The Key to Managing the Stress of Covid-19 in Your Relationship

The novel coronavirus is causing anxiety on so many fronts. It’s the uncertainty of so many unknowns that is raising the collective anxiety around the world. People feel anxious about their own health and that of their loved ones, how to best take precautions and the impact of an economic downturn. The situation changes daily and sometimes hourly. People are feeling out of control and that causes all sorts of reactions.

Humans don’t like anxiety. It’s a really uncomfortable feeling. I often say, “we’ll sell our souls to get rid of anxiety.” The anxiety caused by this virus may be creating tension in your relationship because of how you and your partner cope with anxiety. You may cope by reading everything every day, buying ten bottles of hand sanitizer, talking about it a lot and canceling many outings. Your partner may cope by minimizing the degree of threat of the virus and going about life as usual. You end up quarreling about each other’s reaction.

There are so many new decisions to make. Should you risk going to the grocery store or pharmacy just to grab those few items? How much should you nag your kids about washing their hands or touching their face? Can they just have that one friend over? Can you even go for a hike with so many people on the trail?

There are so many decisions to make without any clear data to go on. You’re left with struggling with your coping mechanisms and those of your partner’s. When you feel anxious, this is interpreted by your nervous system as a threat and it reacts accordingly. These reactions are how the virus creates havoc in your relationship. 

It’s your reaction to feeling anxious that causes problems in your relationship, not the anxiety itself. If you typically react to anxiety by raising your voice and interrupting your partner, then tension rises between you. Perhaps you both respond by arguing, so there’s an uptick in the frequency of quarrels. Perhaps your partner withdraws, which scares you and leaves you feeling more alone in the crisis. More distress.

No one is right and no one is wrong. You’re probably doing the best you can, but it’s not helping the atmosphere between you. All this leads to feeling more disconnected and that in turn leads to feeling more anxious and alone. 

Anxiety is not my happy place

Feeling anxiety is a normal part of life. It’s normal to feel anxious about how to resolve a conflict that’s tricky, or when you’re taking on a project that’s new and challenging, or when there’s a lot of uncertainty in the air about something important. Anxiety is a very uncomfortable feeling. When you don’t have much capacity for feeling anxious or anxiety becomes overwhelming, then it can be debilitating. Having a tolerance for feeling anxious is what allows you to go forward and grapple with the issue at hand. 

The key is to build your tolerance for feeling anxious and turn towards each other for connection and support. If you can build your tolerance, you won’t create so much distance by arguing or withdrawing. Building your tolerance also means you’ll feel more vulnerable because you won’t be pushing the feelings away by your reactions. This is a challenge because feeling more vulnerable is uncomfortable, too. However, it’s in that state of vulnerability that you can truly connect with another human being. You’ll feel less alone and the two of you can walk through these uncertain times together, rather than just coping in your separate silos. 

You weren’t born with a tolerance for feeling anxious. As a child, you build tolerance by facing age-appropriate anxiety with the support and guidance of parents who have a reasonable tolerance themselves. 

Here are two versions of an interaction between Peter and his mother:

Scenario one: 

Peter says to his mom, “I’m so scared I’m not going to do well on the math test tomorrow.” His mom replies, “Oh, Peter, don’t sweat, you always do well at math. Just study as best you can and you’ll do fine.”

Or, in scenario two: 

Peter’s mom replies, “It’s normal to feel anxious before a test. Study as hard as you can and you probably won’t feel better until after the test. That’s just how it is with hard stuff.”

Which response do you think helps Peter build a tolerance for age-appropriate anxiety? The second response normalizes what Peter is experiencing and communicates her confidence that Peter is capable of tolerating feeling anxious and tackling the task of studying in spite of it. The first response of Peter’s mom is well-intended but leaves him feeling that something is wrong with him for feeling anxious, thus feeling unsupported and alone.

How you grew up, combined with your individual biological makeup, determines how well you can stand feeling anxious without getting overwhelmed and reacting in ways that harm your relationship. 

How do you build a tolerance for feeling anxiety?

There are moments— milliseconds, really—that you can grab before they slip away. These are the moments when you can identify that you’re feeling anxious before your reaction of getting angry or withdrawing sets in. When you’re anxious, it’s so easy to jump on your partner for the smallest of things. It’s just as if there’s a drought and all it takes is one match to start a forest fire.

If you succeed in identifying that you’re anxious in the moment, just sit there with it. “Sitting with it,” means naming it, feeling it and not allowing yourself to prematurely make it go away by distracting yourself, or starting an argument. You will feel uncomfortable and vulnerable— take a deep breath and just stay there in that feeling. This “sitting with” the feeling of anxiety allows you to know what is actually affecting you that you lose touch with when you’re shut down or getting angry.  

Anxiety has a life span. It will pass. It might be five minutes or five hours, and it may come and go. It’s sitting with the anxiety—minute by minute—that allows you to build your tolerance for anxiety. You build it slowly, bit by bit. The more tolerance you have, the less destructively you behave. If you distract yourself by grabbing your phone or turning on the TV, it’ll just go underground and lie in wait for a spark—causing the relationship equivalent of a forest fire. 

Sitting with the feeling allows you to express it, usually in a way that your partner can hear and empathize with. Your partner’s ears open when they hear you speak from that place of vulnerability. Feeling this connection is what can most alleviate the intensity of the anxiety. It won’t make Covid-19 go away, but it can allow you to feel less alone in this crisis. Feeling less alone goes a long way to walking through this crisis feeling stronger, with your relationship intact.

Arguing or withdrawing happens so easily because it’s a momentary relief from the anxiety. The energy of arguing or the numbness of withdrawing doesn’t feel great either, but it’s preferable than feeling anxious. 

If you’re already angry or withdrawn, ask yourself, “what else am I feeling?” Maybe not immediately, but this question allows you to pinpoint what feelings are hiding just below the surface. You know you’re irritated, but you might be able to identify that you were anxious before you got annoyed. Then you can choose to sit with the anxiety.

Being outside your comfort zone with Covid-19 creating turmoil all around is understandable. It is an opportunity to strengthen your relationship nevertheless. It’s your reactions to anxiety that create problems in your relationship, not the anxiety. Building your tolerance for feeling anxious and vulnerable, and turning toward your partner will serve you well with whatever challenges come your way. 

This can allow some creativity to emerge. You’ll bring out those dusty board games in the closet and have some laughs. Or you’ll play charades for the first time in a decade. Perhaps you’ll even create a social space over the backyard fire pit and put on your warm jackets.