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March 19, 2020

Keeping the peace with your partner during social distancing

Relationships will be put to the test as partners navigate the uncharted territories of spending 24/7 together, becoming both partners and co-workers sharing the same space.

“It is one thing to return to your partner or spouse after work, it is another to be in close proximity all day long. Conflict is unavoidable,” said Elizabeth Dorrance Hall, assistant professor in the Communication Department at Michigan State University and director of the Family Communication and Relationships Lab. “If you haven’t had serious conflict yet, it is coming.”

Dorrance Hall explains that now more than ever, it's important to practice being a “good partner” because in times of high uncertainty, relationship tension escalates.

“Little things get blown out of proportion and small annoyances can turn into screaming matches,” Dorrance Hall said. “Times of transition – like moving from out-of-the-house jobs to working from home – can create uncertainty. Layer that with the uncertainty about the state of the world, the economy and our health care system, and it’s a situation primed for relational discord.”

What can people do to avoid creating a toxic situation in our homes? Dorrance Hall offers simple tips for partners to practice while adjusting to spending all day – every day – with one another:

1. Do not criticize your partner.
“Avoid claiming that your partner ‘always’ or ‘never’ does something, like load the dishwasher, because always and never statements indicate that the person is flawed instead of the behavior. Focus instead on specific behaviors that need to change and when you bring them up, be sure to talk about how you feel and what you need instead of what they did or did not do.”

2. Do not deny responsibility.
“Even if you believe you didn’t do anything wrong, you can at least acknowledge your partner’s feelings and point of view. If you can see where you made a wrong move, apologize. My partner and I apologize to one another constantly. Apologize, when genuine, provide an opportunity for relationship repair and growth.”

3. Do not speak with contempt.
“Don’t belittle your partner, roll your eyes or otherwise act superior. These behaviors have been called ‘sulfuric acid for love.’ These extremely disrespectful ways of communicating are painful and hard to recover from.”

4. Do not emotionally withdraw, unless you really need a break.
“When people are engaged in conversation and one partner shuts down or walks away, the other partner usually escalates out of frustration. This is a dangerous and unhelpful pattern. If you do need a break, take one, but let your partner know that you are intentionally taking a break and fully plan on returning to the conversation when you’ve had a chance to cool off. When our blood pressure spikes and we feel overwhelmed by conflict, we have trouble processing information. At that point, we need to engage in self-soothing in order to have a productive conversation. Take a walk, pet the dog or watch a TV show to distract yourself for a bit, then, come back to the issue at hand."

Dorrance Hall also acknowledged the importance of apologizing. In this time of isolation and unknown, she said that tensions are high and “we will all be guilty of doing or saying the wrong thing as we navigate life together at home.”