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How a quarantine can impact your relationships and interactions (and what to do about it)

If you live with other people, you will be dealing with some unprecedented experiences in your environment over the next weeks and months.

Whether you live with a roommate, partner, parents, children, or any configuration of other humans and pets, stuff is about to get really real.

Even if you don’t have anyone in your living environment, your interactions and relationships with people in your world (coworkers, family, friends, service people, neighbors) are going to be impacted by our new coronavirus normal.

What you will experience in yourself and others can best be described as quite normal reactions to a very abnormal situation. Even when people like each other pretty well, being stuck together for an undefined period of time without certainty of when “normal” will return is a rough road. This article mostly addresses relationships in your living environment - partners, roommate, kids, parents, and colleagues (since many of us are working from home now).

First, know that there is no right way to feel, and all emotions and behaviors will be rooted in coping. Second, know that underlying temperaments in yourself and others will easily become amplified during this time of increased stress. For example, if a person tends to be a little quick-tempered or tends to be a little anxious, these tendencies will likely ramp up and be even more obvious to others).

With all the uncertainty, constant changes, and added roles coupled with very little alone time to decompress, stress levels are going to skyrocket in your living space and beyond. You’re going to be on edge. We are all going to be on edge. And naturally, we are going to take it out on the people around us. Here are some things you can anticipate and some ways to cope.

If you are partnered:

  • Partners may seem to become more critical or short tempered – this is a common reaction to the loss of control. We tend to be more on edge and seek ways to assert control in order to cope with what we feel we are losing.

  • Partners may become more needy and crave reassurance – some people lean in towards others in times of uncertainty as a way to feel safer and strong enough to get through it.

  • Partners may seem to be picking fights – this is sometimes a way people elicit engagement and reassurance of mattering when they are feeling bored or anxious.

  • Partners may start acting in peculiar ways – taking action gives us a sense of control, even if the actions aren’t particularly impactful or logical. This might look like: being overly obsessive about stocking certain things, wanting to do tasks in a very particular way at home, hyper-vigilance regarding processes for cleanliness or clutter, checking the bank account balances and increased stress and vocalized concerns about money, gatekeeping or commenting on how much food is being eaten or supplies being used, etc.

  • Partners will have a reduction in private/alone time to decompress or process or just do what they want without an audience, and this can increase irritability and the chance for fights.

Ways to cope with partners during a quarantine:

  • When a partner does or says something that you don’t understand, try to imagine the feeling that might be underneath it. Or ask about what they are feeling or what they are needing.

  • Try to use conversation to better understand what they are experiencing rather than just assuming they are being mean or want to hurt or control you.

  • Do your best to react slowly when you feel hurt or confused. Take a few deep breaths in and out to slow down your own emotions and respond from a place of curiosity if you can. Remind yourself that their actions are not about you (even when it feels like they are).

  • At minimum, figure out ways you can excuse yourself from the situation (step outside for some air, go to the bathroom, take a shower, head to the kitchen for some cold water, take the dog for a walk, etc.).

  • Make it your personal goal to maintain a strong partnership through the uncertainty, even if your partner does not seem to have that same goal from time to time. You can choose to take control of your part of the equation.

  • Believe it or not, this experience could be a time when your relationship gets stronger. Consider little acts of kindness you can do for your partner, ask them to do an activity with you (like cooking, walking, listening to a new song), identify some ways to laugh together (even if just for a moment at a silly YouTube video), and ask for hugs more – the chemical release in the brain from physical touch will help soothe both of you and increase your connectedness.

  • Get to know more about your partner's Love Language and how you might be able to boost the positive moments between you.

  • For further reading and ideas about strong partnerships (in general and especially at this time), read this article by relationship expert & researcher Dr. Julie Gottman.

If you have roommates:

All of the above possibilities for strife also apply for roommate situations. Add on the additional layer that there is no “requirement” for love or affinity between roommates and it’s extra fuel to whichever fire becomes ignited.

Ways to cope with roommates during a quarantine:

  • Set up a time to have a structured talk about how you want to proceed with the current changes. How will we handle bills if our income is changed? How will we handle cleaning and what is our new standard for keeping ourselves safe? How will we handle our shared supplies & resources if things get harder to replenish? How will we handle guests coming over (or not)? These are new times and that means new rules. Anxiety and frustration in your roommate relationships can be reduced through thoughtful communication.

  • Consider creating some new bonding time or activities together (new show to watch, game to play, outdoor activity to do) that will increase the positive experiences you have together. This can help offset the stressful aspects of your interactions.

