Counseling Today, Cover Stories

Far away, so close: Negotiating relationships during COVID-19

By Laurie Meyers January 26, 2021

COVID-19 has taken away many of our in-person interactions. Office chitchat by the coffee maker. Happy hour with friends. Holiday celebrations. Friends, co-workers, extended family — since the pandemic began, many of us have seen them only virtually. In many ways, it’s like we’re all stuck on our own desert island — closed off from the outside world yet sometimes desperately wishing to vote our “fellow inhabitants” off.

The people we live with. We love them. We’ve treasured the extra time with them. But sometimes we just want them all to go away.

The never-ending togetherness; the uneven distribution of household responsibilities; the challenges of balancing work, child care and virtual schooling; and the career sacrifices that many people (women primarily) have had to make are all creating new stress and tension, while also exacerbating pre-existing conflicts in couples and families. In other words, couples and family counselors are very much in demand.

Seeking moments of solitude and respite

“Time and space are just different this year,” says licensed professional counselor (LPC) Christina Thaier. “We no longer divide our roles and tasks into different spaces, and that means all of who we are has to exist within less space. This is tough for kids and adults alike.”

Work, school, family, intimacy, socializing and relaxing are all wedged into the home.

Esther Benoit, an LPC with a private practice in Newport News, Virginia, points out that many parents are really struggling with roles they never expected to play — such as teacher and tutor when their children encounter difficulties with virtual schooling — while still trying to work from home. Other clients are working outside the home but spending substantial time on the phone providing “tech support” to their adolescent children who are at home alone, Benoit says.

Thaier notes that clients are floundering to find a way to balance everything in the absence of real-life connection to their communities and support networks. “It’s limiting. We miss a lot, and if we live with others, we are taking this on without any real break from our family or roommates,” says Thaier, a couples counselor who is the founder and director of Terrace House, a group practice located in St. Louis. “It’s a strange feeling to feel lonely and cut off from our usual life and, at the same time, never feel we get a break from others.”

“We [also] miss the versions of ourselves that exist in our usual spaces — our co-worker self, our happy-hour self, the version of us that shows up at the gym or the part of us that sings in the car after dropping the kids off at school — and the natural breaks and alone time that were previously built into our day,” she continues.

Thaier, an American Counseling Association member, helps clients envision alternative ways to be their different selves. “Maybe I can access the part of me that comes alive during time with friends by moving our time together to the park with masks,” she suggests. “Or I can plan a 10-minute Zoom call with my favorite co-worker at a time we would usually stop by one another’s desks.”

Thaier and her clients also seek simple ways to re-create those moments of solitude with activities such as taking a walk in the middle of the day, running errands, completing a solitary trip to the store to pick up groceries, or taking a bath or shower. “We’ve also talked about meditation apps and making the most of the early morning or late evening time when most of the house is sleeping,” she says.

Megan Dooley Hussman, a provisional licensed professional counselor and clinical supervisor at Terrace House, says many clients have found not just alone time but also a way to stay centered by engaging in daily rituals such as meditating, walking or even making and drinking tea mindfully.

Some clients also seek quasi-solitude by establishing family reading or movie-watching times, Thaier notes, adding that “quiet is almost alone.”

But with the multiple roles that parents are playing, stolen moments of solitude often aren’t enough, Thaier asserts. She helps parents map out the logistics of making sure that each partner gets their own break at some point during the week. That often involves one parent — or a family member within the household bubble — “hanging” with the kids while the other parent gets some time to themselves, she says. Thaier describes it as a “big win” for parents when everyone else leaves the house — even if only for an hour.

Sharing the struggle

The pandemic has been overwhelming for everyone — in unique but also universal (or at least common) ways. For parents and couples, the biggest contributor to distress and conflict is often unequal distribution of the “mental load,” says LPC June Williams, whose specialties include couples counseling. The mental load, she explains, is everything that needs to be done to keep the household moving. And much of it seems never-ending.

