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Yep, we’re all fighting with our partners right now

Solidarity. But also—here's how to help make it better.

Yep, we’re all fighting with our partners right now

It was day five of coronavirus quarantine when it finally happened in our house. It was not yet 9 am and I told my husband we needed to talk.

"Do you want some advice?" I asked him aggressively.

"No," he responded declaratively.

And then I proceeded to give him advice on how to better deal with the pressures we're under both working from home, while managing four kids and surviving the stress of coronavirus.

If your marriage is like mine (and anecdotally, lots of couples seem to be in the same boat), your relationship may suddenly be under new kinds of pressure, and right about now lots of our partnerships may feel like they're bending under the strain. It feels like we weren't prepared for our marriages to get tested on so little notice, and with such high stakes.

If it feels like your marriage might not survive coronavirus, you are not alone. Experts say marital strife isn't just common—it's to be expected during times of extreme turmoil, like the one we're facing.

Here's why we're all suddenly fighting with our partners, and what we can actually do about it.

Fear + anxiety

Relationship expert Dr. John Gottman uses the term 'flooding' to describe what happens to our brains during high anxiety situations when the body's physiological systems make it nearly impossible for our prefrontal cortexes, the part of our brains responsible for complex problem solving, to function.

The threat of coronavirus is particularly unnerving because it represents so much more than just one danger—our physical health, financial security, employment situations, and childcare coverage are all changing and/or are newly at risk.

If fears around coronavirus are triggering your anxiety, it's likely spilling over into how you relate to your spouse or partner. "Fear is a huge contributor to our conflict, explains Dr. Tracy Dalgleish, a clinical psychologist and couples therapist. "When we feel fear, our nervous systems kick into overdrive—which activates the fight, flight, or flee response. In this state, it is hard to be able to speak with our partners in an accessible, responsive, or engaged manner."

"In this state of fear, we tend to act from an emotional place—from a place of reacting—rather than from a connected and conscious place—from a place of responding," Dr. Dalgleish adds.

In an article at Gottman.com, experts explain the 'emotional hijacking' of flooding as "the hallmark of our nervous system in overdrive."

"When we react in the grip of emotional flooding, we do and say the kind of things that are likely to trigger emotional flooding in our partner," the experts at Gottman explain. "And then both people in the room are out of control."

Too much change, too quickly

"Increased fighting may in part be due to the disruption of our routines, the loss of engagement in meaningful activity (like work, seeing friends, going to the gym), and difficult feelings that come with this, like uncertainty, fear, and worry," notes Dr. Dalgleish.

It feels like whiplash to remember that just two weeks ago, my husband and I were planning a carefree summer vacation with our family. And now we're not even sure how to get through the work week or keep our kids educated, while also ensuring our extended and elderly family members are as safe as possible. The economic impact? It's mind-boggling to think about. For us, it feels like it's just too much to take in.

Zach Brittle is a Certified Gottman Therapist and the co-host of Marriage Therapy Radio, and he says we cannot understate how dramatic a turn of events the coronavirus pandemic has been—and how significant that impact is on our most intimate relationships. "This really is unprecedented. It's not unlike 9/11," he notes.

Brittle anticipates coronavirus and its fallout as a new 'before and after' in all our lives and recognizes that couples are navigating this shocking new reality together in real time. "You had an expectation of how life was supposed to go and you had the expectation subverted and you had no control over it. It creates anxiety, uncertainty and imbalance. We naturally go to places that are easiest for us—anger, depression, fear. We naturally do that because we are off balance. And now we're all off balance," Brittle says.

Others note that we don't have access to typical outlets for our stress, like going to the gym, getting together with friends, or getting out for a walk. "With decreased distraction, social connection, and engagement in things we find meaningful, we are more likely to get into conflict, Dr. Dalgleish notes.

Out of space

We get married or partner up because we want to build a life together, but if you're feeling turned off by the constant presence of your partner, experts want you to know that is absolutely normal.

Prominent relationship guru Esther Perel, in her bestselling book Mating In Captivity describes the central paradox of relationships as the push and pull of wanting to be together, and an ongoing need for separation. "Love rests on two pillars: surrender and autonomy. Our need for togetherness exists alongside our need for separateness. One does not exist without the other," Perel writes in her famous book.

Perel goes on:

"But too much merging eradicates the separateness of two distinct individuals. Then there is nothing more to transcend, no bridge to walk on, no one to visit on the other side, no other internal world to enter. When people become fused—when two become one—connection can no longer happen. There is no one to connect with. Thus separateness is a precondition for connection: this is the essential paradox of intimacy and sex."