If you live with parents (or even if you don’t):

  • Parents have a hard time letting go of their protective and advice-giving roles, even if you are grown and responsible for yourself. Expect that parents may be more controlling or instructional and offer advice and feedback even more than usual, as their instinctive nature to protect you ramps up.

  • Parents may also seek to restrict your choices and independence, in an effort to reduce their own fears and anxious thoughts.

  • If parents are elderly, they may feel very fearful due to their heightened risk for getting sick. This can lead to obsessive news-checking and the desire to talk continuously about it with you and share what they are learning. It may also lead to extreme avoidance of news and reality, if it feels safer for them to pretend that nothing is happening.

Ways to cope with parents during a quarantine:

  • Try to remind yourself why they are doing what they are doing and the feelings underneath their words.

  • Repeat back to them what you hear them say and the suggestions they make to you. Even if you don’t follow through on their advice, it can be soothing for them to know that you heard them.

  • Your goal can be to validate their feelings and their concerns for your safety.

  • Consider ways that you can engage with them and pull them away from news stories – like doing puzzles or crosswords, asking for their advice on cooking or projects, or engaging them in activities that can serve as a distraction.

  • If they don’t live with you, consider scheduling a regular call to check in or engaging others in efforts to contact or write to them.

If you are a parent:

Kids are on edge just like we are right now. They can hear everything that’s going on around them and they can clearly sense our heightened anxiety and irritability. As the fallout from the virus persists, you'll see an increase in behavior issues from them (more meltdowns, tantrums, and oppositional behavior). This is normal. Here are some things you can expect and ways to cope.

  • Children will likely “act up” and seem to agitate or misbehave more, out of discomfort with the change in routine or out of boredom.

  • Children may regress in their behavior and start doing things they have “grown out of.” This is a common response to anxiety and change.

  • Children may seem more “annoying” or seek attention more, as most kids are used to a fairly high level of human interaction and diverse activity in school settings.

  • Children may get more clingy, as a way to get some soothing for the fears they feel and perceive around them.

  • Teens may seem more depressive or withdrawn without access to their friend groups and the freedoms they are used to having. This is the developmental time of life when teens crave independence and separation from adults, rather than being sequestered with them.

  • Teens may try to sneak out or break rules even more than typical; rebellion and invincibility is the name of the game at this age, and this can get amplified during times of increased restriction.

  • Your role as a parent may now suddenly include acting as teacher, administrator, music instructor, karate coach, lunch chef, etc.; none of which you signed up for or had time to prepare for.

  • You may feel frustrated, angry, annoyed, anxious, or any number of fitting emotions for these new roles that you’ve been thrust into while also managing your own very real responses to this state of uncertainty.

Ways to cope with kids and teens during a quarantine:

  • Create new routines and schedules for the family. Start online coursework at a particular time each day, have meal times and breaks, and stop at a certain time each day as well.

  • Empower kids and teens to contribute when making the schedule. Give them as much freedom to make decisions as you can (as is safe). If possible, give each child/teen a new household role or task they are responsible for, so they can feel they are in control of something and doing an important piece for the family.

  • If your kids have ever been to camp, you know that each day has activities plotted out for kids to look forward to. Engage them in coming up with ideas and create a calendar together – look online for ideas and talk to other parents. Consider things like: virtual field trips to museums or the zoo, reading a book together as a family, creating pillow forts, craft projects, snuggling under blankets and doing nothing, etc. Let being “stuck at home” be a joint problem for the family to solve together so the pressure isn’t all on you. Check this comprehensive resource list of ideas.

  • Tear up your perfect schedule (wait, I thought I was supposed to make a family calendar?) – just try to be flexible. What kids need most now is to feel comforted and loved and to have a sense that it’s all going to be okay. It's okay not to have a minute by minute schedule. When we come out of this, your kids will remember how they felt during this time. They won’t really remember much of how the days were actually spent.

  • Create new traditions for the family (like having nightly dinner together at the table, Monday movie night, Friday afternoon cookie baking, pancakes on Saturdays).

  • Build in some physical activity as much as you can. Get outside and move your bodies together. If you can’t go outside, have a dance party inside or pull up some videos online for some aerobic activity.

  • Include as much laughter and fun time as you can. Play games, look up silly jokes online, ask your kids/teens to share cool shows or videos they find online. Laughter is an essential piece to coping through uncertainty.

  • Try not to worry about your kids regressing in school. Every student across the world is (or soon will be) in the same boat and this will be an anomaly year for everyone. When students are back in the classroom, their teachers will review material and meet the students where they are. Most teachers are providing online learning activities, and you're allowed to let that be enough for now.

