“And stand together yet not too near together:
For the pillars of the temple stand apart,
And the oak tree and the cypress grow not in each other’s shadow.”
- Kahlil Gibran
For many people across the globe under a Covid-19 lockdown, the words of Lebanese-American poet Kahlil Gibran highlight only part of the story. For our own sake and that of others, we are all being enjoined to stay apart. Paradoxically, at home, in lockdown, we are at the same time, close.
While some of my clients have relished the chance to spend time in contemplation, as Gibran may have indicated above, others have mourned with words indicating being ‘in the doldrums,’ ‘deflated’, ‘scared’, ‘crowded’, ‘bored,’ ‘unsure’, ‘teary’ or just plain ‘flat.’
But relationships are delicate. And like anything in a system, they break down. I sometimes use the analogy of Two Wheels or Spinning. Are they in sync? Are they attuned to each other? Do they connect enough to meet the needs of the whole? And if so, how have they become misaligned? Clunky. Abrasive even.
The range of stressors of this pandemic are not to be underestimated. And we are all touched significantly, either directly or through people we know. Our mental health is at stake here.
The research is clear around what bothers people. We are easily troubled by change; we dislike uncertainty; we need to feel safe and secure; we need something to do; a sense of future; postponements of dreams. And we like hugs.
Of course, we are wired for attachment’. We get this. But under the current settings, how do we ‘do’ this, when we are so confined? Maybe this speaks to much of the essence of relationships: the skills and strategies we bring from the first relationship we witnessed … that of our own parents and those of our partners.
In my work as a therapist, I am continually humbled. From day to day, I see that we all (myself included) have blind-spots. And in relationships that have lost their way, these blind spots are often the things that, with another, may lead us to believe that our relationship is on the rocks. In fact this may not be the case. It may simply be that some tweaking needs to be done. Perhaps the gears are a bit worn, or we’ve developed some bad habits. Or maybe we never read the manual. And so, we may need to put the car in for a service.
Covid 19 has thrown us all a curve-ball. It has, for many, opened up pre-existing faultlines in our coupledom. Closeness means many things, but generally implies a couple’s unique chemistry, which is optimised by an intentional alchemy or dance between factors such as proximity, emotion and communication, the latter of which may include our words, mannerisms and physicality.
Doing relationships is a delicate process; one which may have (for some) evolved over years of coupledom, or may never have been explicitly discussed, in what I call ‘those tricky conversations’.
John Gottman https://www.gottman.com/blog/the-four-horsemen-recognizing-criticism-contempt-defensiveness-and-stonewalling/ the internationally acclaimed relationship researcher opines that there are pitfalls that we can avoid, among them criticism, contempt, stone-walling and defensiveness.
Others have suggested the need for certain protocols, for example, accepted procedures for doing arguments or fights, such as in the well-documented fair-fighting rules.
Most couples face challenges and resolve them over time, to varying degrees of satisfaction. For other couples, sometimes it is a change in circumstances – read Covid 19 – that directs a spotlight onto what would otherwise be unnoticed, dormant.
So, here are a few common areas of difficulty in which couples can struggle, and some hints which, gladly, indicate that things may be improved over time:
This is the most common of all complaints I see with couples. Conversations either aren’t had. Or they are predictably difficult, especially when certain issues are lit up. Avoidance can make things worse over time. Yet difficult emotions make such vocalisation difficult. As John Gottman indicates, couples develop patterns or climates of relating, such as criticism, contempt, stone-walling and defensiveness. These Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, Gottman suggests, are the greatest of all Trojan Horses in relationships. For example, stating how we feel about something, is usually preferable to criticism. This is an art that for many of us needs to be learned and practised.
When expectations are mis-aligned, something is missing. The wheels grate, and frustration and resentment can build. Expectations around some aspects of a relationship may never have been discussed. They have not been made explicit, in line with our needs.
Often when growing up, we learned little of what we truly need, let alone ways of asking for them to be met. Again, stating how we feel, when something is missing; without being critical, but with the aim of developing a mutuality rewarding conversation is challenging. Here the couple (again) needs to be able to communicate; sometimes, at least at the beginning, with the help of a mediator.
Proximity & Attachment:
The big challenge under lockdown is that often one party in a couple needs to feel close; needing more reassurance than the other. The other may be more inclined to disengagement: distant or unwilling to talk things through. This dynamic can result in hurt, anger and feelings of anxiety or depression. It seems intractable. And yet this is common for many couples.
Negotiation again is often the key. Accepting difference and the validity of each other’s needs. We are all different, and this includes our attachment style. As Kahlil Gibran intimates, we need to allow togetherness and distance. A difficult assignment during lockdown.
When feeling stressed, anxious or down, we may either withdraw or seek comfort from our partners. Being emotionally close relates to the ability (or indeed the willingness) to share, or listen. Our sense of closeness or connection and sometimes safety depends on how we do emotional intimacy. What is too much or to little, is something the couple needs to agree upon.
Communicating needs is important. Compromise is as well, for the good of the other: “Thou”. It is easy, when tired, stressed or irritable, to be dismissive, or overbearing. Some need that little bit of time-out, while others need closeness. It helps to know where we sit on this continuum, as individuals and as a couple.
Physical touch and sexual desire:
Most people want or need touch – to some degree. Sex – its form, frequency and even timing – is frequently raised in sessions as a sticking point, something that frequently lies beneath and is unspoken. Sometimes it is a cause of problems in the relationship, and for others it is a symptom.
Some regard sex as a need, while others have little or no interest. This is about how we connect. However, it needs respectful and accepting discussion, at a time and place when both parties can express safely their deepest needs, one way or another.
Maintaining the spark:
Boredom is an oft-stated ailment under lockdown. Attraction was the cornerstone of our relationships. “It was her voice, his kindness, the way we had fun; played; made love!” We become complacent. Disconnect. The willingness to make the effort fades or is withheld. Often it is because we have become busy wrapped up in the needs of work or the children. We begin to miss something and forget how to do it.
Care is needed to maintain the best parts of ourselves and the relationship. Sure, we get older. Gravity sets in. But we need to find ways to ignite interest in each other. Again, indicating what we feel – ‘I’m a bit sad. I think we lost something here. Can we work on this, over time?
We all need hope. Especially in the current era. Maybe put candles on the table. Run a bath. Sit and listen to some music you both enjoyed. Make a date. Here? Where else!
Seeking support isn’t failure.
Relationships are often very complicated. They can be mind-bogglingly confusing. Often this is because we can’t see the wood for the trees. We just can’t get those difficult conversations started. Seeking support isn’t about failure. Its about growth. After all, if I need a mechanic for my car, I ring one. It’s no different for a relationship.
At the least, have a chat to a friend. Don’t be alone. Share the load.
Psychologists are trained to provide a safe space where the difficult conversations can be had. They help us find the words for what may be happening and highlight some of the patterns that the relationship has inadvertently fallen into. It may be a leap of faith, but good couples counselling can save a lifetime of grief.
Richard Weld-Blundell is a Psychologist with Psychology Melbourne
Photo by Everton Vila on Unsplash.com