As Williams, a private practitioner in Cedar Park, Texas, points out, everyone is eating all the time when the kids are at home due to virtual schooling. Meals need to be planned and scheduled because family members aren’t necessarily eating at the same time. The dishes seem to self-replicate, requiring multiple dishwasher runs per day. It isn’t uncommon for one parent to manage this process — in addition to keeping the children engaged in online schooling and attempting to perform their “regular” job duties from home. In such cases, the parent spends the day constantly switching focus from their work laptop to their children’s screens. One of Williams’ clients is working and managing the family’s three children while their partner is in another room with the door shut.

When the distribution of household responsibility is not equal, it is often because much of the mental load is invisible, Williams says. She helps make it visible to her couples clients.

Williams will sit with the couple and task the partner carrying the uneven load to walk her through their day. Williams asks the other partner to listen without interrupting. Often, the partner who has been contributing less is shocked to learn the full mental load that their loved one has been carrying, Williams says.

It isn’t always possible to achieve a 50-50 split, Williams says, but she helps couples distribute the load more equitably. They discuss all of the tasks that make up the mental load and talk about how to handle them as a team. Williams asks the partner with the lesser load to think about what areas they would be willing to take over. She then asks the other partner to decide where they are willing to relinquish control. “What’s something you are willing to give away, knowing that it’s not going to be done your way?” she asks. If the partner offloads dish duty, they have to accept that the dishwasher may not be loaded “correctly,” Williams counsels.

Williams also has couples take responsibility for different areas of the house. Once that’s done, each partner’s domain is sacrosanct. “No micromanaging,” she says. “If the trash is your partner’s deal, you don’t say anything — it’s in their lap.”

ACA member Paul Peluso agrees that cooperation and flexibility are essential for navigating home life during the pandemic. He recommends that couples come up with a practical, workable schedule that allows each partner some time off. Unlike Williams, he recommends that couples switch off tasks such as bathing the children, taking out the trash and cooking. This cooperative effort creates a sense of fairness that allows a partner who has had a particularly bad or busy day to ask the other partner to take over a task that the tired partner feels too tapped out to do. The understanding is that the same grace will be extended to the other partner when needed, says Peluso, a professor of counselor education at Florida Atlantic University and a former president of the International Association of Marriage and Family Counselors, a division of ACA.

Peluso also recommends that couples cut themselves and each other some slack, especially during the pandemic. For instance, perhaps the routine has been to fold and put away clothes immediately after they come out of the dryer. “Give yourself a break and let it be in the basket for a few days, and use that time to watch a show together or to talk,” Peluso urges.

Sometimes, an unevenly distributed responsibility cannot be transferred from one partner to another, Williams says. The couple with one partner working and managing school for three kids is doing it out of necessity because the partner with the closed door is constantly in meetings.

In cases such as these, Williams typically encourages couples to explore possible outside resources that can be brought in: “Can we talk to family [about providing help]? Do we have a COVID-safe nanny? A COVID pod so that two days a week the kids are going to another parent’s house?”

Sharing the load becomes more difficult when one partner is working outside the home and the other works virtually or has put their career on hold. This scenario can easily lead to resentment, Benoit says. To the partner who stays home, it can seem as though the partner who works externally has experienced a return to business as (almost) normal, she explains. Meanwhile, the “inside” partner feels like their life has been completely upended because they are either trying to work from home while also providing child care or may even have felt it necessary to leave their job, Benoit says. Resentment builds because the partner at home feels trapped.

Benoit finds it helpful to externalize these conflicts for couples, emphasizing that it is the situation that is the problem, not the person who is working outside the home. Adopting this perspective, it becomes something that the couple can address as a team. The goal is to avoid recrimination and accusations, Benoit says, and to ask instead, “How do we get through this together?”

Although the essential circumstance cannot be changed, the level of resentment can be lowered dramatically, Benoit says, by something as simple as the partner working outside the home acknowledging that the other partner has the tougher end of the deal and asking, “What can I do to help?”

