‘The events in our lives are transformative and yet, in the moment of experiencing them, we do not know in which ways they will be transformative. It is unknown.’ (Viktor E. Frankl)
We know that complying with the ever-changing restriction rules, and managing the concomitant changes in the pattern of our lives, adds to a general anxiety about Covid-19 and its effects on us and the ones we love. Uncertainty about what the future holds, even in the immediate short-term, takes a toll on us personally, and on couple and family relationships. Our usual support networks have been strained and we have had to rely heavily on online platforms to keep in touch. Locked in our homes and localities we have suffered separation from friends and families and we have had to be adaptable and resourceful to keep the links strong. We cannot interact with colleagues face-to-face and have had to adjust to online office meetings. Key workers interacting with the public if they are in hospitals, schools, shops, police, have an acute stress and worry about safety. The reality of illness and death from the virus has been present in our communities and there have been many losses. The grief has been overwhelming in some cases. We are not allowed to attend funerals. Weddings and celebrations have been cancelled. Plans and holidays have had last minute changes and postponements. Jobs have been lost and there is insecurity about employment and finances.
When we are living in the midst of a life-changing event an added stress is the struggle to understand, assess, and analyse its impact, particularly when it is one that has struck out of the blue.
Dr Pauline Boss (University of Minnesota) has developed a theory she calls ‘Ambiguous Loss’. When the context of life as we knew it has changed, there can be feelings of confusion and it is hard to make sense of the new reality. It can mean loss and grief cannot find a context, cannot be fully understood and cannot be fully processed. Feelings can become frozen like a fly in amber; there is tension, the lump of anxiety in the chest, the sensation that it is hard to breathe. There has been an unsettling and sudden loss of direction making it difficult to re-orientate, keep motivated, and keep moving.
In many ways it is unrealistic to seek control over the situations in which we now find ourselves, and yet this loss of control can leave us angry. A couple may need discussion on how roles may now be different from before. They may need a shared declared intention to maintain a spirit of compassion, generosity, give-and-take, good will. Even if tasks, routines and schedules have altered, it may need reiterating that their couple values remain the same. The heart of their relationship has not been transformed even if its outward expression seems unfamiliar.
All change involves a transition from one state to another and that can be disconcerting when it is not of our choosing. Yet, while this pandemic has been something of a roller-coaster, extraordinary depths of resilience have been revealed. The couples I see in therapy, while shouldering the stresses of job uncertainty, home-schooling, financial pressures, have also been able to appreciate some unexpected positive side-effects.
I have clients who have reflected that one advantage to the change in life-style is that they are now sharing much more time together. Couples, who no longer have to spend hours commuting, have sat down to breakfast together. They may have to work late at night, but they can now take a bike ride together in the afternoon. When the demands of home-schooling are at an end the family has escaped to the park to play silly games. There has been laughter as well as stress.
Having time to talk and reflect has been particularly appreciated. It has led to discussions about needs, dreams, hopes and the possibility of choosing a different focus, taking a different direction: moving out of London perhaps, or staying but changing life/work balance. Redundancy, while devastating, may offer an opportunity to change career, to learn a new skill, to study. But spending time turning to one another, chatting, listening, connecting, has been significant too. Feeling more of a team ‘in this together’ has led to a strengthening of their bond.
In May, a special Covid-19 survey of parental relationships was taken by the national household study ‘Understanding Society’. Harry Benson (Research Director of Marriage foundation) and Professor Steve Mckay (University of Lincoln) have now analysed the findings and their recent report has revealed that, during lockdown, ‘20% of parent relationships improved, 70% stayed the same, and 10% worsened’.
So what of those couples who are struggling? There are those who believe that the present distress is all that there is and find it difficult to have belief in a lighter future. Some people have encountered other profound traumas in their lives and times like these can trigger and reinforce a deeply held sense of helplessness.
There are those in a painfully distressing relationship full of misunderstandings, blame, disappointment or anger where the relationship feels cloaked in a dark cloud of pessimism. These people feel stuck, locked, facing a binary choice: stay in the present acute unhappiness or separate and at least find relief from the tension and discord. A sunny ‘things can be better’ is met with cynicism.
In the counselling room I try to work with hope – a realistic hope that does not mean a denial of reality. The choice to start couple counselling in itself represents a hope. It allows for the possibility of change. Irvin Yalom says ‘it lies between where we are and where we want to go’. Significantly, by making the appointment, the couple have prioritised what is, maybe, a fragile and vulnerable relationship but they have come together to explore the possibility of change. It is a move from absolute states of optimism or pessimism to opening the door to the unknown. Uncertainty rejects both false hope and paralysing despair. The couple are, crucially, joining forces and together finding out what can happen. Solnit emphasises that ‘hope is only a beginning, not a substitute for action’. It is the basis of the commitment to take the necessary action that will create change. Creating a safe space that allows for a couple to lower their defensives and reach out to one another can be a reassuring lifeline and help them regain their agency and choice.
It is not easy to switch to different behaviour patterns and ways of relating. Change is rarely straightforward and both need to trust the other is equally invested in the work. I strongly advocate ‘active listening’ with my clients. They need to re-experience their partner’s focus, curiosity, interest, and the wish to understand. ‘Attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity’ (Simone Weil). It is powerfully present at the beginning of a relationship and builds the belief that we are loved and special. It is what helps create the safety of the ‘couple bubble’.
As we draw to the end of 2020, with none of us knowing what the future holds, finding the resilience to bear uncertainty is more important than ever. We now, more than ever, need the support systems that encourage us to keep going, not to stop.
Solnit uses the analogy of rowing. To move forward smoothly, sitting alongside one another in the fragile boat, the rowers work together in rhythm, synchronising their strokes – and facing back the way they have come!