There is a lot of advice being thrown at us right now. The message is to socially distance ourselves from others, create space between you and other human beings, hunker down at home with your family and stay away from others. But what if it’s your partner you want to socially distance yourself from? What do you do then?
With some studies showing that on average there are around 65,604 divorces finalised each month in the United States alone, chances are that if you were contemplating separating from your partner before any lockdown or social distancing came into play, you are not alone.
Everyone has different struggles with the lockdown and isolation, but self-isolation with a partner that you have been struggling with is incredibly hard. If you are in the process of separation or thinking about separation being together 24/7 can seem intolerable, being alone in your relationship but crowded in your space can feel unmanageable.
Taking time to work out your realities and what options you have is a first step. Do you have an alternative place to stay? Is it feasible for you or your partner to leave your shared home now? If your situation is one of domestic abuse, there are resources out there which take into account that reaching out to help is more difficult where your partner may be monitoring your communications closely. No advice will l completely alleviate the tension and stress completely but there are some tips to help you make it through the best that you can.
Despite the fact that the situation may crystallise feelings of wanting to divorce or separate, making decisions whilst in social isolation can be confusing. If possible, it is best not to make any huge decisions whilst you are in isolation. Dr. Yossi Shafer, Ph.D. Clinical Psychologist, Director of Empower Health Center has been advising his clients who are contemplating divorce to “focus on survival and not necessarily on their relationship or their long-term plan of getting a divorce.” Deciding to separate is a big step and as options for physically separating are limited whilst the status quo continues, it may be wise to wait until the situation stabilises. If the decision making can be deferred, you will allow yourself some physical and emotional space to think your choice through.
Emotions will be running high and with few others to talk to in person you may want to discuss the prospect of separation with your partner. However, Dr Levitz, Psychologist, and Founding Dean of the Family Institute of Neve Jerusalem explains that “couples in the process of separating, and who are now in isolation together, should avoid engaging in discussion of sensitive topics that could lead to emotional escalation.” Whilst it seems natural to want to discuss separation with your partner, if you can avoid having that conversation, avoid it. Having a conversation about separation with your partner can leave you both angry and frustrated with nowhere to place your emotions and not much space to retreat to. The risks of the conversation turning into a fight are too high. This is particularly true if children are involved as there is little space for them to escape the argument. Writing down your feelings and processes through this time can help release some of the tension. Alternatively, if you can retreat to a quiet place with your computer there are therapists who will see clients online who may be able to help.
If you have decided that a separation is absolutely what you want, use this time to plan solo. Think about the future and how you envisage it. Try to obtain a clear picture of your expenses, (despite everyone’s financial situations being up in the air, still aim to get a handle on what assets and debts you have right now, even though these might change). Attempt to imagine what co-parenting would look like and who would live where. All this information will make you better prepared for when you do need to have the discussion about separation.
Although we are socially distanced, keeping in contact with people through the internet and phone is important so as not to feel completely isolated. Social contact can be the grounding you need and widens out your world as you hear about other people’s lives and problems. Many might be surfing online to dating websites and chatting online, if you are doing this, have in mind that your partner (and/or your children) could see this while you are chatting or in your history and this could cause hurt and a rise in tensions.
In terms of dialling back the tension of being together physically there are some options depending on the size of your living accommodation. Having a private zone in the house would be helpful. It could be a spare bedroom, garage or a study so that each partner has their own private space that they can retreat to when it is all becoming too much. If your living space does not accommodate having a private zone it may be a good idea to set up specific times to monopolise the living area. If one of you is more of a night owl then a morning person, they might want the living area late into the evening and the other partner may want to do their Pilates in the living area in the morning. It doesn’t mean that every hour of the day is allocated perhaps just a couple of hours each day, but it allows each partner a time when you know that the space is theirs.
Living together constantly creates mess, with household chores being the 3rd reason why couples fight (after finances and leisure time) having a set up where the household chores which includes childcare and cooking are split clearly can avoid raising the levels of tension. Having an open discussion about who is prepared to take on which chores makes each take responsibility for what they sign up for. Being detailed about what each chore involves and sticking it on the fridge also serves as a visual reminder of what has been agreed to.
In addition to a list of responsibilities, having a set and limited time each day to discuss issues which arise can afford an outlet to vent irritations. As Ruth Saperstein, a couples’ therapist points out, “good communication can make most arguments productive”. At the outset of the conversation it is a good idea for each person to outline the issues they want to raise. Ruth also recommends having a time limit for the discussion as she says this “can create focus and stop the conversation from spiralling to other issues”.
Although it sounds annoying it can help to use a talking stick during these discussions. A talking stick can be any item that you want to use. The idea is that whoever is holding it speaks and the other waits until their turn to hold the item. This can stop a whole back and forth conversation which does not allow for one person to express their full point of view. The Dalai Lama is quoted as “When you talk, you are only repeating what you already know. But if you listen, you may learn something new.” Real listening to your partner will cool the temperature of your argument.
For some, this period will be a time of surprising reconciliation as the forced time together changes the dynamics. Dr Shafer explained that one person who had filed for divorce prior to the virus hitting, retracted, stating how “the downtime, bonding through fear and hardship, and taking a break from day to day stresses helped me see my spouse (for the first time) as loving, caring, interesting, and as a good person.”
Sometimes it feels like Pandora’s box has opened and all the bad annoying habits about your partner have flown out, but as all the negativity is flowing, remembering that there were attributes that drew you together in the first place can divert some of the damaging energy, and as always with a Pandora’s box at the bottom there is always a saviour. In this instance it just might be kindness to each other to help you get through this with the knowledge that in time this too will pass.