These are extraordinary times: many of us working from home, kids around 24/7, the world at war with an invisible killer . . .
We’re tense and irritable – and almost inevitably relationships take strain.
“At the start of lockdown there was more of a sense of people getting into the spirit of the new normal,” says Cheryl Sol, a psychologist from Kloof, KwaZulu- Natal. “But after the president made his announcement that this period will be extended, this started to fizzle out. Organisations offering free therapy online or over the telephone suddenly experienced a spike from couples in trouble.”
As lockdown life drags on, YOU spoke to experts for practical advice on how to keep your relationship on the straight and narrow during this harrowing time. “You’re in this together,” Sol says. “And togetherness is the foundation of all relationships.”
Surviving work from home
This is probably the first time you’re working in the same environment, which means you’re spending every hour of every day together – eating, sleeping and working within metres of each other.
Try to give each other as much space as possible, says Diane Fine, a social worker with the Family Life Centre in Johannesburg and a specialist in couples counselling.
Separate your workspaces. “If your partner is comfortable working in the lounge, set yourself up at the dining room table or in the study if you have one,” she says.
“It takes greater patience and tolerance and lots of respectful communication when you’re suddenly working under the same roof.”
Charl Hattingh, a Cape Town-based psychologist, says boundaries are more important than ever. “Draw clear distinctions between work and leisure. Even if your space is small, create specific spaces for working and others for relaxing,” he advises. “Normally there are actions that aid the transition between roles – the commute to and from work, taking off work clothes. Find new ways of telling yourself and your partner, ‘Now I’m all about work, but later I’m your lover who can be playful’.”
It’s important to have rules from the outset about how each room in the home is used, says Leandi Buys, a relationship therapist from Port Elizabeth. “For example, the bedroom is only for sleeping or alone time, while the lounge and dining area are for working, watching TV or eating together.”
Stick to the same routine as when you used to go out to work every day, says Paula Quinsee, a relationship expert from Joburg and author of the book Embracing Conflict. Fine agrees. “Get up, shower, get dressed as if you’re going to work.
Have breakfast, read the news and prepare to ‘go’ to work. You might need to sit quietly for a short while as if travelling to work, and the same applies at the end of the day – sit quietly for a few minutes before you join your partner and family.”
The minefield of household tasks
Each partner has their strong points and contributes in their own way, Quinsee says. Talk about this and assign tasks according to preference.
“Discuss what you feel your individual and collective strengths are and any specific tasks you’d prefer to do over others – such as washing dishes instead of ironing. If there are tasks you both don’t like, alternate them so you share the responsibility,” she adds.
She warns against a strict schedule as it can make one of you feel as if they’re being held to ransom. She suggests rather focusing on working together as a team and doing chores as and when they arise.
Fine agrees. “You might feel your partner doesn’t clean the dishes as thoroughly as you’d like. Your choice then is to take this on as your chore, or just accept that when your partner does it they won’t meet your standards and just let it go.”
If you have children, involve them in the household chores but accept that you and your partner won’t necessarily supervise them in the same way. Don’t let it become a bone of contention – as long as the work gets done, it doesn’t matter if it doesn’t done your way.
How to keep your kids busy
“Don’t criticise each other,” Quinsee says. “It’s just going to cause conflict and have a negative impact on the kids. You’ll both have different parenting styles based on how you were raised, so you’re bound to have differences – and that’s okay.
“Allow each other some leeway about how you individually interact with your kids and build your relationship with them. If there are specific tasks you’re disagreeing on, for example how much screen time they can have each day, find a middle ground,” she adds.
Explore new ways of keeping the children entertained but don’t overthink it, Fine says. “Remember, kids are far more flexible than adults.”
Concede a battle to win the war
Lockdown is bound to amplify the weak points in your relationship, and you need to work hard to be more tolerant, whether it’s about the house being untidy or your partner’s irritating habits, Sol says.
For instance, you might hate that your partner watches YouTube clips in bed but before you lay into them, think about what it is they find annoying about you. Taking a step back before you open your mouth is always a good idea.
Talk about how you can handle these irritations. “Establish a codeword that can be used when the issue needs to be let go of and you need time to cool down,” Fine adds.
“Selective avoidance” is a handy approach when there’s no solution to a specific issue, Hattingh adds. Sometimes you simply need to ask yourself, “What’s more important to you? Being right or the health of your relationship?”
Before an issue becomes an out-ofcontrol emotional storm prohibiting rational thought, say something such as, “I’m going to take time out to cool down.”
Then go to a different room or onto the balcony or into the garden to calm down – but tell your partner why you’re leaving, Fine says. Don’t just storm out. Focus on the current situation and what you want your relationship to look like once lockdown is over, she adds.
Create a happy place
Before lockdown, you would’ve been able to walk the dog or visit a friend when you needed to get away from it all – but that’s no longer possible.
It’s important to keep in touch with family, friends, neighbours and colleagues in order not to feel isolated. If Tuesdays used to be girls’ night out, keep it up, just move it online, Quinsee says.
Under normal circumstances it might not be appreciated if one partner retreats into themselves after a long workday – the other partner might even experience it as passive-aggressive, Hattingh says.
But lockdown is far from normal. “The rules have changed. Establish that it’s okay if one of you wants to spend a little time alone. Make it clear it’s not rejection.”
Find new ways of spending time together, such as playing cards or building a puzzle, rather than just lounging in front of the TV, Quinsee advises. “And there’s no reason why lockdown should mean date night is a thing of the past.”
Make a special dinner one night a week, set the table, dress up, put the kids to bed early and enjoy each other’s company. A little effort goes a long way.