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April 18, 2020
Of the many ways the coronavirus pandemic has changed our lives, one of the most impactful might be the way it has changed relationships. Around the world, millions of couples who have led largely separate lives during the workday suddenly find themselves quarantined at home. They are stuck together all day, every day, with no end in sight.
This newfound togetherness “can raise your stress sky high,” said McLean Hospital psychiatrist Jacqueline Olds, MD. Olds said that the stressors caused by the COVID-19 crisis are compounded by the adjustments couples must make when forced to shelter indefinitely at home.
“You might be worried if you’re going to make it economically, if you’re going to lose your savings, or how you’re going to take care of your children at home,” she said. “And you may take it out on the only person who is around—your partner.”
Olds and her husband, Richard S. Schwartz, MD, also a psychiatrist at McLean, have written extensively on issues facing couples. They believe that partners can effectively deal with the pressures brought on by the pandemic by being vigilant, open, and willing to ask for help. They also believe that there might be a “silver lining” in the quarantine—if couples know where to look.
“When people are scared and angry and there is only one other person around, that can be dangerous,” said Schwartz. “There is a tendency to get more controlling with a partner.” To deal with this situation, Olds recommended that individuals “take their emotional pulse every now and then.”
Schwartz suggested a tried-and-true approach to diffusing anger and stress: counting to ten. “If you think you’re about to say something unfair or nasty to your partner, you can just count to ten and let it pass,” he said. “It works.”
Confinement in close quarters can spur anger and frustration in the best of times. Forced quarantining during the coronavirus crisis has made this problem worse—and harder to deal with.
“The central strategy for dealing with yourself when you’re angry or feeling stress is to take a break, to create some time and space between you and your partner,” Schwartz said.
Schwartz said that “couples should think carefully when they are confined together about how to physically or mentally create space as part of the ordinary rhythm of the day.” For example, couples working from home could work in separate rooms. Also, individuals can designate times during the day when they want to be alone or not spoken to.
The coronavirus pandemic is causing stress, anxiety, and depression among individuals and couples who have never faced a mental health issue. For these people, reaching out for help is a new and daunting problem.
“Obviously, these are difficult times for people who are looking for a mental health provider for the first time,” Schwartz said. However, he reported, there are many online platforms that can connect patients with providers.
“One of the things that has been impressive and sudden is the way that mental health services have been transformed into something that is being done almost entirely remotely,” he stated. Platforms for online sessions, including virtual couples therapy, are growing. Also, clinicians are learning that remote counseling sessions are effective. “I think most people are finding that working with patients remotely goes pretty well, and it’s not all that different,” he said.
Olds said that platforms for online counseling could expand and improve mental health. “People may feel that it’s less trouble to not physically go to an office. It’s convenient, and they’re not spending time commuting,” she said. “It could bring more services to more people.”
Despite the struggles facing many couples during the pandemic, Olds said that some are thriving. “The couples that are doing well are the ones who are adept at looking at the positive and finding the silver lining,” she said.
These couples “see this as a staycation or a second honeymoon,” she stated. Olds said that spending more time together means that couples can “take the things that they like to do together and do more of them, like taking walks.” These times can also be relaxing for some couples, she said. “There’s no pressure to make plans or get out of the house.”
Moreover, Olds stated, “Staying together at home allows for a lot more experimentation than regular life does.” She said that quarantining “allows partners to try new parts of domestic life than they haven’t done before—the non-cook can do more cooking, the person who does most of the cooking can do more of something else. It’s like a giant pause where you can experiment.”