7 Tips for Resolving Relationship Conflict, Improving Communication, and Preventing Separation During COVID-19

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Remember when you couldn’t wait to see your partner after a long day at the office?

Or when all week you looked forward to “date night” or to the one special day you’d spend quality time together?

Remember when one of the silver linings of the devastation of COVID-19 and quarantine was extra quality time with your partner?

For many, those thoughts feel like distant memories and that silver lining is starting to feel more like salt in the wound. If just the sound of your partner’s chewing is starting to feel like a personal insult, you might be a couple in quarantine. 

But know you’re not alone. Many couples are experiencing more frequent arguments and even thoughts of separation or divorce as stay-at-home orders enter their third month.

By now, some couples are having trouble remembering why they chose their partner in the first place and are having difficulty imagining spending the next month, let alone the rest of their lives, with each other.

While separation is sometimes the right decision for couples, the midst of a global pandemic may not be the right time to make life-changing decisions.

1. Communication:

Conflict in a domestic relationship is completely normal–especially when you are under stay-at-home orders.

The heart of healthy conflict involves each partner recognizing and expressing their needs and feeling heard and understood by their partner, in order to reach resolutions and meet each other’s needs.  Unfortunately, many of us were never taught how to effectively recognize and communicate our needs. 

You might find yourself entering an argument knowing exactly how it will end. It’s become a dance and you know all the moves. You might find yourself easily losing sight of whatever issue came up and find yourself focusing on winning the argument. 

But if there’s a winner, then there’s a loser. And in relationships, if one partner loses, then the relationship loses.

Fortunately, there are tips you can begin implementing immediately to help break the cycle of your arguments:

Practice active listening.

This is a skill-set that involves fully attending to the speaker in an attempt to understand their message without judgment or bias. It includes paying attention to the speaker – to their words and their nonverbal communication – and not your own thoughts. Paraphrasing is an important component of active listening.

Try using sentence starters like “What I heard you say is…” or “So you’re saying that…” It can be helpful to ask your partner if your paraphrase was correct and if there’s more to it.  Practicing active listening slows you down and helps you understand your partner’s perspective. By no means does this mean that you are always in agreement with your partner. Rather, it is about understanding their perspective and letting your partner feel truly heard and understood without being dismissed or judged.

It’s about remaining curious about your partner is feeling and experiencing and trying to truly understand their thought process and the emotions and needs they’re addressing.

Use “I statements.”

Making your statements about your own feelings and beliefs decreases the likelihood that your partner will be put on the defense.

Try this assertive communication sentence frame:

“When (specific behavior and context), I feel (specific emotional state) because (your need or value; what you tell yourself about what causes the emotion). What I would like is (specific request).”

Assertiveness involves valuing and respecting yourself equal to your partner. It’s about communicating your needs without the intention to hurt or cause harm. Aggression, on the other hand, is the behavioral expression of anger and is often intended to hurt others either physically or emotionally. If you notice yourself feeling angry, ask yourself what need is not being met, and then practice assertive communication to make your need known.

Remember, you only ever know what you’re feeling and thinking.

You can’t assume you know what your partner is thinking or feeling. And likewise, you cannot expect your partner to read your mind. Setting expectations for our partners without a mutual understanding often leads to frustration and conflict for both partners. 

Stay present-focused.

You might be tempted to bring up past grievances. This is sometimes more likely to happen when we think we are “losing” an argument and it’s generally not productive to resolve the current conflict. 

Notice and try to stay away from words like always and never.

 They are likely an exaggeration and tend to lead to defensiveness. There are typically exceptions, so sentences that include these words are usually inaccurate.

Ask for clarification if you need it.

This sounds like, “I’m having trouble understanding… Can you tell me more about that?”

Try not to interrupt your partner and practice taking turns speaking.

If needed, use some sort of “talking stick.” It may seem silly, but you’d be surprised how well it works! If you find you or your partner tends to hog the mic, you can try using a timer. 

Take responsibility and apologize when necessary.

Most disagreements have accountability on both sides. Verbalize what you can take responsibility for and the role you played in the fight. Offer a genuine apology when necessary. You can apologize for hurtful behavior without agreeing with your partner’s perspective in the disagreement. Remember, you’re on the same team. 

Be open, non-judgmental, and respectful towards your partner.

Avoid name-calling or character assaults. It’s important to remember that we all respond to situations differently and that sharing feelings and thoughts often puts us in a vulnerable state.  This is something that many individuals are not used to doing and it can feel uncomfortable and scary. Try and notice if you are quick to respond reactively with judgment or criticism.  Practice respect for your partner by being open and flexible and using active listening skills. 

2. Emotional Regulation:

Uncertainty often results in feeling anxious and overwhelmed.

You might notice that you’re more on edge than you were before the pandemic.  Small annoyances of the past might feel hard to handle right now. You might find yourself getting more easily bothered by things that used to roll off your shoulders (like your partner’s positioning of the dishes in the dishwasher).

Remember, you and your partner’s emotional responses during the pandemic are valid. These are unprecedented times and anxieties and tensions are high; just the acknowledgment that we all may be running on a short fuse may increase understanding between partners. Many of us are experiencing additional stress around finances, unemployment, and lack of child care.

While your emotions are valid, it’s not helpful to take them out on your spouse, and doing so is not likely to make you feel any more relaxed. Here are some tips for emotional regulation, or using strategies to help moderate your emotions  (think of a thermostat for your emotions):

Practice recognizing and labeling your emotions.

Do you recognize when you’re feeling anxious, depressed, or angry? How does your body feel? Our Clinical Director, Dr. Jolie Silva offers a self-awareness mindfulness exercise that can help you recognize and identify your emotional experience. 

