Couple and marriage advice from a therapist: How to cope with the pandemic and come out stronger
The time of quarantine and home offices have been a double-edged sword for most of us. There are the cushy benefits that we reap from it, like a later alarm preset and the extra wad of cash from skipping out on gyms, vacations, and other social activities. Then, there are the deeper perils like stressors with coping with kids and bosses simultaneously, Zoom fatigue, anxiety of being alone, domestic abuse, and marital and relationship problems. Of course there are success stories — let's not discount it, but it's safe to say that the quarantine has been an off-kilter challenge for most couples living under the same roof.
To gain more insight and also golden nuggets of advice on how couples can stay together — and hopefully come out stronger — in the midst of a pandemic, we speak to Maria Micha, clinical mental health counsellor, corporate trainer and hypnotherapist.
Why do you think divorce cases and even domestic abuses have been cited to be on the rise during the time in quarantine?
Couples who rely on external factors and activities to stay balanced end up with broken relationships when they are unable to carry out these activities. Due to the pandemic, these couples do not have a proper channel to release their anxiety and frustrations by meeting other people, dreaming about vacations, visiting family and friends in other countries etc. Such activities are often used as crutches for couples who do not have a functional, supportive and strong relationship. The absence of this crutch results in partners turning on one another as they have not built a support system together.
if anger is part of the process and one of the ingredients of the relationship, that can also lead to violence. Angry individuals tend to carry a lot of pain in their heart and are often victims of victims. I advise people who live with abusive individuals to seek the help that they need, by either helping their partner to seek treatment or to possibly dissolve the relationship.
'Absence makes the heart grow fonder' — should we subscribe to this belief? With minimal time apart, is that the reason why couples have been splitting up?
Yes, there is a belief that distance and time apart makes the heart grow fonder, but this is based on idealisation. When couples don't see each other, they start to forget all the challenges they face and only connect with the positive. This is a human response that allows people to forgive and forget.
Couples have a supportive and loving relationship when they resolve difficulties and face challenges together and choose to focus on what is real. When a relationship is based on distance and time apart, it is not a real relationship. This distance prevents them from focusing on the difficulties of the relationship and their behaviour, and the limited period of time spent with one another distracts them from what is painful or what is functional because they miss one another. This is not a good way to create the life that we want in a relationship that makes us happy.
What are some tips to navigating and keeping a relationship healthy and happy during this period of the pandemic?
Couples that dream and have fun together, stay together. I advise couples to use this time constructively and bring themselves closer to the reality that they desire. Allow yourselves to dream big. The bigger the dream, the more you will internalise it as your destiny. When you dream about something you feel strongly and positively about, it is like a movie that you are playing in your head and you are creating a vision of a future you want with your partner. Your brain is unable to distinguish whether it is an experience created out of your thoughts or if it is really happening to you, making you feel and behave differently. Without realising it, you will soon wake up to the future you have envisioned.
Couples should also use this time to understand each other and iron out any difficulties in the relationship. Listen to your partner with an open heart. When you feel defensive while listening, take a few deep breaths and release the fear. Everyone wants to be heard and to be validated.
For anyone already going through a rocky relationship, what's a piece of advice for them? What should they do and what should they not do?
For people who are going through a rocky relationship, it would be important to first communicate with your partner, and ask them: What do they want? What is important to them? What is difficult for them? What is painful for them? Try to listen with an open heart. The moment you get defensive, you will not be able to listen, and your partner will not feel listened to. Although it is difficult and sometimes scary, open your heart and be ready to accept one another's grievances. Listen to what is good, and functional about the relationship. What is bringing joy to your relationship? From there, you can add some introspection by visiting a mental health counselor and/or meditating to understand what you want
I also urge couples to open up and allow themselves to see their blind spots. What could they do differently to contribute to the relationship? Shifting your behaviour without blaming one another can help to transform the relationship. Good relationships are hard work and from my counselling experience, even with multiple challenges, couples who intend to stay with one another and work things out without blaming one another emerge stronger. I would encourage you to do the same. You can transform your difficult relationship.
Can a pandemic actually be beneficial for a couple's relationship? Why/how so?
Definitely. A pandemic can be a catalyst that helps a couple to understand their blind spots and realise the difficult sides of their relationship that they were completely unaware of.
I have worked with couples who have had to be with one another all the time to raise their kids and care for their parents, resulting in them feeling trapped. Through counselling sessions, they could realise the challenges, fears and anger that they carried in their hearts and their subconscious, and by working through these challenging emotions, they transformed the way they feel, think and behave.
We live in a very fast changing society, and we are a lot more affluent than we used to be fifty years ago. The result of affluent societies is that when something is broken, we tend to toss it out and we go to the next thing. Yet there is so much contentment, joy and love in repairing. We need to learn how to repair a relationship. Some people have a history of dropping out of relationships that were difficult or challenging to them. They might end up with a lifetime of this unless they stop, take a deep breath, and decide to mend their relationship and understand what could have been done differently to trigger a different response from the partner.