Why Your Relationship Feels Like A Struggle Right Now
If you’re in lockdown and you’re a pinkie nail away from absolutely LOSING YOUR S**T if your partner so much as BREATHES near you (ʘ‿ʘ) – you’re not alone, friend.
This is a safe space.
The last year or so has pulled a LEVEL TEN on relationships – and we’re not just talking about intimate partners. We’re talking about housemates, family members – the whole shebang.
“Lockdowns have been brutal on relationships. Small issues can become big ones when you’re in close confines for months. It’s like being in a pressure cooker,” said psychotherapist and couples counsellor Lissy Abrahams.
“It’s been very difficult, especially for those who have experienced financial difficulties and job insecurity. The daily grind has worn down many parents who have been juggling homeschooling young children with their work responsibilities.”
“They might also have a child with special needs and a lot less access to support. Throw in the challenge of border restrictions, many struggle with being separated from family.”
There’s no denying that the added stress, enforced quality time and changes in our current day-to-day routines has had a massive impact on our relationships and how we communicate with each other. And it’s been a make-or-break situation for many couples.
“All of these factors contribute to many of us struggling with anxiety, overwhelm, sadness, and even despair. Any of these can tip one or both partners over the edge. If there were any cracks in the relationship before Covid, the pressure from lockdown rips these cracks wide open.”
However, it’s important to note that it’s not the same for everyone – some couples are thriving .
“On the flip side, lockdown has also had its benefits for some couples who say they have much more time together and enjoy working from home without being under the pump all the time.”
“They may enjoy not continuously travelling overseas or interstate. They may enjoy the simplicity of being home and with their children and may have always sensed that the busy life that they have been living meant that they were missing greater connection with those under their roof.”
Abrahams said that typically these kinds of couples are in a good position.
“They have work security, can pay their rent, mortgages and household expenses without worry, their children may be older and mostly self-sufficient.”
So, with a large proportion of us still in some form of lockdown, we’ve asked Abrahams to share some of her pearls of wisdom when it comes to improving our relationships.
Why your relationship is suffering right now
According to Abrahams, there’s two common reasons why your relationship might be going a bit s**t lately: Poor communication and a lack of intimacy.
Look, we’re not experts – but we’re fairly certain these things are pretty darn important. Right?
“Many couples are fighting more frequently, being resentful about an uneven take up of household chores, and not feeling heard and understood,” said Abrahams.
“This is hard work for couples under normal circumstances and can often lead to conflict. Lockdown adds more pressure on these relationships, making life exhausting and lonely. There is less resilience now than at the beginning of lockdowns.”
When it comes to the intimacy side of things, don’t panic, though – it’s not just you. Abrahams said losing interest in being intimate with each other is another super common issue.
“Many partners say they “can’t be bothered”, “don’t feel attractive”, or “can’t get in the mood”. Intimacy is a special glue in a relationship. Without it, partners experience loneliness and unhappiness, which can be a slippery slope towards separation and divorce,” she said.
What’s more, a stale sex life can sometimes feel awkward AF to address – and a lot of people will tend to just push ahead because they feel like it’s too uncomfortable to discuss. Which is never a good thing, really.
“Feeling emotionally and physically disconnected can lead to partners feeling fearful about their partner’s interest in them, irritation or frustration, and even anger. We don’t like feeling we are moving away from our partner or that they are moving away from us emotionally.”
So, just how common are we talking?
According to Abrahams, current research on the pandemic and relationships is backing up what she’s seeing in her consulting room.
“A recent study from Indiana University revealed that 34 per cent of participants have experienced increased conflict in their relationship and decreased intimacy since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.”
“This is a worrying figure, and they are linked. The more we fight, the less we want to be close to our partner. The less intimacy we share, the more damage to the relationship.”
Just to be clear, this increased conflict can happen for a whole load of different reasons – it’s complex as heck.
“Add partners who are not doing well and rely on alcohol or substances to “just get through the day”. Add to this the fears of business owners about the survival of their business or employees who worry how long their employer will keep them on.”
Whatever affects one partner emotionally or financially, essentially impacts the other partner and their entire relationship, said Abrahams.
The good news is that there are some things you can do to fix it.
How to stop fighting with your partner
The first and most important thing to do is to take time out. Abrahams said you both need to stop interacting for about 15 minutes and wait for your nervous system to calm down.
Essentially, chill the f**k out for a couple of minutes.
“No fight will ever be resolved unless we do this, as the part of the brain and body that is active during the fight-or-flight response is a different part of the brain used for working to solve the problem,” she explains.
“That’s why it is critical to take time out. It will also help you to reconnect with a clearer mind so you can both try again with a more respectful approach.”
Another important thing to do is to try to understand the real reason why you’re fighting. Like, for real.