Benoit also emphasizes self-compassion. “I tell a lot of clients that what we’re aiming to do is get through,” she says. “We’re not aiming to thrive, but to survive.”

Couples also must learn that they are not responsible for each other’s moods, Williams says. A felt need to “fix” everything is often present in the partner who feels “overloaded,” she says.

“I work with that person who is trying to fix and [I] help them get more comfortable with everyone’s discomfort,” Williams says. This is doubly beneficial because the person who is underfunctioning may be hanging back as a result of receiving the message from their partner (directly or indirectly) that they never do anything right. Williams wants to help the partner carrying the lighter load to take on more of the burden not because they are being nagged but because it is important to the family.

Williams also asks the “overburdened” spouse about the feelings they are living with. Do they feel the need to fix, rescue, save and control? Do they feel anxious and resentful? If the client acknowledges these patterns, Williams asks whether they like feeling that way.

The usual response? “No, I am mad all the time and tired.”

Possessing a sense of responsibility does not mean that the client is responsible for everyone in the world, Williams counsels.

She gives clients a scenario: Your husband comes in and is in a terrible mood. He sighs heavily and drops his bag. As his wife with an overdeveloped sense of responsibility, you may flutter about and try to step in and take over. The end result? You haven’t fixed anything. He’s still irritated, and now you are too, Williams says.

She tells clients that they can still be compassionate, check in with their partner and ask how their day was. But if the partner responds that their day was terrible, clients need to ask themselves whether they have the emotional energy to carry that burden with their partner, Williams advises. If not, “It’s OK to say, ‘Here’s a soda water,’ give them a hug and move on,” she says.

When clients feel that tension in the pit of their stomach that is pushing them to step in, Williams urges them to do something calming in another room, such as belly breathing, stretching or taking a quick shower. These strategies also have the advantage of physically separating the person from the partner and their bad mood.

“Offer them compassion and allow yourself to remain separate,” Williams advises.

The price women pay

Williams doesn’t generally like to make assessments along gender lines, but she says the consequences of the pandemic are clearly delineated. Women are typically the ones expected to put their careers on pause — to be the caregivers and nurturers, to be more in tune with the children and to meet the family’s needs — even if they are the family’s highest wage earner, Williams asserts. She references a pithy and pitch-perfect quote from sociologist Jessica Calarco: “Other countries have safety nets. America has women.”

Thaier agrees. “Women already tend to take on more of the emotional, social and household roles, and that has not changed despite those tasks further multiplying,” she says. “In my practice, we talk a lot about our humanness, and that no one human can do all the things. We work on asking for help, prioritizing and eliminating what we can, establishing boundaries, and making time for ourselves.”

Women have absorbed a tremendous number of losses but haven’t had time to properly acknowledge those losses, Thaier says. “It’s hard to grieve within the experience of trauma,” she continues. “If we use the definition of trauma as too much, too fast, all of 2020 has been that. The quick reorganization of our lives has required [clients] — especially women — to move into crisis management mode. In crisis management, we do, we don’t get to be. In that way, therapy itself invites a chance for being, even if, after the hour, we revert back to survival mode a good portion of the time. We begin to carve out moments, which build on each other, for something different.”

“In some ways, because everything is different, there are opportunities for everything to be different, and that means families can brainstorm and strategize together on how to take care of the home and one another,” Thaier says. “It’s not easy, and there are lots of challenges. But I see a lot of great conversations happening, and with that, a lot of change too.”

In therapy, clients get to recenter themselves and their experiences, Thaier says. “They can voice resentments, frustrations, fears and anxieties, and their fear that feeling this way makes them a bad mother, partner, employee or friend.”

Thaier encourages clients to question these assumptions and where they came from, and then begin to redefine what is important to them about the roles they play. “For example, if we are redefining being ‘good’ at a relationship from an old definition of trying to not let anyone down to a new definition of being present and authentic with the people we love, we can begin to think about what this might look like,” she explains. “We can notice when the old definition is guiding our behavior and patterns, and we can start to practice new ways of relating.”

