Happy relationships require some breathing space — and that’s tricky in the new era of social distancing. So, with most Australians being forced to work from home and spend oodles of time together, how can couples weather the stress storm?
Here we offer expert advice from a clinical psychologist as well as been-there-done-that relationship hacks from couples who have worked from home together for years.
What the psychologist says
All couples face disagreement or conflict at times, says clinical psychologist Michelle Gopold, owner of Melbourne-based Hobson’s Bay Psychology.
“If you hear a couple saying they never argue, it is most likely they are in denial!” she said.
Stay-home directives will inevitably place a strain on couples, particularly if they have children. Gopold says stress often occurs when couples use their defence mechanisms to protect themselves from difficult feelings, decisions and unexpected circumstances.
“For example, one person in a couple deals with problems by needing to sort the problem out straight away in order to reduce distressing feelings, but the other person in the couple needs time on their own and then when ready, return to working on the relationship,” she said.
“These two styles are neither right nor wrong but can cause a problem.”
She suggests setting ground rules from the get-go, and communicating frequently.
“Given the suddenness of coronavirus and the daily changes to our lives, I can’t emphasise talking to each other enough. And talking specifically about what these changes mean,” she said.
“The ground rules are going to be different for each couple, so it’s more about asking each other the right questions. What is a priority for each of us and what priorities do we share? What is realistically possible with all the tasks we have being at home? What can we control and what can’t we control? Who is going searching for toilet paper this week?”
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Revising the rules and routine regularly is vital, she says. And if you need external help, then reach out to organisations such as Lifeline, Beyond Blue or a psychologist. Medicare now allows bulk-billing telehealth video and telephone services so Australians can access cost-effective psychology sessions via video link if their doctor can arrange a Mental Health Care Plan.
“Gradually, people are realising that they need to really look after their mental health along with their physical health,” she says.
- Understand how your partner deals with difficult situations and be respectful if it differs from yours
- Establish priorities for your respective workloads
- Set ground rules for routines, chores and space
- Set aside time to talk openly about what’s working and brainstorm other solutions to fix what isn’t
- Reach out if you need help
Working together for 12 years — meet Ellen and Dave
Ellen and Dave Hill have run their communications consultancy, Deep Hill Media, for 12 years and, although they now have a home with roomy office space, for the first six years they were cramped.
“We were living in a tiny, tiny house where the living room and dining were combined and I had to sit on the lounge and Dave had to work from the only desk we had,” Ellen said.
It was tough, but they made it through by respecting each other’s work ethic, physically removing themselves on occasion and not micromanaging.
“David works very methodically. His desk is very tidy, he sticks to a task until it’s done whereas I am the complete opposite,” she says.
“You just have to accept people and how they work and not sweat the small stuff.
“You also need to go your separate ways. At this stage of coronavirus we are all allowed to walk around the block — get some fresh air and space and clear your head.”
She also advises to set up a routine for housework to fit in around your paid work, and keep the romance alive, too.
“Put aside time and say, ‘Kids you are in front of the TV with pizza: Dad and I are having date night and making a nice meal for ourselves and you’re not invited’!” she said.
- Keep your routine — set an alarm, get dressed and get to work
- Don’t micromanage your partner
- Feeling stressed? Walk it off
- Make a roster so you can take turns taking the kids outside
- Text or phone each other as you’d normally, rather than constantly chatting
Be kind to one another – meet Beverley and John Worrell
Freelance journalist Beverley Hadgraft and photographer/videographer John Worrell have worked in the same space for nine years in their business, Wahoo Creative. They have their own dedicated space and, while this is not possible for everyone, Hadgraft says it’s been a saving grace.
“Creative people have a tendency to be untidy (that’s my excuse anyway) and we both fulfil the brief,” she said.
“If we were in the same space the combined untidiness would be unbearable.”
Although they can close their office doors if they need privacy, Hadgraft has some great tips to help others with limited room, including great headphones, minimising daily interactions and finding positives when you’re aggravated.
“Practise aggrandisement,” she says.
“If you find yourself getting irritated about something stupid, immediately start making a list of all the great things about your partner.”
Contact with other people and a change of scenery is also important, she said.
“On Friday evenings, we were always making sure we left the house and went for a drink/meal/to see a concert/catch up with friends,” she said.
“I’m not sure how we’re going to get around that now, although I’m currently emailing friends to figure out how to organise online house parties for Friday evenings.”
- Had an argument? Wait an hour or two to cool down, make a joke and let it go
- Take the opportunity to learn from one another
- Give each other space and don’t keep interrupting with commentary on what you’re doing. Save it for the evening