Abrahams said many of us will get worked up about a topic, but that’s not the real reason we fight – there’s usually underlying, unresolved issues at the core of it.
“For example, many couples fight about money, but behind this is always one partner who is feeling fear, pain or shame with their partner.”
Another example would be if our partner spends much more money than us – we can feel fearful of not having enough in the future, said Abrahams.
“Our partner may experience us as shaming them or trying to control them. It is easy to fight with these emotions going on inside us.”
Why understanding your ego is important
We’re not talking about the ego in terms of the whole ‘self-importance’ thing. Nah. We’re talking about the ego as part of your personality. Everyone has it. And it’s an integral trigger when it comes to responding to a threat or situation.
“There are different definitions of what the ego is, however, essentially it is a part of our mind that is concerned with me, my experiences, my reflections and anything that’s mine. It is my personal framework or lens that I view the world through.”
“We need our ego to get us out of bed and get dressed for work or to complete tasks or study. We are concerned with our image and identity, and success. We all need a certain amount of healthy ego strength to get on and put ourselves forward for new opportunities. This doesn’t mean the ego is bad. It’s normal.”
According to Abrahams, nothing can kill a relationship quite like an ego – so it’s important to understand what it is and how it operates, and the feelings of fear and shame that it can produce. Because this alone can help prevent a helluva lot of damage.
“The ego is the voice in our head that sounds like us. There is no physical structure called the ego, but it is linked to a part of the brain that tells stories about ourselves, others and situations. It likes to feel secure and safe, however it has no idea how to achieve this, and it can make us pretty miserable at times.”
“It creates stories about ourselves and others and judges, blames, feels inferior or superior. It likes to bolster us when we feel low or shoot us down to feel even lower. Or it does all of this to our partner. It is always involved in couple conflict and sends us into fight-or-flight mode when we feel threatened.
Just us, or does the ego kinda sounds like a… d**k?
“Our ego likes to blame our partner when we believe they “made us feel” fearful, distressed or ashamed. We cannot imagine it came from anywhere else. We fight with them and let them know why they are inadequate as a partner, why they let us down and sometimes we shout this at them.”
As we mentioned before, if you know what your ego looks like when it’s being triggered, you can better recognise what’s going on and when it might be time to take a step back and cool down.
If you’re struggling to keep your ego in check, Abrahams recommends:
1. Seeking therapy.
“It is important we understand some of the experiences that caused us fear, pain or shame in childhood with our parents or caregivers. For many of us, these experiences were traumatic. Therapy will help us identify the triggers so they don’t ruin our lives, our relationships and family.”
2. Taking an online course.
“Online courses, like the one I have created, specifically help partners understand how their ego formed from their own experiences and how it impacts their life and relationship,” she said.
3. Learning mindfulness and breathing techniques.
According to Abrahams, practices like mindfulness or breathing techniques can help identify ego-based stories and help us calm down when triggered.
How to improve communication
Upping your communication is crucial. “Without respectful and skilful communication, we will have difficulty connecting with our partner. If this is prolonged, we may even damage our relationship,” said Abrahams.
Just take a minute to think back to when you first met your partner and how… different things were when it came to being open and tolerating each other’s differences.
“When we first met our partner, we listened and shared experiences both past and present, for hours on end. Over time and with increasing life demands and some complacency, we no longer offer them the same respect and generosity of spirit.”
“We now struggle to really listen to them and them to us, we are not as curious about them anymore, and we don’t always like how they view the world. We can even shoot their opinions down as they feel too threatening to where we want to be in life.”
“Communication is essential to have a healthy and connected relationship. I have seen many couples struggle with communication, and their intimacy has suffered. Communication does not improve by itself, and couples need to work together to make it better. If couples don’t attend to it, I believe the decay settles in.”
If you and your partner are having difficulties improving your communication, Abraham recommends seeing an experienced therapist for advice.
“It is truly transformative and we can learn so much about ourselves and how we operate in our relationship. The benefits extend and often improve relationships with children, extended family, friends, and co-workers.
“You can also access online courses to work through conflict and communication problems. Seek out resources from credible experts.”
Above all, Abrahams reminds us to be mindful that, even though they are “our partner”, that does not mean that we own them. Don’t get the two confused.
“They are not an object, and we need to keep respect and care on the agenda. We need to stop trying to control our partner. We need to stop belittling or judging them or being angry or sulky with them.”
“Relationships are conditional and if we destroy too many of the conditions holding us together, they can end. We never know if we are going to be part of the 33 percent of couples who divorce each year. No couple sets out to be.”
“If we want a thriving and connected relationship, we need to do the work to understand our triggers and our conflict to bring health and joy back into our relationship.”
If you’re looking for help in improving your communication with your partner, Abrahams has a free e-book available here.