‘We’re On A Break. We Just Can’t Communicate’. Is Your Relationship At Risk In A Covid World? PART TWO

It’s been a rough old road for everyone, single or coupled. But what happens when your relationship’s final straw comes during a pandemic and a national lockdown? Alice O’Connell investigates.

Jo* and Paul, are currently ‘on a break’, uncertain of their future after a less than harmonious lockdown experience. 

“It wasn’t just one thing,” tells Jo, “It was little things, I think. It’s weird, but I think we couldn’t talk to each properly.”

Despite being together for more than a decade, the harsh realities of lockdown pushed them into a situation they’d never really been in before, and exposed differences in the way they communicate. “We’d been through some hard stuff in the past, but never all at once like that,” said Jo.

They both had to reapply for their roles – thankfully they both kept their employment in the end, but for about three weeks, there was constant uncertainty.

“I cried a lot and yelled, but Paul went really quiet. I had so much anger about it all, which he didn’t get. He said he didn’t want to talk and ‘rehash’ the situation over and over again. I wanted reassurance, but he said we needed to look at things objectively. It was very sterile. We were just on opposite planets.”

Jo says it’s been hard to reconcile and they’re taking a break for a month, then will see where their relationship is at. “I haven’t been able to get rid of that anger. I feel like he just doesn’t understand me.”

Steven Dromgol, the Director at Relate – who provide relationship and marriage counselling – wasn’t surprised by this couple’s story and is seeing many couples going through similar communication issues. This dynamic is one that is common in his day-to-day work with couples, but he’s certainly seen an increase during lockdown.

He says it’s a good example of what “stress markers” look like in a relationship, and it all comes back to that “baby brain” idea, discussed in Part One of our series (read it here).

“Effectively, when we feel overwhelmed, we’re very much in our younger brain, so either that baby brain, that is non-verbal, or we are in the child brain which is the one that develops between two and eight.”

“So that baby brain, that six-month-old, you leave it alone and it is going to cry and protest, which is where we revert. Then, if you imagine our emotional brain in those child years, it’s when, we sulk, we throw a tantrum and we expect our parents to read our minds!”

Steven draws a comparison as to how this “child brain” plays out when we’re adults. “Imagine someone comes home and says, ‘Oh my God! I can’t believe they did that to George Floyd! What is wrong with the world??’ Well, what they really want is their partner to read their mind, which is to know they’re feeling upset and overwhelmed, and come forward and go, ‘Hey babe, it’s going to be okay, I’m here. I love you.’ and give them that non-verbal reassurance through the tone of their voice, their physical touch, their gaze, and their presence.”

But, says Steven, their partner, who might be dealing with their own stress might have more of an avoider response, rather than a pursuer. “Their response is they’re likely to think ‘Oh my God, I’m so overwhelmed. I’m trying to hold everything together. It’s all on me. I’m mostly alone.’ They’re trying to cope by suppressing their feelings down. It’s a very common response in men.”

“So instead they’ll say something like. ‘I don’t care about George Floyd, I’ve got enough problems of my own without taking on someone else’s too! People are just overreacting!’ And that’s when people start having a fight that’s totally unrelated to what they’re both actually struggling or dealing with.”

Unravelling Your Differences

Understanding those differences, and what you each need in those moments, can be revolutionary for relationships.

Steven looks to the work by American researcher John M. Gottman. “His claim to fame is that he can watch a couple talk for 15 minutes and then predict with a 90% accuracy as to whether they’ll divorce in the next five years!”

Steven explains that Gottman identified four behaviours that happen in nearly every single fight – and these can be used to predict divorce or happiness, based on how often they occur. They are criticism, defensiveness, contempt and stonewalling.

“So,” says Steven, “if you can identify which of those behaviours you do, then in a fight, all you need to do is interrupt those. The minute you catch yourself doing them, you stop – there’s an antidote for each – and that will basically stop the escalation of the fight.

It’s simple information like that research that Steven says most couples need – often more so that counselling. “For most, it’s actually just information they need! But further down the track, most of the couples who come to see us have spent years in distress. In most cases, people wait about six years before turning to counselling – it’s one of the reasons why couple’s counselling sometimes is not as affective, and one of the reasons why it needs very specialist training – we’ve got couples who’ve literally tried everything and it’s kind of like the last step out the door.”

It’s why Steven put together the online course to give base information that can help every couple, before problems escalate. It’s the stuff he tells just about every couple who come in for counselling – and who often respond by saying, “Why didn’t someone tell me this before I got into a relationship? Or before we got married?!”

Open The Window

One last piece of advice Steven can impart, is the importance of “connection windows” during the day.

Basically, these are five times during the day when what you do has a bigger emotional impact than other times. They are: When you wake up, when you go to sleep, when you leave, when you arrive and when you share food.

“The ways that we connect during those times, if you do good, you get triple bonus points, but if you don’t do good you lose triple bonus points,” says Steven.

Steven has some advice two of those key times: waking up, and when you arrive.

“In the morning when you wake up, the first thing you should do – before you reach for your phone! – you roll over, snuggle up to your partner and give them a kiss or whisper some sweet nothings. So, they’ll wake up in that sense thinking ‘I’m not alone, I’m safe, I’m wanted’ – all of that good stuff. Even if you wake up a lot earlier than your partner and they don’t wake up for that, their body will receive it and they’ll start the day in a better way.”

“The other one – when you come home from work – the first thing you should do, before the kids, before the dog, you find your partner. Look them in the eye, give them a big hug and hold them close.”

For more information on the ‘Love in a Time of Covid’ Online Relationship course, or for services by Relate Relationship Counselling, visit relate.kiwi.nz

*Name changed to protect privacy

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