Managing Stress & Building Intimacy During Social Isolation

written by: Dr. Rob Freund, LMHC, NCC, QS

Allow me to echo the obvious and overused sentiment: This is a difficult time for us all and nothing feels normal right now. Normal will, perhaps, be forever changed because of our circumstances. 

Oh, you thought I was talking about the Coronavirus pandemic? I was referring to the relationships with my partner and two-year-old daughter. It’s true, I wouldn’t be saying these kinds of things if it weren’t for the historic and tragic events we are living through; it’s tempting to enter into a utilitarian mindset while we all focus on safety and survival. It’s ironic that our wellbeing and relationships often take a backseat to the stress that life sometimes throws at us. Research tells us that a strong attachment to a loved one buffers us against stress and helps us to be resilient (Johnson, 2013). Reframing our relationships as a necessity for surviving the anxiety of the coronavirus pandemic is one of the best things we can do right now. It’s also very accessible to us, since we are all spending a lot more time at home together. While some couples may be having unique stress from working in healthcare or other essential professions (thank you, by the way, for the courage you live out for us each day), and perhaps with still more (healthcare access, financial loss, intimate partner violence, to name just a few) there is one central thing: we are all home a lot more, and most of us are feeling the tensions rise because of it. 

Being home together more than usual can negatively impact our relationships. At the same time there is opportunity for experiencing more intimacy, and not less. So how do we go about helping our relationships serve as a stress buffer rather than a stress additive? I’ve got some good new and bad news. First the good: there are some simple things you can do immediately to shift the narrative. Simple conversations, small moments, and minor adjustments can go a long way in changing the tone of your shared space and relationship. Now the bad: it’s going to take effort, energy, and deliberate practice. As the Roman poet Ovid is quoted as saying, “Dripping water hollows out the stone, not through force but through persistence.” Perhaps a more contemporary and directly applicable statement might be “small things often,” a phrase attributed to couples counseling researchers and practitioners Drs. Julie Schwartz Gottman and John Gottman (conveniently also the name of their relationship podcast).

Imagine that your relationship is a bank account that was first established when you and your partner first came together (Gottman & Silver, 2015). Each time one of you attempts to connect with your partner, or responds to your partner’s efforts at connection, you are depositing into that account. If you are depositing into the bank often, with positive moments of connection – or even healthy conflict – the account stays stable. More negative encounters withdraw from that account, expending emotional currency; these are the times when you miss each other’s attempts at connection, the tension boils over, or some other unfortunate event occurs. Managing a successful relationship involves depositing into the relationship account often to offset the expenses of daily living (re: life is hard, and every relationship has its negative moments). Additionally, the bank of Love, Trust  & Co. where your account resides can be a bit of a business tyrant: every time you withdraw from your account, you pay a user’s fee. Negative moments in a relationship extract more from the account than a positive moment deposits. In fact, the Gottmans have conducted research indicating an important “magic ratio” for positive and negative interactions in a relationship (5:1) (Gottman, 2013). For every one negative interaction or feeling that exists in a relationship, couples need to experience five positive interactions or feelings. In order to strengthen a relationship, the ratio of positivity to negativity needs to exceed the 5:1. Those numbers may feel unfair, but it illustrates just how caustic unmanaged negativity can be in a relationship. However, try not to despair over this. Remember what I mentioned earlier about “small things often?” We deposit into our relational bank account way more than we realize, because it is in the small moments that intimacy grows, not just the grand gestures. In fact, grand gestures may and often do fall flat when the foundation of small-moment intimacy is absent in a relationship.

If you and your partner are home much more than usual (you know, because of a pandemic) your relationship account may be feeling strained. That may be because the stress of life outside of the home is higher than usual, but it might also be due to the closer contact you’re having of late. More stress and more contact equals more opportunities for withdrawals. However, there are also more opportunities for connection. Here are some ways to manage those opportunities:


1.) Build your intimacy through love maps and rituals of connection.

Because you are together more than usual, it can be tempting to assume that contact equals connection. This could not be further from the truth! Contact is opportunity, but curiosity and interest in your partner is what will turn opportunity into connection. It may be useful to consider establishing set times to come together on a regular basis for the express purpose of connection; a coffee in the morning before the kids wake up, a mid afternoon dominoes match, or nightly walks (social rules permitting) (Doherty, 2013). It doesn’t really matter what kind of ritual you establish, just so long as it is a) routinely kept, b) protected from outside distractions (no phones, television, etc.) and c) focused on the two of you. Use this time to be curious about one another, share in each other’s joys, or support one another in your concerns.   

