Over the last few months, since the emergence of COVID19, I have often thought that ‘Love in a Time of Cholera’, the title of the book by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, has been a fitting description of the focus of my work with clients.

Many alterations in the therapy, unexpected and unforeseen, happened suddenly in March as a result of lockdown. A significant change was, of course, the abrupt cessation of face-to-face sessions and the switch to working online. Alongside my clients I have had to try to process and adapt to the impact this has had on the work. Some clients decided not to continue and it is sad that there was no time for a proper goodbye and ending. Those clients are often in my thoughts and I hope they are managing well.

With the clients who made the switch, it has been noticeable that the topics we now explore have varied in nature and focus. Some issues now seem less urgent while others have come to the foreground. Some clients worry that, locked at home together in an intense way due to the government regulations, they may not have a sustainable relationship at all when restrictions are eased. There is concern that a seeming intolerance of one another, an increase in irritability, frightening flare-ups and arguments, has exposed a fatal flaw which had not been revealed or acknowledged before. A once robust relationship can now feel fragile and uncertain.

However, it has been important to recognise that relationships in a time of a global pandemic have a unique and complex set of stresses and strains. I have a library of books written on couple dynamics but there is no hand-book on how to deal with the disruption caused by COVID19.

Therapy these days often means spending time acknowledging a couple’s state of heightened anxiety and finding appropriate ways to contain, soothe and calm the fear.

There are feelings of grief and loss to process as we were separated from loved ones, plans and expectations crumbled, and the life that was anticipated was overturned. Not to trivialise the hurt and upset, but the sketch by Michael McIntyre perfectly expresses how we were totally unprepared for a life remodelled.

We have had to pivot at speed and adjust to a ‘new normal’.

So the therapy has often included investigating ways of accommodating the feelings of loss of control and enforced transitions, and exploring ways of nourishing couple resilience. There is no one-size-fits-all solution.

I suggest that, at an individual level, each partner needs to constantly check in on their own emotional states

  • How am I feeling?
  • Why am I feeling that?
  • What provoked that feeling?
  • What was the trigger and what meaning do I bring to it?
  • What do I need to manage the feeling?

Otherwise, so often, distress can be projected onto a partner and result in an atmosphere of tension, criticism and acrimony. The trajectory from – dishes left in the sink – to you are selfish and self-centred – to you do not care about me – to our relationship is broken – can be lightning fast and needs unpicking. The couple are arguing about dirty cups when it is the insecurity and uncertainty sitting at a deep level that is really disturbing them. Visualising an emotional iceberg (where nine-tenths remains hidden and unseen below the surface) can be useful, click here to see a blog from The Gottman Institue for further reading. We need to identify the underlying anxiety in order to find the appropriate reassurance.

This can be even harder when there is a generalised anxiety in society. We get a daily report of illness and death. We are told of a floating virus that is microscopic and yet can be deadly. We have retreated into our homes as places of safety and yet, at times, that sense of a safe haven is shaken by an apparent rupture in the relationship. Or it can be disturbed by each partner having a different perception of ‘danger’. There can be different standards of hygiene or handwashing. Differences on whether to wear a mask or not. Whether to send the children to school or not. What to do when one needs to compulsively follow news bulletins while the other needs to tune out?

At the beginning of the year most couples would have spent a number of hours apart during the day. Overnight that became a 24/7 intense togetherness. There can be problems with managing ‘alone time’, ‘couple time’, ‘family time’, and ‘work time’. Routines have been disrupted with work Zoom meetings, scheduled at odd hours, that compete with child care and home-schooling. And excessive time shut away in the home office, or given to screens and social media, can create feelings of abandonment and disconnection. Taking time out to cool off after an argument is harder when we cannot go to the pub or pop in to see a friend. A new flexibility and adaptability is required. How do we help each other roll with the challenges?

Some couples have seen a slump in their sexual relationship and feel that is another acute loss. They have found it difficult to find an energy and erotic charge when they have been so distracted and overwhelmed during the day and are often frazzled and exhausted at night.

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs can be a useful starting point for a discussion as to how each feels deprived. And competitiveness and resentment can fester . It needs nipping in the bud with mutual acts of conciliation and repair. Compassion, generosity, acceptance are the order of the day to balance out negativity. These are hard times and we are all struggling!

I prescribe:

1. Active self-care in order to access our gentler, softer, more forgiving parts and be less defensive.

2. There are many wonderful mindfulness apps and website.

3. Practice visualisation: remember a time you felt connected to nature (floating in a warm sea, lying on the grass looking up at the clouds, digging your hands in soil to plant, feeling the rain on your face…) Go outside for a mindful walk and connect with your senses. Concentrate intensely on what you can hear, see, smell, touch. Take in the minutiae then pull out and look at the grand scale.

4. Active listening when in conversation with one another to create a deeper connection. Remember an 80:20 ratio of listening to speaking. Show curiosity and interest. We all long to feel special, understood, and accepted.

5. Move. Play music. Dance. Exercise. Be silly. Laugh at something funny.

6. Try your hand at something creative: painting, cooking, crafts, gardening.

As Eckhart Tolle says in his book ‘The Power of NOW’, we need a conscious awareness of, and conscious engagement and absorption in, the present moment. Now, more than ever.

My mantra at the moment: Stay in the present. It’s one day at a time.

Kathy Rees