
c) Undoing Aloneness. I'm here with you. We'll get through this together.

So, let's say your husband has just told you he felt really lonely this week when you were working a lot to keep your small business afloat. Instead of getting defensive or making suggestions for what he could do to manage the lonely feelings, try validating, empathizing, and undoing his aloneness. "Oh, sweetie, I can totally see why you've been feeling alone. I have been so busy and overwhelmed. I feel so sad knowing you're feeling like that. I'm so glad you're telling me. I'm here and I love you."

Step 3. Receive your partner's care. It's an often overlooked step, but a really important one. You're hurt, your partner is trying to repair with you — allow the repair! Notice any parts of you that want you to keep your guard up. Honor their fear that you'll be hurt again, but try to be open to a genuine effort at reconnecting. All relationships have bumps, especially when partners are stressed out (like, say, during a global pandemic). Offer as much grace as you possibly can to each other. As Maya Angelou once said, “Have enough courage to trust love one more time and always one more time.”

* Please-Don't-Sue-Me-Disclaimer: This is, in fact, not at all easy! It takes a lot of practice. Be sweet to yourself as you try to get better at this. I also highly recommend Ron Frederick's book, "Loving Like You Mean It." And of course, if you're continually struggling with any of these steps, please reach out to a therapist for help.