Coronavirus: How to ensure your relationships survive self-isolation

Struggling to cope with spending extended periods at home? Experts share their tips on maintaining good relations with children and partners

Sophie Gallagher
Wednesday 15 April 2020 09:30 BST

On 23 March, Boris Johnson put the UK under lockdown, banning all non-essential travel and telling people to stay at home unless they meet one of a few criteria.

These include shopping for food or medication, travelling to work as a key worker or your once-daily form of exercise.

With many of us now working from home full-time or looking after children due to school closures, how will this impact our relationships?

Whether that is a couple who are both working from home, a whole family with children who need to be entertained or housemates who are finding communal living difficult, it is not yet known how long these measures may last. While it is not yet known, divorce lawyers have already forecast a spike in splits later this year due to self-isolation.

Aidan Jones, chief executive at relationship charity, Relate, says: “Our relationships will be hugely important for getting us through this unprecedented time but self-isolation, social distancing and concerns about issues like finances may also place them under added pressure.”

So how can you ensure tensions do not arise and if they do, are quickly dispelled?

With your partner:

Don’t make assumptions about how the other person feels

The coronavirus is unprecedented, not only on a societal level but for your relationship – you may have dealt with testing times before but this is likely to be a new experience. Relationship therapist Aoife Drury says the key is not to assume the other person will feel the same way about everything you’re going through. “Often we feel that others are experiencing the same emotions or thoughts that we are.

“Assumptions breed resentments as they lay down false expectations. The antithesis to assumptions are clear and open dialogues so avoid mind reading. None of us have experienced this before so we will all cope with this differently and that’s okay.”

Keep communicating

With so much going on and tensions running high, it can be hard to keep an open dialogue – especially if you’re feeling scared or upset. But Drury says it is key to keeping your relationship solid throughout. “This heightened anxiety may create strong negative emotional reactions; anger or frustration. When experiencing these emotions try and stay mindful of your responses.

“If you’re struggling with your anxiety and how you respond, the best thing you can do is communicate. Giving yourself time or telling your loved ones you’re struggling and that you may react uncharacteristically. Of course this doesn’t justify being cruel but helps ease the possibility of reacting in a way that you might regret and add to stress.”

It is very easy to slip into the blame game when we are stressed and it doesn't help anyone..."

Relationship psychotherapist Kate Moyle tells The Independent: Communication is key. Try and be as clear as possible with each other. If you are frustrated or stressed then try to use ‘I’ statements to communicate how you are feeling. ‘I feel’ is very different to ‘When you x, I x’ or ‘You make me feel’, it’s very easy to slip into the blame game when we are stressed and it doesn’t help anyone.”

Accept these circumstances are going to be testing

Aidan Jones from Relate says that you do need to give yourself some period of grace – this is an unusual time for everyone. “Understand that with the best will in the world, rows are quite likely in these circumstances. It’s how you deal with them that counts. If you tend to argue or bicker then accept that you may transfer that onto what you each think about the virus.

“You may want to know as much as possible about the situation whereas your partner may prefer to take each day as it comes. Remember that there are many different ways of coping in stressful situations and your way isn’t the only way.”

Try to put big arguments on hold

Although it is normal to expect some tension during this ongoing situation, you shouldn’t use it as a chance to vent all of your ongoing relationship issues says Jones, some things will need to be parked. “Big and difficult conversations may need to be put on hold while you deal with the current situation – this is especially true if one of you is ill or thinks they may have symptoms,” he says.

“You may have elderly parents or other family members with health problems and you may have particular worries about these people. Try to understand if your partner needs to prioritise these people at the moment. Choose your battles and weigh up if they are worth it at this time.”

Ensure you aren’t just working all the time

If you and your partner are struggling to manage working from home and your relationship then try to establish clearer ‘home life’ and ‘work life’ from now on. Moyle says that it can be hard at the beginning to separate the two and this can have a detrimental impact.

If you are working at home, there will still be home and life admin to do – set a time for this. It may feel like the house is a tip or needs cleaning, but make an executive decision to do this outside of ‘working hours’. Many of us will struggle with working from home as it limits our capacity in different ways, so try not to pile extra home stress on work stress.”

Murray Blacket, a couples counsellor, says: “If you are working from home try to establish a routine. Don’t work all day in your pyjamas. Make sure you build in breaks – tea, coffee, meals. If you have a garden go outside for an oxygen break. Don’t work all hours”.

Moyle also recommends finding shared interests or activities to do together so that you have something to share that isn’t just housework, like a new Netflix series.

For the whole family

Establish a routine

It can be tricky to establish a routine when your whole day happens within four walls but it is crucial for long-term success. Drury says: “The brain loves patterns and hates randomness, so to give it some patterns to ease it.

Moyle agrees: “Make your own routine. Children especially thrive on routine, but it’s helpful for adults too. It can be particularly challenging if there is more than one of you working from home, so try and carve out time to be spent together and time to be spent apart. E.g. at 11am you all sit down and have a coffee together.”

Set family goals and expectations

Couples therapist Dr Kalanit Ben-Ari says now we know we’re likely to be indoors for a long time, sit down with your family – especially your children – and discuss how this is going to work.

For example, children will be expected to do homework at this time, or help with laundry and the dishwasher. If you and your partner are now working from home, be aware that this is a change of the unspoken contract between you. Talk about expectations and if you need to change up certain responsibilities,” she says.

Dr Ben-Ari also thinks this is a good opportunity to come up with a family project. “[It is] a great way to occupy everyone and do the things you’ve wanted for years but didn’t think you had the time. Organise all your old family photographs into photo books – the perfect way to reminisce, bond and pass the time.”

Designate areas of the house

Psychotherapist Lucy Beresford says even if you live in a one-bedroom flat you should try to designate different areas as ‘work’, ‘chill-out’, ‘privacy’ and ‘interaction’.

“If you are not living alone, sit down quickly to draw up rules about these spaces, so that your partner or flatmate or child know what happens where. You wouldn’t go to the loo in the kitchen sink, so similarly everyone needs to know that ‘that sofa is for chill-out’ not for work.

Moyle suggests making activity corners in different spaces. “ It will help you to feel that you are doing things differently. Have a book or reading corner, an art corner, a building games corner.”

While making these spaces, Blacket says it would be a good idea to make a “timeout zone” – this isn’t necessarily just for children. “When we are stuck close together the opportunity to be by yourself for a while is important,” he says. Take a short break in this space and do something you want to do for yourself – whether this is writing a diary or watching a quick TV show.

Don’t avoid answering kids questions about coronavirus

Many parents probably feel like they don’t want to talk anymore about the coronavirus – especially as it is the reason you are stuck in the house in the first place. But if children have legitimate questions and you refuse to answer them this could cause more tension.

Drury says: “Kids are smart and will have lots of questions. Shutting down questions will only create confusion, upset and anxiety. Talking to them about what is happening in a factual way can alleviate that. Take your cues from your child and prepare but don’t prompt for questions.”

Treat each other with kindness

Regardless of who you are sharing your home with during self-isolation, every relationship can be improved with kindness. Beresford says: “Recognise that everyone is going to be feeling some strain. Even children who are delighted to be off school will sense there is a negative backdrop to it all. Practice gratitude, and daily thank those around you.

“Pat yourself on the back every day for what you have dealing with, and extend such generosity of spirit to those you live with. If you feel yourself about to snap at anyone – or berate yourself – try the ‘5 second breather’ technique: inhale for 5 seconds, hold for 5 seconds, exhale for 5 seconds.”

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