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April 28, 2020

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COVID-19 has revealed a great many things about our world, including the vulnerabilities inherent in our economic, health care and educational institutions. The pandemic and the resulting orders to shelter in place have also uncovered vulnerabilities in our relationships with others.

Many of us are not just dealing with our own feelings of anxiety, anger and sadness; we are dealing with the anxiety, anger and sadness expressed by the people with whom we live and other loved ones with whom we’ve maintained virtual connections.

How do you respond with empathy and support your partner when you are feeling a host of emotions ourselves?

Is it even possible?

As a clinical psychologist, I have spent the last two decades studying how couples facing chronic stressors can be there for each other in the midst of their own personal suffering. My research and that of my colleagues has shown that it is possible, and even beneficial to oneself, to others and to our relationships if we learn to practice empathy and other skills even when we’re not feeling at peace with the world. Considering that we will not be required to shelter in place forever, it makes sense to put in the effort now to preserve and promote healthy relationships that will last far beyond the time of COVID-19.

Empathy for your partner is especially critical during this crisis.Getty Images/Bob Thomas

Sharing emotions is good, but listening is also required

Expressing our emotions to loved ones is a natural response to feeling stressed. In fact, we share our feelings with others for a number of reasons: to bond with others, to be comforted or to seek advice. Sharing our feelings with others can help us get a handle on our emotions.

But it’s not just the act of disclosing emotions that helps us feel better. Having a listening partner who is emotionally responsive and “gets it” is key.

It’s difficult to really be there for someone when we are feeling stressed out ourselves. In fact, listening to our loved one’s suffering can adversely affect our well-being. My colleagues and I have found that couples in which one or both partners experience chronic pain report feelings of isolation, helplessness and resentment in their relationships that affected their emotional and relationship well-being.

Even when both partners have chronic pain, they may experience it differently and have different coping strategies and emotions surrounding an uncertain future with a chronic illness. Yet, couples found that building what we psychologists call relational flexibility skills supported their quality of life and their relationships.

support your partner even if you're stressed
Social distancing is challenging couples in an unprecedented way. Witthaya Prasongsin/Moment via Getty Images

Practicing a new set of skills

The ability to share feelings with a partner and listen to a partner’s feelings in a nonjudgmental manner that respects both partner’s values is something that we therapist calls relational flexibility. Our research has shown that there are several ways to cultivate relational flexibility skills.

  1. Reconnect with your values: We can get caught up in the moment and forget what is really important. Therapies like acceptance and commitment therapy and spiritual practices can support realign our actions with our personal values so that external worries, time pressure or other factors do not drive our behavior. Imagining what we want people to say at our retirement, birthday or anniversary party or even at our funeral can bring your values into stark focus.
  2. Be curious: Stop and consider how we would want our listening partner to react if we were sharing these same feelings. And consider why they may be feeling the way they do. What might they need right now? You might be surprised to learn that your partner may not always want you to problem-solve when they are upset. Often, they already know what to do but are seeking emotional support instead. Match your response to what they want. When in doubt, ask.
  3. Validate: Emotional validation, a key part of therapies such as dialectical behaviour therapy, is a powerful signal that you accept someone for who they are. We can express emotional validation by paying attention to them, acknowledging that what they feel is real, reflecting back what we have heard them say, expressing our sorrow or anger about what they’ve experienced, and asking questions about what you can do to support them.
  4. Pay attention to the present moment: It can be hard to hear about a loved one’s suffering. Sometimes we disengage, become distracted, jump into problem-solving mode, or change the subject because it’s distressing to listen to a partner’s distress. With practice, you can monitor, become aware of, and accept your own feelings even as you calmly listen to another. We adapted meditations from mindfulness practitioners and researchers including Jon Kabat-Zinn, Thich Nhat Hanh in our couples interventions and there are many more available on the web.
  5. Spend time with your loved ones in valued activities: This is a staple of couple therapies such as integrative behavioural couple therapy and may seem like a common-sense solution. But spending quality time with loved ones is more difficult when our attention is split between working from home, homeschooling and caregiving, managing a variety of pandemic-related stressors, and leisure activities. Recall your values and make appointments in your calendars for mutually valued activities. The positive feelings that come from these activities will sustain you both.
support your partner - sharing a meal
Listening is key.Getty Images/10’000 Hours

Limits to listening

To be sure, we have our limits when listening to another person’s pain. Even our most tolerant and loving partners may not be able to respond the way we hope. This might be because they need to decompress. In this case, it may be wise to seek out others who share your situation or circumstances for peer support. And if you are the listener, and you feel overwhelmed by another’s pain, it’s important to take care of yourself and let them know that you are not able to give them what they need. And if you or your loved one discloses that they are feeling so down that they are thinking of harming themselves, it’s time to seek emergency support.

For those of us sharing the good, the bad and the ugly with loved ones during this pandemic, let’s recognise that we have much to be grateful for our relationships, however socially distant we have to be right now. This time of great stress will eventually pass and we will be out and about again. Practice relational flexibility to ensure that you and your loved ones will enjoy that happy day together.

[You need to understand the coronavirus pandemic, and we can help. Read The Conversation’s newsletter.]The Conversation

Annmarie Caño, Professor of Psychology and Associate Provost for Faculty Development and Faculty Success, Wayne State University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Are you still being able to support your partner during this stressful time? Tell us in the comments below.

  • My husband isn’t very talkative and does not respond well in stressful situations. I do what I can and suppress my own stress when he is stressed. It isn’t great but I’ve recognised it for what it is and I take time for myself when I can.

    Reply

  • Great read and some great points. I have found in the past just listening without offering advice is best

    Reply

  • I think when we’re not totally in emotional balance ourselves it becomes easier to relate to others and be empathic.

    Reply

  • This is something I absolutely needed to read during this time. Its so easy to get caught up in your own thing and forget to support your partner.

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  • Yes, I believe so. We have just moved house so have had increased stress and my hubby has been amazing whilst still working. I keep checking in with him to see how he’s doing and make sure he has time to hmiself to relax and de-stress.

    Reply

  • Everyone passing hard times.Need more understanding open discussion each other situation.

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  • Unfortunately I lost my husband to cancer 18 months ago but I always focused on him and his issues which helped me to keep mine at bay. I always make sure I’m there for my kids

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  • I’m grateful that our situation has not been greatly affected by the current environment. My husband was supportive of my reasons to homeschool our children during this time and we both agree on how we should handle this whole isolation period. That has helped significantly

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  • Communication and active listening are the most important

    Reply

  • These tips are not just relevant now in this pandemic, but have always been relevant for those at the end of their working life when they are suddenly at home together full time and the children are all busy. There are many times that outside influences are dropped during latter years, especially if one partner is unwell for instance.

    Reply

  • This is so tricky.

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  • this is beautiful article. we’ve been good to each other and that’s helping build a stronger relationship.

    Reply

  • My partner has been an enormous sense of support for my during this time especially while since losing my full time employment.


    • Sorry to hear you lost your full time employment !

    Reply

  • Thank you for this article. My relationship has been rocky for quite sometime now and the recent events have added to these difficulties. The importance of listening and validation of feelings is so important all the time, but particularly now.

    Reply

  • We seems to be doing ok here!
    My husband is a teacher which does offer up more stress than necessary, although things being done online, reduces some of the stress.
    I’m also going back to running essential errands now (my husband took over as he was worried about me going out whilst pregnant).
    Our kids seem to have adjusted to the isolation life of indoors, and homeschooling.
    But I agree with this article, we do need to be supportive of each other, the ability to talk through some issues may help to disperse some of them and leave you both feeling better, especially if you are both on the same page with things.

    Reply

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