When you notice yourself feeling anxious or angry, relaxation strategies can help you physically and emotionally relax.

Dr. Jolie Silva also has a quick training on a Paced Respiration, an exercise which involves training yourself to breathe slowly and deeply. 

Pay attention to the thoughts that occur before strong emotions.

Changing thoughts is often easier than changing emotions. Recognize thoughts that catastrophize the situation or apply a label to your spouse and test them against reality. Is there another explanation or a more balanced thought?

Be curious about your emotion and ask yourself why you feel upset.

Are you upset because your partner left dirty dishes in the sink, or is it really that you feel underappreciated for taking on the majority of the housework? Being curious about your partner’s emotions can also be helpful. When they are expressing anger, look for the need that’s not being met or the fear that underlies that anger. Perhaps the reason they’re yelling about spoiled milk left on the counter has more to do with the financial uncertainty of the present situation.

Remember that emotions are temporary states

Take steps to reduce your emotional vulnerability.

This includes getting enough sleep, eating healthy, and exercising regularly. Recognize when these needs are not being met and understand that this could be contributing to your emotional reactions. Find self-care strategies that work for you. Maybe that’s exercising, calling a friend, or journaling. Notice when you need a break and take it. 

3. Problem Solving: 

Decide if the problem is solvable and worth solving.

Some problems in relationships are perpetual and can’t necessarily be solved. Trying to solve unsolvable problems (like personality traits) can be wasteful and defeating.

Other problems might be able to be solved, but they might not be worth your energy, especially right now when emotional resources might be running low. If it drives you crazy that your wife habitually leaves the kitchen cupboards open or has multiple glasses of water because she forgets where she leaves them, decide the level of importance.

Are these annoyances things you can live with? If a problem is both solvable and worth solving, you can follow a problem-solving format to help you through:

  • Define the problem in an observable way – leaving out judgment and criticism. 
  • Brainstorm alternatives together. List every good (and bad) idea you can think of without judgment. Write down whatever idea pops in your head. 
  • Consider the advantages and disadvantages of each idea, rank the ideas, and choose one. 
  • Decide how you will assess if the solution has worked.

4. Schedule Arguments and Take Time Outs:

You’re unlikely to have an effective or productive dialogue with your partner when emotions are heightened. The best time to resolve a conflict is when both partners are calm.

Try making an appointment to discuss a problem that works for you and your partner. This gives you both time to cool down and allows you to be focused and present.

During an argument, if things get heated, take a time out. This can be a 15-20 minute break from an argument to do something to help soothe or distract you away from your partner.  Let your partner know you need a time out and that you’re committed to resolving this when you’re calm. Decide together on a time to come back together and resume the conversation. It can be helpful to come up with a single word or hand signal to communicate your need for a time out. It’s important not to confuse taking a time-out with a refusal to communicate, or stonewalling.

Stonewalling might be immediately reinforcing because you’re avoiding a difficult conversation, but ultimately it is unhelpful and likely to make your partner more upset. The key to taking a time out is coming back together at the agreed upon time and checking in with each other. 

5. Plan Ahead for Alone Time and Together Time.

While time together is necessary for couples, time apart is often equally important. We often need alone time to recharge.

Wanting time away from your partner is not a sign of a problem or an unhealthy relationship, it’s normal. We’re not used to spending so much time in close quarters with one other person and we might find that we miss our time without them. One partner might need more alone time than the other. Try not to take it personally if your partner wants to spend time away from you. Plan ahead when you can each have some alone time or time engaging in an activity (like a Zoom happy hour) without the other partner.

And while it might feel like we are spending all our time with our partner, the quality of that time may be compromised. Try planning a “date night” or an activity that you can look forward to, like making a special dinner or watching a movie together. One benefit of working from home might be more flexibility in when you can schedule these times. Maybe you have time in the afternoon where you and your partner can have lunch or a coffee together.  Spending meaningful time together can increase closeness and strengthen the relationship. This can be particularly difficult if you have children. Coordinating multiple schedules to find time together can be a challenge, but it will likely be worth the effort.

Try planning time together when your kids are engaged in independent activities. If you have young children who haven’t yet mastered the art of independent play, try scheduling time in the mornings before they wake up or in the evenings after they’re in bed. Some parents have even found success with virtual babysitters.

6. Practice Gratitude 

Try to show genuine appreciation for your partner throughout the day.

Showing gratitude not only helps your partner feel appreciated but helps you notice the positive contributions your partner is making, which can increase positive emotions and decrease anger and resentment. Practicing gratitude also limits criticism.

Pointing out mistakes or engaging in “I-told-you-so” comments can be detrimental to a couple; especially during a time when we are ordered to stay at home.  Rather, point out positives whenever you can and remember subtle appreciation goes a long way.

It might be helpful to designate a specific time each day to express gratitude toward one another. For example, share three things you’re grateful for at dinner or before bed every night.  

7. Ask for Help

Remember, relationships are hard work in the best of times.

Throw in the stress and uncertainty of a global pandemic along with tight corners of social distancing and things are bound to get complicated.

Remind yourself that increased conflict during this time is normal and it’s not necessarily a sign that your relationship is failing. As mentioned earlier, many couples were never taught the skills for healthy communication and conflict resolution.

Such skills take some effort and practice.  Teletherapy for Couples can be incredibly helpful in building communication and conflict resolution skills to get you through the pandemic together and support a healthy and happy relationship. 

If you are someone you know feels unsafe at home, please reach out to the NYS Domestic and Sexual Abuse Hotline or 911 if you are in immediate danger.  Communication is secure, discreet, private, and available 24 hours/day, 7 days/week by:

Text: 844-997-2121    

Chat: OPDV.NY.GOV    

Call: 800-942-6906