It's why distance makes the heart grow fonder, or you feel particularly enamored with your partner when they're away on a business trip.

And now, overnight, many of us are experiencing more togetherness than our relationships can handle.

It's normal to crave more space from our partners—particularly when forced confinement came on so suddenly and without any other option. So if you feel like running out the front door without looking back, know that it can be a totally normal impulse to have.

The load of motherhood + fatherhood

The worry and dramatic change in routine for families is playing out for many couples with renewed conflict over how to manage parenthood and work. Who's in charge of making sure the kids get their school work done when everyone is suddenly an at-home parent? What about the laundry, the bills, the meals, the cleaning—all the work colloquially known as "the mental load of motherhood?"

For many mamas in our community, coronavirus has brought them to a breaking point.

"[My husband's] feels like nothing is going to change for him and I feel like my world is falling apart," Motherly's senior news editor Heather Marcoux wrote this week.

For women who often find themselves as the 'default' parent—doing all the physical and mental work of parenthood with no recognition or support, the resentment is rising. The majority of mothers with children under 18 work full time, so the pressure to parent while breadwinning is overwhelming and confusing during a mandatory quarantine.

And for some men, who even in 2020 typically out-earn their female spouses and partners once they become parents, the economic threat of coronavirus and a recession is a massive stress of its own. Hearing that they should 'stop working and make dinner' when the threat of looming unemployment is so real seems like a pressure cooker all its own.

What to do

If you're feeling the very real threat of coronavirus on your marriage or partnership, take a deep, cleansing breath. We're all under enormous stress, so the very first step is recognizing just how daunting our lives have become. Deep breathing helps calm down our nervous systems and move us from flight or fight mode to more deliberate thinking, relating and responding mode.

And once we're each recognized the pressure we're under as individuals we can begin to acknowledge the pressure our partners are also feeling.

Brittle then suggests couples see this moment as "an invitation" to transform their relationships for the better. Ask yourself, "Is this an excuse to enable engrained behavior or an obstacle to overcome? Which one are you going to choose? Choose it as an obstacle to overcome, together."

In fact, Dr. Dalgleish says "when we experience hardship together, couples can have a strengthened bond."

Dr. Dalgleish, who offers online relationship workshops for women says, "it takes daily work and commitment to each other. This is not about the big things— it is about the little things moment to moment. Treat your partner like your best friend. Have compassion and respect for them."

For those in marriages or partnerships where this experience is nothing but stress—we see you, too. Brittle suggests prioritizing self-care above all else and finding a therapist or village online. "You gotta do you and take care of yourself," he explains.

In This Article

    Ara Katz/Seed

    We spoke to Ara Katz, co-founder and co-CEO of Seed, who shared her journey to (and through) motherhood—and gave us the lowdown on how probiotics can benefit mamas and children alike.

    Chances are, you're aware that probiotics can help us digest the food we eat, keep inflammation at bay, synthesize essential vitamins and more. But here's the thing: When it comes to probiotics, there's a lot of misinformation… and because of that, it's hard to know what's actually a probiotic and which is the right one for you.

    That's why we chatted with Ara Katz, who is a mama to son Pax and the co-founder of Seed, a company disrupting the probiotics industry. The entrepreneur told us about her motherhood journey, what led her to start her company and what she wants other parents to know about probiotics.

    Q. What was life like for you before you became a mama?

    I was bi-coastal after co-founding a mobile tech company in New York City with a partner in LA. My life was, for as long as I can remember, consumed by creating and work. I was fairly nomadic, loved to travel, spent many hours reading and practicing yoga, being with friends [and] waking up at the crack of dawn. [I] was fairly sure I would never marry or have children. And then something shifted.

    Q. What were some pivotal moments that defined your journey to motherhood?

    Ha, that makes it sound like motherhood is a destination when at this very moment, more than ever, it evolves daily. I lost my mom when I was 17 and spent most of my life believing I didn't want to be a mother. I had a lot of wiring about its limitations and constraints—I'm sure relics of grief and the fear of loss.

    My journey started with a physiological wanting to be pregnant and have a baby. There was a kind of visceral sense that my body wanted to know what that was like and a strange curiosity that, at least for that period of time, usurped my ambivalence about motherhood.

    Then I had a miscarriage—a beautiful inflection point in my story. I resigned from my company, chose a coast, committed to be more committed to my (then) boyfriend, now husband, and tried again. I got pregnant shortly after that and found pregnancy to be a profound journey within, a reshaping of my life and the tiniest glimpse of how motherhood would unfold.

