Lockdown is lifting yet many of us will still be working and schooling from home for several weeks. In China, following lockdown easing, several lawyers have reported a significant spike in divorce proceedings. At the end of the second world war there was a comparable increase in divorce rates when injured and traumatised husbands returned to their wives who had become used to independent living. The similarity is striking: dramatic lifestyle changes weigh heavily on relationships and often family members move beyond the point at which they can readjust back to ‘normal’ living together.
I work as a systemic psychotherapist. This means that I view relationships as a key source of emotional wellbeing. Tell me how your relationships are going, and I can tell you about the state of your mental health. Since lockdown, everybody’s relationships have taken twists and turns. Living and working in close proximity with other family members places disproportionate emphasis on relational interactions. Yet I have met many families who have worked hard to make the best of this time together. So how can we ensure that the letters COVID will not spell the beginnings of the word DIVORCE? Here are 5 tips to enhance relationships so that they continue to thrive beyond lockdown.
(1) Start Talking Differently
Now that we have minimal extra-curricular activities, we may expect novel topics of conversations to dry up. However, this is an opportune time to explore different ways of talking. Emotional literacy is something that facilitates both individual mental health as well as relational closeness. Have occasional conversations about the different types of emotions that family members are feeling at this time. Use a variety of feeling-words and support each other to think more deeply about the reasons behind theirs and others’ behaviour. As lockdown eases try to focus some conversations towards how we might feel during this next stage. It may feel clunky or awkward at first but if you persevere it can enhance well-being and communication.
(2) Expect to Mess Up
As restrictions are gradually lifted none of us know exactly what to expect. We are all trying to give the government a wide berth for what can only be a trial and error approach. With relationships and mental health too, when encountering new situations, we often have to figure out what doesn’t work before realising what does. Be compassionate about the inevitable hit and miss process – both for yourself as well as for those around you. As my colleague used to say- tell yourself that you and your relatives have to make at least five relationship blunders a day. And then expect to make a few more. Any less is a lucky bonus.
(3) Allow for Pessimism and Optimism
No one wants to be around a kvetch, but at the same time many of us have lots to kvetch about. Yes, life is difficult, and loss is painful. Yes, we are also lucky for what we have. It is important as a family to allow space for both those voices to be heard and not to dismiss either perspective.
(4) Build on Others’ Strengths
Uncertainty and minimal social interaction have knocked many people’s self-esteem. Use of praise is important to build family members’ self-confidence but only in moderation. Unwarranted or excessive praise often damages a person’s self-assurance and relationship trust. Use praise sparingly and descriptively and then broaden it out into a general character trait. If your teenager voluntarily offers to do the dishes and then (gasp) does a thorough job of it, the praise should not be “That’s amazing, thanks”. Rather, “I appreciate you offering to do the dishes, it was really thoughtful of you”. This is more focused, deserved and bolsters their sense of self as a thoughtful human being. The impact of these messages cannot be underestimated in a context of constant flux.
(5) Do Not Stop Verbalising Your Needs
With constant familial intimacy, we all need our space. The trick is to become aware and verbalise your needs and expectations before frustration and resentment starts to creep in. No matter how long you have been together your partner should not be expected to read your mind. Verbalise your needs before they become acute. Relationship expert Esther Perel advises that the family member who asks for space should also be the one who actively pursues closeness again when they feel that they are ready. So, communicate early, clearly and respectfully and be proactive about wanting closeness when the time comes.
Finally, in these crazy days I recall the words of Rebbetzin Yocheved Goldberg who told me: “Do not judge your relationships by the Coronavirus”. Hold back from making any hard and fast conclusions about your relationships based on this unnatural context. Give yourselves and those around you the gift of time. As a society we will have a lot of pieces to pick up once this pandemic blows over. When it comes to divorce rates and relationship break down, let’s all do what we can to avoid a second peak.