Effective interpersonal communication is hard. When you add in the challenges and stressors of a global pandemic, it can feel nothing short of impossible. You may find it more difficult to respond to stressful situations calmly. You may find yourself snapping at your partner or feeling like you just need some time to yourself. You may feel angrier than normal. Given the unprecedented and uncertain times, that all makes sense. It’s important to recognize and validate how you are feeling in order to work towards meaningful change within your relationship.
So how do we help keep our relationships intact during this time? Here are 3 practical tips.
Practice the pause
Take a moment before you automatically respond. During times of high stress, we often have a tendency to respond defensively. There are significant changes that can happen in the brain, particularly when we are in fight or flight mode (which, you guessed it, can absolutely be triggered when we are in a conflict or are talking about an emotionally-charged topic). Our prefrontal cortex, the part of our brain we use to make rational decisions, tends to go “offline” when we perceive a threat. When we take a pause and observe one or more deep breaths, we engage our parasympathetic nervous system. This system is also known as the “rest and digest” system and helps to reset our bodies to a state of calm. When we check in with ourselves and take a moment before responding, we increase the likelihood that our communication will be more effective. Ask yourself these questions before you start a conversation:
- Is it true?
- Is it necessary?
- Is it kind?
These questions can help guide you when you are questioning how to interact with your partner.
Identify your needs and assertively describe them to those around you.
How can we expect others to know what we need if we aren’t entirely sure ourselves? We sometimes fall into the trap of feeling like our significant other “should” know what we are thinking. After all, don’t they know us best? Resist this trap by recognizing that we are all complicated individuals and it is not possible, even for those who know us well, to be able to read our minds. It is up to us to explore what we need and to make that known.
For example, instead of going radio silent because your partner hasn’t been helping around
the house (even though he/she is currently on a pandemic induced furlough and has loads more
time on his/her hands), consider expressing your needs. Talk about how you are feeling. Try “I am feeling really overwhelmed with household tasks. My experience is that a lot of the weight has been on my shoulders. How can we work together to help each of us feel more supported and less over-burdened? It would really help me if you could take over x, y, z (you fill in the blanks with tasks that, when taken off your plate, would be really helpful).
Engage with empathy and attribute the best possible intentions to the behaviors of others.
Was your partner short with you or made an insensitive comment upon seeing you after work? You get to decide how you think about that interaction. You can choose to identify with, “What a jerk. His parents clearly never taught him how to act.” You may also default to “What did I do to make her mad?” Or, you can look at all the potential causes of the behavior. Is it possible that your partner was holding on to a comment you made last night that he or she never shared with you? Sure. What other reasons might be driving their behavior? Do a quick brainstorming session and you’ll be amazed at the other potential contributing reasons, which may include: he had broken sleep because he was up worrying about how to pay next month’s bills, she just received bad news from work and hasn’t had a chance to talk it through with you yet, someone cut him off on the way home and he nearly avoided an accident and his cortisol and adrenaline levels are still very high.
Remember, choosing empathy doesn’t mean you agree with or accept the behavior, it just means you make a decision to think and subsequently act more reasonably from a curious perspective. Not only does engaging with empathy help your partner, but it helps you. Choosing a different mindset, one of empathy, can decrease the potential for reactivity and save you a lot of time and energy.
Pay attention to how you feel when testing out some of these tips. You may find that your sense of frustration and irritability is reduced, even if your partner isn’t changing behaviors to the degree you’d ultimately hope. Effective communication has to start sometime. If not now, when?