One method of having connection-oriented conversations is through the use of love maps, an exercise developed to help you and your partner expand the cognitive maps you have of each other (Gottman & Silver, 2015). They can also be great conversation starters for topics besides what is going on in the home or the larger world. I’ve said it a few times already, but I’ll emphasize this portion again with the need for curiosity and interest in your partner. This curiosity is highly present in the limerence stages of a relationship – that goey, all consuming early stage where you and your partner can’t get enough of each other. It is part of how early relationship, driven by infatuation, grow into committed love. Einstein said, “I have no special talent. I am only passionately curious.” If that kind of passionate curiosity can mine the depths of quantum physics, it holds a lot of potential for doing the same for intimacy in your relationship!

   

2.) Examine and redefine the rules with a “State of the Union” conversation

   

According to the Gottman method’s model for conceptualizing relationships, two of the key pillars for lasting relationships are trust and commitment (Gottman & Silver, 2013). A relationship cannot thrive without trust that our partner is “all in” on the relationship, and that when we need them, they will show up for us (and vise versa). Part of what makes our current situation with the Coronavirus so stressful in relationships is how it threatens to disrupt the status quo of our relationships. The way that we have shown up for each other in the past may not work as well under these present circumstances. Furthermore, conflicting pulls for our attention, such as work or childcare needs may mean that there are times when we don’t show up for our partner in the way that they need, or miscommunications turn into feelings of betrayal. We establish rules for our relationship by the patterned ways we interact over time, sometimes deliberately, other times indirectly. In the sudden near constant contact of our social-distancing measures, the norms of our relationships are destabilized and thrown into ambiguity. What once worked for your home life may not feel like it’s working lately.

 

It may be beneficial to have one or more “state of the union” conversations with your partner in order to process the new normal of the foreseeable future (Gottman & Silver, 2013). This will give you both the opportunity to express gratitude for each other, work to understand your different points of view, and come up with mutually beneficial compromises for any issues that have emerged. Perhaps chores need to be redistributed, work schedules need to be balanced, leisure time explored, etc. The “state of the union” conversation can be a helpful way to connect with one another while also having some safe boundaries for disagreeing with one another and engaging in productive conflict.  The Gottman blog has useful resources that you can use to help guide this conversation.

   

Know when to take time apart – and when to come back together

   

Here’s a hypothetical scenario not at all drawn from real life: you’ve just finished watching the latest news briefing, and newscasters are highlighting the worst parts of what’s going on. Your toddler, who you decided to start toilet training has just had an “accident” on the carpet – the one part of the living room that isn’t tiled. You get a notification on your watch that your boss is inquiring about that project report that was due yesterday, and somewhere around this time, your partner enters the room. As the two of you triage by trying to clean up the pee all over the floor, you start discussing who is going to make dinner, which starts to really escalate. You want to help with dinner but are preoccupied with the work that you now feel pressure to complete immediately. Before you know it, you and your partner are sniping at each other and sparring over God knows what (weren’t you just supposed to be discussing dinner plans?) Your pulse is pounding in your temples, your shoulders are pulled up to your neck by a drawstring as you take quick huffing breaths, and a sick, twisted feeling is churning away in your stomach.

 

Congratulations, you’re flooded. Flooding is the term we use when our brains kick into “fight or flight” mode (Gottman & Silver, 2013; 2015). It is an ancestral response to danger that is intended to keep us safe. Our heartrate and breathing quicken, our muscles fill with blood and oxygen, and our prefrontal cortex – the “intellectual” part of our brain that would be so useful in a reasonable argument – logs off, leaving our survivalist midbrain to use whatever strategies might be helpful to get us safe (flight) or win the moment (fight). Sometimes it chooses a third option and freezes; think Jeff Goldblum in Jurrasic Park. Flooding is very useful in situations where we are actually in risk of peril, such as when a massive cat from Tiger King is about to attack and we need to run, not think. It is, however, much less useful when we are trying to hash out a difficult conversation with a loved one. To be technical, any time your heart rate rises above 100 beats per minute without physical activity (less if you’re an athlete,) your neurological system goes into overdrive and you enter into a flooded state (Gottman & Silver 2013; 2015). 

It’s important to recognize the signs of flooding in yourself and your partner, so that you can take action to protect each other and the relationship during these times. If you get flooded during an argument, have a clear signal that you can send each other to call a time-out (Gottman & Silver 2013; 2015). Take thirty minutes at minimum and engage in soothing, cognitively activating activity; mindfulness meditation, stimulating music, progressive muscle relaxation, reading, whatever you find that works in helping you to come back to a place of calm. When you’ve exited a flooded state, check back in with your partner and see if there’s a discussion that needs to be resolved, or if you both need to take more time before coming back together. Be protective and respectful of your partner if they’re flooded as well. Being able to request or take space to center and breathe is not only important for you, it also is protective of your relationship. Nothing productive can happen for your bond if one of you is unable to process emotions and communicate effectively. Taking space to calm apart from each other is a tremendous act of compassion. Coming back afterwards is a great way to demonstrate your togetherness and comradeship. 

