Managing Family & Relationship Stress During the COVID19 Pandemic

Managing Family & Relationship Stress During the COVID19 Pandemic

“I’m renting a car and getting the hell out of here,” declared a client with a significant amount of hysteria in her voice. “Where are you going?” I asked softly, attempting to diminish her reactivity. My question was met with a long pause that indicated her destination hadn’t yet been completely mapped out. Finally, she responded with great conviction, “Anywhere…that is…anywhere he ISN’T! If I stay with this man for a minute longer, we’re going to have to conduct the next session from my jail cell in Rikers Island.”


The COVID-19 pandemic has made it difficult being human. Millions of Americans have been laid off, furloughed or, had their livelihoods decimated. In addition to financial stresses, our most primitive needs for safety, security, and stability have evaporated overnight.  Several of my patients have mentioned they feel they’re at war, in the trenches fighting for their lives. Everyone speaks in terms of how “frightening,” “dangerous,” and “hostile,” the world we live in has become.


During the past several weeks, my clients and I have spent hours processing the fear and anxiety produced by experiences that were once commonplace and nurturing. One patient of mine, a mother of three, couldn’t help but focus on how excursions to her local market fill her with panic. “My grocery store has become enemy territory. How do I know that the carton of milk that I bring back isn’t going to infect my family with coronavirus?” Another spoke of the unseen dangers lurking in her home. “I look at my kitchen counter like it’s a ticking bomb that will explode with corona any second.”  Everyone’s experiencing a level of exhaustion, stretched to their emotional and physical limits trying to contain the fear and chaos of the pandemic; and as bad as it is now, we are told that it’s going to get worse before it gets better.


This time we’re living through might feel unendurable, which is straining many relationships to what seems like a breaking point. During a recent virtual check-in with a client, I kicked off the session as I frequently do—asking how she was doing. The reply was fast and furious. “The first thing I’m doing once this [pandemic] recedes is contacting my divorce attorney and filing. He actually complained that I made him the same dinner twice in a row. He’s lucky he’s eating anything at all.” Uncomfortable patterns in relationships that have been overlooked for years have suddenly become unbearable, amplified by COVID-19’s wattage. Personality traits that were mildly annoying in better times have become excruciating in this crisis.


As a licensed marriage and family therapist (LMFT) I have the privilege of helping families and couples navigate challenging times. My brand of relational therapy provides strategies that enable couples and families to do more than just survive difficult moments—whatever the cause or trigger of the difficulty. Right now, we’re living in a time of external challenges that are putting consistent stress on our internal lives and relationships. The tactics clients and I regularly practice in sessions are highly relevant in navigating the heightened levels of stress, fear, and uncertainty that define our conditions at this moment.  Such tactics and strategies move us beyond managing and surviving; they help us find a higher level of functioning and relational satisfaction.


During this period of “sheltering in place,” I find myself coming back to the following tactics with all of my clients—and in my own life:

  1. Practice Strategic Vulnerability: Even in the best of times, we should embrace and expose our vulnerabilities strategically, bringing intentionality and awareness to the process of revealing our vulnerabilities in specific situations. This is especially true for people who have experienced any type of trauma in their developmental path. Yes, vulnerability can provide opportunities to enhance our individual and relational well-being, but only if it’s utilized in situations that make us feel safe, secure, and cared for. Relative security is crucially important for vulnerability to lead to breakthroughs. That means we should be vulnerable with the people worthy of holding our vulnerability. Otherwise, vulnerability should be strategically called on in situations where we want to intentionally take risks to test the integrity of the relationship and challenge ourselves to grow. Strategic vulnerability is the process of determining when it is safe to be vulnerable and have clearly defined goals for allowing the vulnerability to occur. In this time of fear and uncertainty, we must be extra cautious with how and with whom we share our vulnerabilities.
  2. Create Shared Meaning: The most successful couples have developed a shared resiliency that helps them transcend stress in their relationship. At the heart of resiliency is meaning. Purpose and meaning protect us from the destructive forces that threaten us and our relationships. When couples come together to find the shared meaning of their relationship, in the midst of any type of stress they are always able to return to that sense of shared meaning. While we are living in an unprecedented time, couples need to actively search for shared meaning in the trials and tribulations that the pandemic has brought into relationships and families.
  3. Accept That Some Things Cannot Be Changed: We are living in exhausting times. Just getting out of bed and trying to navigate the day is arduous and stressful. Rather than fighting the reality around us, we can accept it. Acceptance changes our perspective and focus. By becoming a bit more myopic or narrowing our focus, we choose to look at what’s significant in our lives. We focus on what and who matters, and tune out or turn down the volume on what really doesn’t matter. That has to include the little things our loved ones do or say that sometimes annoy us. Now is not the time to prove a point or try to change a loved one’s perspective or habits. Now is the time for caring for ourselves and our loved ones. That is, rather than bemoaning the present state of our lives, we need to accept that things are rough, that they will continue to be rough for the near future, and that we can channel our energies into protecting ourselves and those we love from harm. In this process, we can reset our lens and focus, and our feelings of stress retreat.


History shows us that in times of challenge, it is possible to do more than survive. It’s possible to emerge from periods of stress, change, and fear with a stronger sense of self, a deeply committed relationship, and a stronger family dynamic. To accomplish these objectives, families must move intentionally through their fears, into their vulnerabilities, and to a place of trust with themselves and their loved ones. Don’t let this period of historical significance pass by underutilized. Take the stresses, fears, and challenges that have become a temporary part of our new day-to-day experience and use them to propel you and your family into a higher, more compassionate and evolved level of functioning.

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