  • Just go ahead and accept that children and teens will act in frustrating ways, and do your best to breathe slowly before reacting to them. Practice being patient with yourself and with them. This is scary and hard for everyone. Read what the CDC recommends about helping kids cope.

If you are employed and working from home now:

  • Your boss may become more rigid or micro-manage more, in reaction to their own fears about the bottom line or keeping their own job. This is also a way they can soothe the need to feel in control of something, anything.

  • Co-worker relationships may feel strained. Some people are better communicators face to face, and the loss of tone or body language plus the increased stress for everyone in the world right now may make interactions seem more tense.

  • New work routines and protocols may seem arbitrary and non-sensible, leading to increased stress and less autonomy for you (and everyone). Changes may seem to come rapidly with little time for you to adjust or give feedback.

  • Bosses and co-workers may seem more frugal with time and resources or more self-focused in general, as everyone feels the fear of impending scarcity.

  • You will lose the ways that you used to unwind from the workday outside of the house, for example: things you did or listened to on the drive home, processing/distraction time, or stops you made along the way.

Ways to cope with working from home during a quarantine:

  • If you are suddenly working from home now, do your best to set up a separate space for work, even if it’s a temporary desk in the corner (I saw a picture of someone using an ironing board for this!).

  • Create a work schedule and ritual for getting yourself into and out of work mode (like choosing a certain way you dress or a certain place you sit or a certain type of music you listen to that sends a message to your brain that you are in “work mode”).

  • Take breaks for stretching and snacks and chit chat like you normally would at your work location.

  • Schedule some regular video calls with bosses and co-workers to offset the change in face time/communication and to cultivate a sense of assurance that you are engaged in your work and invested in your connection with them.

  • Try to schedule some walking meetings or outdoor calls if possible.

If you have been a stay-at-home parent or already worked remotely, you may now have extra people in your “domain” during the day. This can mean more commentary on your process and flow, which is not an easy pill to swallow. It can also mean more disruptions to your protocols and the way you manage your day and your environment. Cope by communicating your needs and preferences rather than assuming others will know how you normally run your days.

Your relationship with yourself - This is the most crucial one and the one you have the most control over.

  • You may be more annoyed by the people you live with.

  • You may feel ashamed with your lack of tolerance or lack of affinity for others in your home and elsewhere.

  • You may feel like you don’t want to be there anymore and feel itchy to get out.

  • You may feel depressed and hopeless.

  • You may feel anxious and fearful.

  • You may feel overwhelmed with compassion and the desire to fix the situation for those less fortunate while also feeling powerless.

  • Your vices will become even more apparent – favorite coffees, comfort foods, alcoholic drinks, cigarettes, gym activities. You will be hyper aware of what you have limited or no access to. And it may make you frustrated and sad and and and…

  • You will have a lack of private time to decompress or process or just do what you want without an audience.

  • You will have less time with friends or others that you normally see, which can lead to feeling disconnected and lonely.

Ways to cope with yourself during a quarantine:

  • Check in with yourself regularly - Ask “what am I feeling right now?” “What do I need?” “What am I thinking about?”

  • Have compassion for whatever your answer is and talk to yourself like you would talk to a good friend. “So you’re feeling anxious, huh? That makes sense! I’m here for you, buddy. What will help you feel better?”

  • Find at least one enjoyable thing to do each day - read in a book, listen to some favorite music, have a game night, re-watch favorite movies/shows, give yourself a treat.

  • Do something daily that brings you a sense of accomplishment - tackle that home repair you’ve wanted to do, clean out one drawer each day, spend time on a hobby you’ve been neglecting, finally practice that second language, explore YouTube or Pinterest for creative projects you can try.

  • Take care of your physical self - Stay as active as you are able to. Take walks, do boxing videos, do yard work, dance, stretch.

  • Remain or get connected with friends, family and neighbors via phone, video or email – do your Winedown Wednesdays via video (“Quarantini Quitting Time” anyone?), watch sports with your friends virtually, setup regular synchronized movie nights with friends/family, keep up your bookclub and move it online or use the speakerphone.

  • Focus on the now – remind yourself that you just need to manage each day, not the whole next month. With all the uncertainty, the only way through is to take each day as we are getting it.

  • Take a look at this post specifically regarding anxiety and the coronavirus.

This is a time of uncertainty for everyone. Nobody has been through this before and there’s no right way to manage it. No matter who you interact with and what relationships you have in your life, they will all be impacted by our shared circumstance.

Remind yourself that there is so much of this situation that we cannot control and cannot change. Lean towards accepting this reality and this situation as it is, while acknowledging that your feelings (everyone’s feelings) about it are real and legitimate.


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