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4 Easy Things You Can Do to Improve Your Relationship While Sheltering at Home

A family of three smiling and laughing together outside.

Has it been easier or harder to communicate with your significant other during quarantine? Chances are, it's been harder, but the challenge of healthy communication during quarantine is an opportunity to build even deeper relationships. Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist Willa Williams outlines four easy things you can do to improve your relationship while sheltering at home in today's Ask the Expert.

It’s been several weeks now that we have had to shelter at home here in California. I wrote a blog when the stay at home order was first issued on 10 Ways to Stay Sane While Sheltering at Home.  Now I would like to do a follow-up as I would guess that things have gotten tougher with time.  Having to shelter at home is like putting your marriage, and other relationships, in a pressure cooker.  If there are any cracks, fissures, or issues that have not yet been dealt with, they are going to come to the surface and make themselves known.  The good thing about that is that we can finally begin to have important conversations and work out hurts and misunderstandings.  The hard thing about that is that we may not know how to have these kinds of healing conversations, and it may feel really uncomfortable or threatening to do so.  I would like to offer four practical things we can do to assist us in having these important conversations.  Following these guidelines will increase the odds that these conversations will go more smoothly and that we will be better able to work out our conflicts and hurts.

  1. Be kind.  We often know which snide remark or dig will hurt our spouse or friend, and which type of action or gesture will wound the other person the most.  Don’t do it.  Let’s be kind in what we say and what we do.  It may feel good in the moment to do those hurtful things, but it will cost us. The other person will feel less emotionally safe with us, they will have to protect themselves even more from us, usually by being more defensive, and so the conflict will only grow and deepen as it becomes more entrenched.  So, let’s be kind.  Being kind paves the way for productive conversation.

  2. Be descriptive.  When we are trying to work things out with someone, it is so easy to be critical or contemptuous. We feel that we need them to understand and own up to what they did wrong.  We also get defensive with them or just shut down and leave, either physically or emotionally, when we feel attacked.  They are being hurtful, and we don’t want to take it anymore.  We feel that we need to protect ourselves. Drs. John and Julie Gottman, leading couples researchers, have found from their years of research that these ways of interacting are  very common and normal.  They call them The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.  Their research found that, while the Four Horsemen are understandable, they are never helpful; and when they occur in increasing measure, they are a robust predictor of divorce.  How do we counter these instinctive ways of interacting when we are arguing with another person and are being hurt?  One foundational way is by being descriptive.  Rather than say what the other person did wrong or how they are failing, we can describe how we feel in the situation.  A useful template we can use to help us be descriptive is to say something like, “When __________ happens, I feel ____________; it would be helpful if ______________.”  For example, rather than criticizing or being contemptuous with someone for not picking up after themselves, we can say something like, “When clothes are all over the floor, I feel like I don’t have space and the house is getting smaller and smaller.  It really would be helpful if the clothes could be put away, or at least kept in everyone’s own room.”  When we are descriptive, it is a safeguard and keeps us from being critical, contemptuous, defensive, or withdrawing.  It makes it much easier for the other person to respond well to us; it works in our favor. 

  3. Be empathetic.  It is so easy to just think about what we are going through and how we are feeling; that is our natural and instinctive response.  However, that also makes it much harder to work through hurts and conflicts.  This attitude makes it difficult to be more emotionally connected and close with our significant others. They will not feel safe with us, understood by us, or connected to us. Empathy is the ability to put ourselves in the other person’s shoes and feel what they are feeling, to experience the situation from their perspective.  When we can do that, it assists us in understanding the other person better.  We are able to give them the benefit of the doubt; we can trust that they must have good reason to feel what they are feeling and they are not the enemy. We have more compassion for them, which makes it easier to be flexible and collaborate with them. We get a more complete understanding of the whole situation. The other person will notice, and will feel understood.  As a result, they will have an easier time working things out with us too.  Let’s face it: we all have blind spots and can’t see all the angles and perspectives of a given situation. Developing our empathy skills will tremendously help us gain a more accurate perspective and be able to draw closer to the people who are most important to us.

  4. Be attentive.  In short, be a good listener.  Active listening can be hard to do and yet is such a crucial factor in healthy relationships.  We need to listen to the other person, and when we listen it is important that we listen to understand.  Usually we pretend to listen while we mentally line up our rebuttal.  It’s like we are putting in the required time until we get our chance to say what is really happening. That is our natural response, but sadly, it only makes things worse.  The other person can tell that we are not really listening, and they may feel like they have to up the ante to make us hear them, which usually involves some yelling or more intensity.  That is how conflicts escalate and explode, making emotional recovery and connection that much harder.  If we temporarily set aside our perspective and agenda, truly listening to the other person, the odds go way up that they will do the same for us.  This does not mean that we have to give up our perspective, concerns, or rights.  It just means that we temporarily lay them down so that we can listen and empathize better.  After we have listened well, we should be able to share our perspective, and if we have been an attentive listener, the other person will be better able to listen to us, too. 

Sheltering at home can be very tough.  Even healthy relationships can hit a rough patch, given that they are in the pressure cooker of intense time together.  If we follow these helpful guidelines and let them be our map, we can utilize this concentrated time together to work on and improve our relationships. We will be able to come out on the other side of sheltering at home with our significant relationships not just intact, but deeper and richer.