Following on for general Covid-Relationships article that I wrote last week, that explored some general relationship fundamentals to be considered in light of the lockdown situation and the additional stress that this is likely to be placing on us and those around us, this is the first of a four part series of articles that will take a specific look at four different relationship dynamics namely; Couples; Parent-Child; Professional; and your relationship with yourself, and some important considerations to bear in mind, and how the lockdown may “make or break” our relationships.
Childhood Experiences shape our perceptions
Perceptions of what adult relationships are like are shaped by the movies we watch the books we read, the stories we listen to, as well as the relationships we witness growing up. The exposure we have to adult relationships is likely to have one of four broad impacts on our perceptions and expectations of what relationships will be like, generally speaking.
We experience what is perceived to be an idealistic adult relationship between our primary carers (parents most likely). Our experience, and what they allow us to see leads us to internalise the belief that relationships are pretty easy, simple and perfect (if you find the right person). Relationships seem to be like fairy tales because we only ever see the good side of things. Very often in these situations, when the ‘bad’ parts of a relationship begin to surface, they get explained away, or our brains become trained to overlook certain things to hold onto the ideal in our minds. These individuals are likely to become preoccupied with the ideal relationship that lacks a sense of reality, creating difficulties for further partners.
If the relationship(s) that we witness from our primary carers is in stark contrast (or at least parts of the relationships are) to what we have heard, believe or expect of our own relationships in the future, it is likely that we may feel very strongly about holding onto our ideal version of relationships and so creates mechanisms to “avoid” or “defend” themselves from the negative relationship or aspects of the relationships. These defences become so deeply entrenched in our relationship ‘blueprint’ that we don’t even realise how the same defences and avoidance tactics that we adopted as a child still play a daily factor in our own relationships. Here, when a hint of what they experienced as a child begins to feature in their current adult relationships, the defences kick in and the ‘blind’, unintentional impact on the relationship can be significant.
If one were to be exposed to toxic and dysfunctional relationships, had very few opportunities to witness or experience positive relationships, and sadly becomes drawn into these negative relationships, we begin to see the perceptions and expectations of future relationships becoming tainted by their primary experiences. If a child is forced to take on unwarranted responsibility for a parent, and if required to grow up far quicker than they should, the innocence and idealistic expectations of the future can slowly begin to fade. Fast-forward and we are likely to see an adult who struggles to let people get close, and constantly (often inadvertently) seeks similar partners to their own experiences growing up. This is often a recipe for disaster.
Growing up in a family where we experience a healthy relationship between our primary carers that allows us to witness a more realistic sense of relationships, in that laugher, fun, affection and love are balanced with disagreements, conflict and challenging times. The healthy manner in which these are handled allow a child to understand that if things get tough it is ok and manageable. That honesty, effective communication and trust are essential for healthy relationships. These experiences are likely to contribute to an increased sense of self-worth and self-confidence which in turn are significant factors in positive and healthy adult relationships.
Couples during Covid
So what do our childhood experiences have to do with our current relationships during lockdown? Well, the reality is that the lockdown period is going to place a significant amount of additional stress on your relationship. What many people don’t realise is that our relationships are the ‘safe space” where we are able to vent, offload and deal with the world, and relationships are able to weather these ‘offloads’ due to the manner in which relationships seek to maintain a sense of balance, kind of like an mini ecosystem. So, let us consider the 6 fundamentals discussed in the first article, specifically in relation to your relationship with your partner.
Having our own routines disrupted has meant that we as individuals have had to adapt. We have had to find new and sometimes innovative ways to achieve personal goals and maintain our sense of self, such as home gym programs and video calls with friends and family. How has our relationship been affected during the lockdown,and what has changed?
Many of us may think that not much has changed, as I have heard many couples say things like “we are used to spending a lot of time together, so not much has changed’. The reality is that everything has changed. Whether you spent all your time together per-lockdown or not, you made your own decisions about who you spent your time with. Now, however, you don’t necessarily have a choice and the novelty of having your person with you all the time can soon wear off. Hence the need for new, or different EFFORT. We need to put a new type of effort in that is unique to your relationship that will help you both adjust to the situation. This can include things like date nights at home, doing housework together, or even just making a cup of tea.
“Relationships are able to last because of balance. If relationships are unable to balance out, they will not last”.
An important consideration for all couples is how did we maintain balance before this all happened, and what do we need to do to make the necessary adjustments? just assuming that you’ll be ok because you feel you’ve managed pretty well before will not be enough to preempt or avoid the storms that may be brewing. Things are different now, and so your balance needs to be different. Effective communication will play a critical role here to help identify concerns, discuss them and agree on a new plan moving forward.
“We each have different needs when it comes to our mental, emotional and physical space”.
Very similar to the ‘balance’ discussed above, the same logic applies to our (and our partners) space requirements. Consider how you managed before, and why this was necessary? This will help you to better understand your needs so that you can determine what some suitable alternatives might be.
For example, if being able to go for a run after work was a means of clearing your head before fully engaging with your partner (because you needed that personal time to decompress from the stress of the day before switching into partner mode), finding a healthy “lockdown” alternative will be essential. Again, communication is critical to help your partner understand your needs and to communicate their needs.
“Routines in relationships often help to maintain the balance that holds them steady”.
The lockdown has forced us to change our routines in many (or all) aspects of our lives. It is important to consider how our old routines have been disrupted, what this means for us and how we actually feel about this. It is also important for us to consider what routines have we consciously or unconsciously replaced them with? Are these healthy and sustainable routines, or are they potentially disrupting other aspects of your relationship?
Our relationships should be a space of comfort for both you and your partner (if not we need to have a different conversation). With disruption affecting all the aspects of our relationship as discussed above, are we able to still feel safe and ‘comfortable’ with each other? Being able to address the considerations above should help maintain this ‘comfort zone’. If you feel a change here, it may be a good indicator that some attention is needed.
Considering that we are all human, and no relationship is completely bulletproof, this lockdown may be the factor that contributes to this. It is very likely that the lockdown will not be the “reason” for a break in a relationship, but it may create a situation in which the negative or toxic and unresolved issue in your relationship comes to a head. How these are dealt with will then determine whether this is the breaking point of your relationship, or a turning point.
Bear in mind, that just because your relationship may be taking some strain at the moment, it does not mean that you are coming to your breaking point. Ensure that there is open, honest and ongoing communication that allows you and your partner to voice concerns and discuss issues. How we communicate is a key factor here, and we need to remember that everyone has a unique communication style. Work with each other, not again each other. The Love Languages by Gary Chapman is a great resource to use, or click here for an article that discusses expectations.
You have a few options during this lockdown period with regard to our relationships.
We let the ‘lockdown’ negatively impact our relationship as we just try to manage things. Here the lockdown is “in control”.
We try to continue as “normal” and pretend that nothing needs to change. Here, we try to ignore the need for change and adjustments as it’s easier to just carry on as normal for now.
Or, we embrace the opportunity that is presented to us to review our relationship and make positive changes that will benefit us beyond the Covid-19 situation. Here, we maintain our own control as we remain proactive and positive with the “when life throws you lemons” cliche playing in the back of your mind.