    In the 55 months since giving birth (and I like to use months because I have learned in the moments that I am most frustrated as a mom that he has only been on this planet for less than 14 fiscal quarters), I have realized and surrendered to a definition of motherhood that is a process. One of cultivating, creating, recreating, shapeshifting, learning, feeling, healing, hurting and experiencing the most potent form of presence I have ever experienced—and an aching, expansive love I didn't know possible—not just for my son, but for all living things.

    Q. How did motherhood change your approach to your career?

    Becoming a mother is certainly a persistent lens on all of my choices, but it was really my miscarriage that recalibrated my path. My pregnancy rekindled my love of biology and health and led me to my co-founder and the microbiome. My breastfeeding experience incepted our first product focus, and the newfound accountability for a human inspired our brand.

    Q. What inspired you to co-found Seed?

    I met my co-founder, Raja, during my pregnancy with Pax. [I] was immediately awestruck by his ability to both deeply understand science and to methodically break down a product, dietary question or piece of advice in a way that's educational (you actually learn something about your body), actionable (you understand what to do with the information) and foundational (you can build on that knowledge in the future to continue to make better choices).

    As we spent more time, our combined passion for microbes, their potential impact on both human health and the environment, and how to set up a child for a healthy life became increasingly clear. And through birth, seeding (the process by which we get our foundational microbes and the inspiration for the name of our company) Pax and my struggles with breastfeeding, my entrepreneurial spirit was lit to build something with Raja. His deep experience in translating science to product, and mine in consumer, community-building and translating through storytelling, culminated in a shared vision to set a new standard in health through bacteria.

    Q. Probiotics have been trending in recent years, but they're nothing new—can you talk a bit about the importance of probiotics?

    Interest in gut health and probiotics increases month by month. However, despite the quickly growing number of "probiotic" supplements, foods and beverages out there, there's still a lot of consumer confusion—particularly around what they are, how they work and why we should take them. Probiotics have been studied extensively across various life stages, body sites and for many benefits. Digestion is an obvious and immediate one (and the primary reason most people currently take probiotics). But other strains have also been studied for skin health, heart health and gut health (including gut immune function and gut barrier integrity). But this doesn't mean that any and all probiotics can do these things—this is the importance of 'strain specificity.' In other words, ensuring that the specific strains in your probiotic have been studied for the benefit you desire is critical.

    Seed Daily Synbiotic

    Seed

    Seed's Daily Synbiotic is a 24-strain probiotic + prebiotic formulated for whole-body benefits, including gut, skin and heart health.


    Q. How do probiotics play a role in your life?

    I mean, I take them, I develop them and I work with some of the leading scientists from around the world advancing the field—so they play a big role. As for my personal health, I take our Daily Synbiotic daily and my son also takes specific strains for gastrointestinal health and gut immune function. Beyond that, it's the re-orientation around my microbiome that guides many of my choices: how important fiber is, specific compounds like polyphenols found in berries, green tea and other foods, avoiding the use of NSAIDS like ibuprofen and antibiotics when not needed, exercise, sleep and time in nature [are] all aspects of our daily life that impact our microbiome and our health.

    Q. What are some misconceptions about probiotics that you would like to set straight?

    There's one main myth on from which all the other stem: that probiotics aren't considered a serious science. On the contrary, it's a field of inquiry that demands incredible rigor and extensive research. And when anything and everything from chocolate to ice cream to fermented food and kombucha to mattresses can call itself "probiotic" due to underregulation in the category, that grossly undermines the science and their potential.

    The term 'probiotic' has a globally-accepted scientific definition that was actually co-authored by our Chief Scientist, Dr. Gregor Reid ,for the United Nations/World Health Organization.

    At Seed, we work to reclaim the term for science, through the development of next-generation probiotics that include clinically validated strains and undergo the most rigorous safety, purity and efficacy testing procedures. Because why would you invite billions of unknown microbes into your body without asking "what's in here, is it the correct dosage that was studied, and has that strain in that amount been studied in human clinical trials to do something beneficial for my body"?

    Q. Can you tell us a little bit about what product you plan to launch next?

    We are developing a pipeline of consumer probiotics to target specific ecosystems of the body and life stages, including a synbiotic for children. Our next product will reflect a unique breakthrough in the field of pediatric probiotics, which we are excited to announce soon.

    This article was sponsored by Seed. Thank you for supporting the brands that support Motherly and mamas.

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