At first, the shelter-in-place requirements may have brought a moment of glee for couples, with thoughts such as: “I will get to spend more time with my partner, every single day!”
Of course, after a year of our partners being one of the few or only other individual we could interact with in person, this sentiment may have changed in tonality: “I will get to spend more time with my partner. Every. Single. Day.”
So for those who may be feeling the very real crunch of being coupled with significantly more time spent at home, here are some ways to help ease communication tensions that may arise.
You emerge from your respective at-home offices, and your partner begins to regale you with a story about a difficult colleague. You respond with what you feel is helpful advice, letting them know how they could solve the problem. Your partner stares blankly at you, or becomes upset, noting this is not the response they were looking for. You feel frustrated. After all, you only wanted to help!
A question to begin to incorporate into a couple’s routine dialogue is:
“Would you like me to listen, or would you like me to help problem-solve?”
This can help reduce confusion or frustration, and may also include the partners exploring the different ways they like to be listened to, or supported through issues.
To build up on your active listening skills, here is an exercise you can try with your partner. Simply set a timer and actively listen to your partner for two minutes at a time, then switch roles. During the listening phase, you will not get to respond. Focus on body language such as nodding or leaning in, if your arms are crossed or open, and how your facial expressions are responding to the conversation.
At the end of a round, allow each person to provide feedback. What worked or did not work? What felt good or surprising to you? Point out specific things your partner did while actively listening that you enjoyed.
Has your partner left the dishes in the sink again? Are you feeling ready to let loose at them? Your frustrations are normal and valid, and yet it can be difficult to explore these without fearing a larger confrontation or causing distress.
You can use this method when you feel overwhelmed and are struggling to find the right (or kind) words to use with your partner.
Instead of: “You always leave the dishes in the sink, it’s lazy and I don’t want to have to pick up after you!”
Try: “I feel angry when you leave the dishes in the sink. I would prefer you put them in the dishwasher as soon as you can.”
This can also be used for more complex conversations, so do not feel afraid to adapt it as needed to the situation.
Instead of: “You never listen to me, I tell you something a hundred times but then you ask me about it like I’ve never told you about it before. I’m so tired of this!”
Try: “I feel like you are not listening to me when I have told you something a few times, and then you ask about it again later. It makes me feel tired and frustrated. I would prefer if, when I am talking, you take some time to listen and then ask me if you are not sure about something.”
While we have explored some structured communication methods, there is a lot of power in some of the simpler, subtle changes we can make in language.
Avoiding extremes is an excellent place to start. For example, saying: “You always” or “You never” implies that there has never, on any occasion, been a moment when your partner has done things differently. It creates no space (or incentive) for your partner to act differently, and often leads to defensive responses or a shutdown in communication.
In these cases, try to replace extremes with observant language: “I have noticed recently a lot more dishes have been in the sink than before, and I was wondering if something is going on?”
In this exercise your partner will talk openly about something they experienced while the other partner actively listens. At the end of the partner’s statement, the listener will summarize what they heard their partner say. Once they have finished the summary, they will ask: did I get that right? For example:
Partner 1: I hated my meeting today, it was a waste of my time and could have just been sent in an email, it just makes me want to leave my job.
Partner 2: You really didn't like that meeting today, it felt like a waste and is making you question your job. Did I get that right?
Partner 1: Yes, that's right
If your partner did not get it right, let them know what you felt was missing from their summary. Try to keep the problem issue limited to one or two sentences, or to approximately a minute of speaking time. This ensures each partner is not attempting to recall and summarize several different issues all at once, and helps build confidence
With these considerations at the foundation of your communication, you and your partner can both represent and take care of your own needs, while being mindful of theirs.
If you or someone you know is seeking mental health care, you can reach out to our Care Coordination team at [email protected] or by phone at (415) 202-5159.
If you or someone you know is experiencing an emergency or crisis and needs immediate help, call 911 or go to the nearest emergency room. Additional resources can be found here.