Dr. Paul on dealing with too much togetherness in COVID times

After six months of quarantine, couples need to address the marital challenges they have been putting off.

Our global pandemic has resulted in terrible loneliness for some adults and way too much togetherness for others. With schools closed and legions of office employees working from home, families are glued together day in and day out.

Add a dollop of nowhere to go, and we have a recipe for cranky children and grouchy adults. Even couples who get along famously, on a non-pandemic day, can get snarky during our forced homestay.

My wife, Diane, and I, in love for 47 years, bump into each other a little more than we’d like. Diane, a writer and a psychologist, has always worked from her home office. But I commuted to my Everett office and traveled regularly on business. Not anymore.

I toddle upstairs to my home office, buckle in, and see patients and attend meetings remotely. But I come downstairs often, getting coffee and snacks. We interrupt each other, without meaning to, far more often than we’d like. It’s not always comfy and cozy in our house. And, it’s just us.

But what about couples who have had long-standing problems? In the beginning of the pandemic, many of those duos signed a truce, putting their problems on the back burner. But now, after six months of quarantine, those challenges are on the front burner, simmering — if not boiling over. Add the stress of closed schools, financial strain and potential challenges with aging parents, and you have the ingredients for marital misery.

It’s serious. One survey, conducted by the National Domestic Violence Hotline, found that there was a significant increase in calls during March this year compared to a similar period in 2019.

Joe and Mary were having pre-COVID conflicts that they couldn’t resolve. Mary liked to shop online, and Joe thought that she was spending too much money on stuff they didn’t need. Now COVID life has shot Mary’s internet shopping bill through the roof. Joe and Mary are often at each other’s throats.

Amber was often annoyed at Bill’s procrastination about housework. Now, with everyone home 24/7, their house needs more attention than ever. Amber feels resentful that she is doing most of the housework.

So how can couples better handle the sustained pressure of the pandemic?

Acknowledge problems. While putting conflict on the back burner seemed like a good strategy when the pandemic first began, it doesn’t work so well as time wears on. Sit down, when you’re not angry with each other, and have a heart-to-heart about what’s going on. Identify the problems that are bothering each of you.

Share with each other. How are you being impacted by the pandemic? How is the stress affecting you? How are you coping? What help do you need from your partner? What can you do to cope better?

Limit alcohol use. At the end of March, alcohol retailers saw a 55% increase in off-premises alcohol sales. Alcohol, when added to a conflict, can be like throwing gasoline on a fire. Alcohol abuse can fuel domestic violence. It can make everything worse.

Establish a plan. Mary and Joe decided to establish a budget for online shopping — it wasn’t perfect for either one, but they were able to negotiate a compromise. Bill and Amber came up with a chore chart that they could both agree on. Take on a problem (not all of them) and work toward a compromise. Start with the easiest one to address.

Get help. Tele-mental health sessions are available for couples. Ask your primary care provider for a recommendation. Many companies have Employee Assistance Plans that have low-cost options for help. Don’t wait for a crisis to occur.

Paul Schoenfeld is a clinical psychologist at The Everett Clinic. His Family Talk blog can be found at www.everettclinic.com/family-talk-blog.

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