   

Don your gratitude glasses

   

No doubt you and your partner have both been working in overdrive and have found yourselves going beyond the norm in terms of effort and workload while at home. Maybe you have gone out of your way to do something especially considerate for your partner, and in the rush of all that needs to be done or the anxiety of all that is, you’ve found yourself feeling underappreciated. It may be possible that you also are missing some of the things your partner is doing to contribute to the household right now. Perhaps even, the mundane everyday activities that you both have always done are continuing on interrupted. Have you been able to take time to share your appreciation for each other? Take a moment to think about the ways you enjoy being acknowledged in the relationship. How do you like to communicate your appreciation for your partner? Gratitude has been shown to be a powerfully protective factor in fostering resiliency for personal wellness (Seligman, 2004). It also has a strong positive impact on relationships.

 

Gratitude works in our favor by cultivating an atmosphere of appreciation and fondness; a haze of positive energy that influences the way that we see our partner and our relationship. This emotionally positive perspective – or positive sentiment override – can help us to be gracious in the assessment of our partner’s behavior (Gottman & Silver, 2015). Rather than their sharp comment being a result of a mean-spirited and petty personality, we might be more inclined to attribute the comment to the stress of the moment. Conversely, if we do not create an atmosphere of appreciation for our partner, we can slip into what’s called negative sentiment override (Gottman & Silver, 2013). In this frame of mind, we focus on every irritating thing our partner does and magnify it. Forget the good things they’re doing – we can’t even perceive it! If it is brought to our attention, we’re more likely to write off the good things as exceptions, or worse, as manipulations with ulterior motives. Gratitude and appreciation in your relationship is a powerful tool for boosting resiliency and fostering intimacy in a relationship. Consider becoming a “gratitude detective” during this time. What small things might you notice your partner doing that keep things afloat or contribute to the home and relationship? It can be a deeply moving thing to have someone tell you, “I see the way you do so much to keep us going, and it means the world to me.”

   

Acknowledge the pandemic-sized elephant in the room

   

Part of acknowledging the significance of our current situation means accepting that things will be imperfect and messy. The house may not be as clean as usual, the kids may watch more tv than you like, you may not be as productive at work as your boss would like, the list goes on. One of the ways that we can help our relationship is by mutually agreeing to ease up on expectations for the things that can afford to be so. If you and your partner can decide to make time for exploring each other’s inner worlds, have kind conversations about hard topics, and honor each other’s needs, it can become a lot easier to accept the messiness of life that will be a reality for the time being.

 

Managing the stress of our current global crisis (just that statement gave me anxiety) is not an easy thing, and none of us are going to go through it perfectly. If we weren’t imperfect, however, we wouldn’t be human. There are some magnificent beacons of human goodness to be witnessed in all that is going on; some of it, a meaningful amount of it, might just be found in your living room. As a big ole asterisk on this article, these tips are simply that – tips. Your situation might have some complicating factors (some of which I hope to write on in the near future) or you might feel like you need more information to help get guidance. Please be comfortable reaching out to a couples counselor for help if you feel like you need it. Sometimes getting that outside feedback can be very useful in bringing home (pun very much intended) some of these concepts, and there’s more that can be offered to your relationship.

 

For additional reading if you’re interested, I recommend the following:

The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work – Dr. Jon Gottman & Nan Silver

8 Dates: Essential Conversations for a Lifetime of Love – Dr. Jon Gottman, Dr. Julie Schwartz Gottman, Doug Abrams, & Rachel Carlton Abrams

Take Back Your Marriage (2nd Edition) Bill doherty

 

References:

 

Doherty, W. J. (2013). Take back your marriage (2nd ed.). New York, NY: Guilford Press.

Gottman, J. M. & Silver, N. (2013). What makes love last? How to build trust and avoid betrayal: Secrets from the love lab. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster Paperbacks.

Gottman, J. M. & Silver, N. (2015). The seven principles for making marriage work: A practical guide from the country’s foremost relationship expert. New York, NY: Harmony Books.

Johnson, S. (2013). Love sense: The revolutionary new science of romantic relationships. New York, NY: Little, Brown Spark.

Seligman, M. E. P. (2004). Authentic happiness: Using the new positive psychology to realize your potential for lasting fulfillment. New York, NY: Atria Paperback.