Handling Relational Stress During Social Distancing

posted by Bethel Care & Compassion | May 11, 2020

Guest post by Melissa Parnell


In the current environment of social distancing, isolation, working from home, and distance education couples are spending more time together than ever before. When my husband, Jonathan, and I first learned of these guidelines, I was secretly excited. I dreamed of slow mornings, coffee and devotions together in the quiet stillness of our clean and organized home. I dreamed of reading books together, laughing together, taking our two girls on bike rides, exercising more often, and developing a deeper bond through this pandemic.

Although we did experience many of these things, after several weeks I began noticing that both myself and Jonathan were feeling more irritable toward each other. We were quicker to see flaws and it was easier to become annoyed or frustrated when realizing that someone neglected to prepare coffee or wash the towels. In this world of chaos, everyone is under stress. We are concerned about vulnerable populations, the economy, and our families. First of all, we all have free access to take our concerns before the Lord. He desires our hearts!  Matthew 11:28 encourages, “come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest”. Accessing God’s promises through prayer is important for all believers to stay centered on God. However, even the most faithful still experience stress. Tri Cities, WA counselor, Jenny Tegrotenhuis made the statement recently that “when under stress, we regress”, and one of the first places we may feel this is in our most important relationships.

We are all likely experiencing some level of regression in relationships during COVID-19. So what can we do to combat this? How can we turn the tide in our marriages so we come out of social distancing with a healthy connection to our spouse? Three relational strategies are helpful to keep in mind:

Avoid The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse
The Gottman Institute discovered that there are four main indicators to determine relational collapse and coined the name the Four Horsemen in reference to the end of times as depicted in the book of Revelation. These are Criticism, Contempt, Stonewalling and Defensiveness. Ok. Here’s the bad news. We all have used one or more of these behaviors with the ones we love the most. These are the elements that tear down emotional connectedness and friendship. The good news is that each of these holds an antidote to move toward to reconnect and move back into closeness with your spouse! Instead of criticism, consider a gentle start up when communicating a concern using “I” statements. When feeling contempt, try building a culture of appreciation, remembering there are things you really like about your spouse. Instead of moving to defensiveness, take responsibility for what you can, and in stonewalling, take time to self soothe and re-enter the conversation when you feel you have the capacity.

Practice Building Love Maps
Love maps are a cognitive way that we can learn more about our spouse. We use the term “love maps” to describe learning about our spouses thoughts, shaping experiences, and opinions. We want to understand our spouse’s map better than an overview of where the main highways are. We want to learn about their drives, avenues, cul de sacs, gravel back roads and that one back alleyway around the block. To help assist this process, we use a Love Maps game to support growth and a fun opportunity to learn about our partner. You can find some of these questions here.

Offer Compassion and Empathy
We are in unprecedented times. This is absolutely the time to look at ourselves, recognize our human condition, renew our gratitude for the Gospel and Jesus’ gift of salvation…and notice our spouse going through similar stressors. When we fail, we can learn and grow. We can choose to make a repair, choose to see the world through our spouse’s lens. We can choose to offer empathy and compassion instead of irritation or distancing. I love how this was portrayed by Jesus in John 13:34 “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another”. The most loving thing we can offer in this stressful time is compassion and empathy.

Join us on Wednesday, May 13th from 7-8p for an online workshop with Melissa Parnell highlighting how to handle marriage stress with practical insights and tips. Register online.

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