Coronavirus and Conflict: Communication in relationships is more important than ever

As a therapist dealing daily with relationships, I am struck today by how the coronavirus has significantly challenged the sort of laissez faire attitude we may have had in the past about how we dealt with relationship conflicts. This pandemic has challenged all relationships, whether familial, friendships, or romantic in a significant way.

For instance, we may have become annoyed or expressed concern about a choice a friend makes to have unprotected sex with someone, or our kids’ propensity to keep company with a bad element, or our partner’s drinking habits or poor hygiene. But if they didn’t pay attention to us, usually it was not life-threatening.

That was last year. Now the choices someone else makes can make us seriously ill or even kill us. Your teenager sneaks away to hang out with friends for a night of partying. Your partner refuses to wear a mask when he goes to work or to buy groceries. Your roommate never washes her hands when returning from an outing. Your elderly parents, whom you visit once a week, believe the pandemic is “fake news,” and take no precautions. Your mother insists on going to her office where there are 30 other employees. In these times we can’t simply have a “live and let live” attitude.

How, then, can we address these situations in a way that doesn’t threaten the very bonds we share with the people in our life? We obviously cannot control another person, their attitude or behavior, no matter how much we wish we could. And chances are we do not fully agree on everything including what’s okay and not okay to do in this unprecedented time. As a result, our relationships are being impacted in ways that are not fully familiar to us. Therefore, it’s going to take some real communication skills, and some creative thinking about solutions to get us through without losing the people we love in our life. The people in your life are more likely to respond positively to you if you can first tap into your emotional bonds and feelings.

This means communicating from the heart and using our emotions, not pointing the finger or simply telling someone what they should do. If we’re communicating honestly and openly about our fears, about how scared we are of becoming sick (or them becoming sick), they are more likely to hear us and try to work out a solution or at least find some middle ground you’re both comfortable with. Trying to reason with someone who is committed to a different political or ideological viewpoint, such as those elderly parents, is not a viable approach. They have to be able to connect to you emotionally. Most people—unless they are one of the rare true narcissists or sociopaths—can feel empathy for someone they love or care about and are sometimes even willing to try to change their behavior for that person’s sake.

Some suggestions:

* First, make sure you’re clear about your motivations and feelings. Approach the conversation knowing what you want out of it, but ideally just wanting to make sure the person understands and hears your fears.

* Invite them to the conversation and decide on a good time together, rather than just beginning it a time that might not be good for you both. Make sure there are no distractions and that you are both able to be present and focus your attention on each other.

* Use “I” statements followed by your feelings as to not point the finger at the person, likely putting them on the defensive.

* Make sure you’re speaking in a way that your partner can understand and hear you so that they can empathize with you. Don’t blame, shame, criticize, yell, or interrupt.

* You can make a request after you have expressed your feelings, i.e. “Can I make a request? I request that you don’t go to stores during this scary time. That doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll be granted your request.

Being heard is a good start and will certainly help you feel more connected to the person you are having the conversation with and will hopefully have them re-think their behavior.

You have to be both fearless enough and vulnerable enough to reveal yourself emotionally. It takes some real strength of character to proclaim one’s boundaries and stick to them. In some situations, you’ll have to be creative in finding a middle ground. For instance, if you or your partner works in a high-risk environment, it may become necessary to maintain a safe distance between you and sleep in separate beds and abstain from having sex altogether—an unhappy decision but one that may save yours or their life. Perhaps the person you are concerned about decides they will go to a store only once a week and when they do, they will wear gloves and a mask.

There are many ways to feel heard, decrease your anxiety in a relationship, and find a middle ground. Relationships in the time of COVID-19 can be challenging. These are trying times and it’s important that we work towards decreasing our anxiety, maintaining our relationships, and surrounding ourselves with as much support as we can. So, nurture your relationships and use this as an opportunity to grow emotionally and strengthen your relationships regardless of whether, in the beginning, you’re on the same page!