Reimagining clients’ relationships and roles often involves rejecting parts of the past by breaking patterns driven by cultural assumptions. But the past can also inform the future. Thaier uses narrative therapy to help clients grieve their losses and find ways to preserve elements of what was lost. “I think a lot about telling the stories of the people and experiences we have loved and that have significantly influenced our lives,” she says. “For a woman who has made the sacrifice of a current work role that is a significant part of her identity, we explore that.

“How did the job bring you alive? What did it make possible? What were the best parts of your day? Where did you imagine this would take you next? How did this role fit into an imagined and cherished future?”

“We can actually strengthen that story even as we grieve the space it has left in the present,” Thaier says. “And we can begin to narrate how the client can access her relationship to her work — or [what] she found possible there — and bring that into the present. In other words, the people and experiences we love become a part of us, and we can continue to take them with us into our futures. Our relationship with them gets to continue, if we want it to.”

An existential pause

The pandemic-induced global slowdown has provided people an opportunity (even if unrequested) to examine their lives and reevaluate their priorities, Peluso says. A number of people are asking themselves if they want to get back on the treadmill of constant activity and productivity, “or do I want to start thinking about what I was saving for someday and do it now?” he says.

Regardless of whether they choose to return to the treadmill, stepping off of it even temporarily has granted many people clarity about their relationships, Peluso observes. Some have grown closer to their partners during the pandemic, whereas other couples who were gritting their teeth and staying together for the sake of the children beforehand are asking themselves whether it’s worth the price they are paying.

Some couples are reassessing how they were choosing to spend their time prepandemic, he says. “I think especially early in the pandemic, when there was a hard stop to a lot of activity, it created a window of opportunity to just build some new rituals for connection,” Peluso says. “Couples were able to do things together — tasks, projects around the house.”

This ability to slow down — rather than charge through a list of chores — allowed some couples to rediscover pieces of each other that may have been subsumed in the daily grind, Peluso says. “For a lot of them, it forced them to look at some places where they had been neglecting relationships,” he adds.

“While this year has been incredibly challenging, it has also been an invitation,” Thaier says. “An invitation to slow down, to be together more, to take stock of what we’re doing and how we spend our time. To be at home more. To rest. To see our limitless creativity and resilience and strength. To acknowledge that our lives really could look different at a moment’s notice. To learn to be together in new ways. To be outside more. To take less for granted.”

“I wouldn’t say it’s been ‘worth it,’” she continues. “That would disrespect all of the loss and tragedy and, frankly, just wouldn’t be true. But there’s good here too. And there’s invitation in every holding pattern to see something that is waiting to be acknowledged. There’s a mirror here, if we’re willing to look into it.    

“I’m thankful for the invitation, and I’m hopeful about what’s next.”

 

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Additional resources

To learn more about the topics discussed in this article, take advantage of the following select resources offered by the American Counseling Association.

Counseling Today (ct.counseling.org)

Books & DVDs (imis.counseling.org/store)

  • Theory and Practice of Couples and Family Counseling, third edition, by James Robert Bitter
  • Mediating Conflict in Intimate Relationships (DVD) presented by Gerald Monk and John Winslade

Continuing Professional Development (aca.digitellinc.com/aca/specialties/56/view)

  • “Creative Counseling for Couples: Using the Integrative Model” (webinar) with Mark Young
  • “Imago Relationship Therapy” (podcast) with Susan Hammonds-White

International Association of Marriage and Family Counselors (iamfconline.org)

IAMFC is a division of the American Counseling Association that embraces a multicultural approach in support of the worth, dignity, potential and uniqueness
of families.

 

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Laurie Meyers is a senior writer for Counseling Today. Contact her at lmeyers@counseling.org.

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Opinions expressed and statements made in articles appearing on CT Online should not be assumed to represent the opinions of the editors or policies of the American Counseling Association.

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