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.