- Counseling & Mental Health
By Robyn Bloom, Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist at JFCS
Sheltering in place during a pandemic presents a particular—and in many cases brand new—set of challenges for couples. I am guessing you have had moments of anxiety, stress, joy, challenges, losses, silver linings, disappointments, and a myriad of other experiences. Any small differences in your relationship may feel amplified, and you may be struggling in new ways or re-visiting perpetual problems.
As a therapist who works with all types of couples, my advice right now is this: it has never been more important for you to deepen your understanding of one another and to ask: what is your partner’s inner experience? What is on their mind and in their heart?
Set aside time to have an intentional conversation with your partner. Commit to being open and curious, and try to discover something new about each other. Remember to always avoid the behaviors outlined in psychologist John Gottman’s Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse—criticism, contempt, defensiveness and stonewalling—but especially during this intentional conversation.
Schedule the time, set the stage and enjoy the conversation. Here are four steps to guide you through:
- Come into the present moment. The study of Interpersonal Neurobiology explains scientifically that our natural triggers can be calmed and new experiences can happen in relationships IF we can stay present during our interactions. I suggest you set the stage for a positive connection by starting with a mindfulness exercise of some deep breathing.Start by taking three deep, slow breaths—in through the nose and out through the mouth—and committing to each other that you will do your best to be patient. Sit across from your partner and look into their eyes, noting how you feel even after taking three long deep breaths together. If at any time during the conversation you notice tension rising in your body, set up an agreement that you will pause and re-set with another round of breaths before continuing.
- Express gratitude and appreciation. Let your partner know all the ways you have been grateful for them during this time and what has been meaningful. Share specifics about moments you have shared, how they have been supportive, new ways they are pitching in, or how they are a positive presence in your life. Celebrate any accomplishments, large or small, that you have noticed. The simple act of acknowledgment, and naming what is good, goes a long way towards increasing positive sentiment. Listen wholeheartedly to your partner and don’t interrupt. Thank your partner when they are done.
- Deepen your understanding of your partner’s inner world. The next part of the conversation is to go deeper into understanding one other’s unique experience of this time. Each of you responds to stress differently and your concerns will be different as well. But remember, no judging or problem solving yet, not during this conversation. As your partner talks, find ways to identify with your partner’s experience. Listen for ways you can walk in their shoes. You may have very different personal experiences of the same situation, and your job now is to understand your partner’s unique perspective. As you listen, welcome your partner’s concerns and don’t try to fix them—instead, think of listening as an opportunity to get to know your partner better. Once your partner has finished sharing, simply respond with “thank you for sharing with me.”
- Then take turns again.
My hope for you is that you will emerge from this time better than ever as a couple. Taking the time to share, appreciate, and understand each other will strengthen your bond and continue to build your partnership.
If you find yourselves stuck in a perpetual and seemingly unresolvable conflict, arguing more, or avoiding spending time together, please consider calling for some support. JFCS’ skilled couples therapists can work with you from the safety of your own home, offer teletherapy sessions and help you navigate any current challenges you are having. There are specific principles and tools we can apply to boost our “relational immune system,” such that our relationships become more resilient—better able to withstand and bounce back from stress.
Robyn Bloom, LMFT, is a therapist at Jewish Family and Children’s Services. Her areas of expertise include treatment for adults, couples and families who are experiencing a variety of challenges including anxiety, depression, trauma, life transitions, financial challenges, separation, divorce, parenting and co-parenting, loss and grief. Certified in premarital counseling, Robyn helps couples build resilient relationships.