The Bay Area's extended order to shelter in place provides opportunities to learn all about your partner's idiosyncrasies.
It's been nearly four weeks since residents across the region began to hole up at home with their laptops, hand weights, Netflix, and partners. Living together took on a new meaning as we began sharing spaces with these new coworkers 24/7.
"I just feel for people right now," said Erika Boissiere, a marriage and family therapist and founder of The Relationship Therapy Group. "It's really tough. Especially if you're in a small space where it's hard to find actual physical space from your partner, which is unique for city dwellers."
Boissiere's message rings especially true for this writer. The day sheltering started my partner packed his bags and came to keep me company in a small one-bedroom near Golden Gate Park. The past several days have been a nonstop stream of questioning, confusion, negotiation, and apology. I've learned that I chew loudly, play music frequently, reposition constantly, and can't help but fixate over our daily reserve and consumption of food. I've also learned that my person gets up before the sun, wears headphones constantly, and never puts teabags directly in the trash bin.
"Working in close quarters and having different working styles can be a challenge," said therapist Fiachra Figs O'Sullivan, founder of Figs & Associates. "The important thing to find is empathy with your partner, not the solution to the physical problem, especially here in SF where everyone is so good at problem-solving and creating spreadsheets."
For O'Sullivan, the issue isn't who wins when my partner wants silence and I want a dance party or he wants leftovers when I want to get takeout, it's whether or not we're on the same side. "Get to a place where you can see how it's actually really hard for both people," said O'Sullivan. "Acknowledge what's difficult for your partner about the non-ideal aspects of this new working situation. Combine the two separate suffering bubbles into one bubble, so we can see that this is actually very hard for both of us."
Even for partners who are well-adjusted to living together, forced working from home brings new challenges. "I've been working from home for a couple of years," said publisher Natalie Wages. "And everything was moving along swell until we both started working from home."
When Wages' partner was sequestered to their Oakland home, she gave up her home office and move to the couch. "He's a civil engineer and requires this whole elaborate setup and six feet of space to shuffle around papers and drawings," said Wages. "All I needed was a laptop, so I moved my desk out to the living room, where I stare at the park and mostly listen to him singing all day."
While her partner's workday serenades (a habit that started long before sheltering in place) were a surprise, they aren't really a source of conflict. "He wears ear buds so he doesn't know how loud he is. I can hear him through the wall, but I'm sure he can hear both ends of every conversation I'm working on too."
Reactions and responses to the shelter-in-place mandate are as varied as the relationships in which they're experienced. "Our first four or five days of this lockdown did not go well," said O'Sullivan, whose wife is also a therapist. "I go inward and get self-absorbed. My wife comes out and wants more of me and more connection when she's stressed out and overwhelmed. It's a pretty normal dynamic, but not an easy one."
"It almost feels like whatever problems there were before [COVID-19], there's magnification of them," said Boissiere, who is also married to a fellow therapist. "There's a ton of adjustment and transition all happening at the same time. Anxiety is coming home regarding how much to store, how much to save, how much to spend at Safeway. Suddenly you're side-by-side at a computer getting newsfeeds about the changing atmosphere. Maybe you've got your home-schooled kids. It's almost like a submarine—you're trapped in this thing you can't really get out of."
The solution for Boissiere is three-fold and starts with self-awareness.
- "Dial into your own mood and own that space of when you're about to snap or you're exhausted or cranky."
- The next step is to articulate your needs to your partner, whether that's a shower, a walk, or an hour to zone out on the phone. "Once we take physical space (even in the most confined situation), the brain tends to follow." Ideally you and your partner would agree on these terms in advance, to avoid projecting or absorbing a partner's emotions in the moment.
- Finally, be willing to help your partner through the journey. "Don't attempt or expect mind-reading. Clarify, is it something that I did? If not, accept that the answer is no."
For O'Sullivan, the solution is always about empathy. "If you want a better relationship regardless of the circumstances, you have to attend to your emotional bond," he said. "The problem is not the problem, the way you talk and think about it is." He created an emotional coaching method called Empathi to assist couples in understanding their individual love and relationship strategies. You (and your partner) can take a free quiz to get a better idea of how your approaches work (or don't work) together.
Gal & Liron: Coming Together During Concerning Times www.youtube.com
In a recent video on their YouTube channel, lovers and therapists Gal Szekely and Liron Cohen, founders of San Francisco's The Couples Center, outline three tips for managing relationships under unique pressure. Not surprisingly, the key work is connection.
"This virus has the tendency to create isolation, our tendency is to do the opposite, to connect and reach out," said Cohen.
The emotional connection is the bedrock of establishing collective peace, but there's also practical advice for adjusting expectations and maximizing your situation. For high-achievers, working from home may require resetting expectations.
"Plan to be able to accomplish about four to six hours of real, deep work in a day," Erik Messner wrote in a Facebook post targeted at workers in the knowledge economy. "More is impossible. Less is likely." In addition to running his own business as a structural engineer, Messner is a father of two and head beekeeper for his wife's business, Messner Bee Farm.
"Work out a deal with your partner that the dedicated [work] time is sacred. Be prepared to make sacrifices here, it's a negotiation. What's important is that once it's set, everyone respects the deal."
Setting structure is difficult for someone like me, who likes to move with her emotions and whose work schedule changes from one day to the next, but it's a critical component of my partner's sanity.
"You will be tempted to not shave or shower, and stay in your pajamas all day," writes Messer. "Do it for a few days, it's fun. Then go back to showering, shaving, and getting dressed every day as though you were going to the office. Your brain works in habits and cues, and if you don't set a routine, you'll constantly be swimming against the stream of your mind."
In the moments of focus, you can disconnect from your partner and dive into your work (or Zoom calls, case maps, and cat videos as the case may be). But interspersing the day with shared breaks from isolation can bring levity and connection in small and necessary doses.
I've been attempting to join my partner for online sculpt classes at 6am three times a week. Why we have to work out that early when the class is pre-recorded is something I still don't understand, but the shared achievement is pretty satisfying.
Wages and her partner start their day with coffee together and try to plan lunch breaks or some form of exercise. She's also invited (i.e. forced) him to join her daily meditations. "We're about two weeks in and I just learned he's doing it lying down with his eyes open," said Wages. "I don't think it's working for him yet."
For many, it's the start and end of the day that make the most impact, and the little things that really matter, like a short shoulder rub as you pass behind or a sincere "how are you?" when you can tell that something's not right.
"It's going to ebb and flow and change daily, maybe even hourly," said Boissiere. "Some days you'll be just fine and other days you're going to really feel it. If there's anything I could wish for right now it'd be for all of us to take a deep breath and try our hardest to realize we're under significant stress, and hold each person as sweetly as you possibly can."
Bay Area Resources for Couples
Book a free consultation or schedule online therapy sessions through The Relationship Therapy Group. // 415-519-6446, trisf.com
Schedule online individual or couples therapy sessions with the specialists at Therapy with Figs. // 415-967-3447, therapywithfigs.com
Learn more about who you are and how you function in loving relationships with free a self-discovery report, relationship report, and other online tools and exercises with Empathi. // empathi.com
Get discounted rates for online therapy through The Couples Center, and access their free online video course or checkout their YouTube videos on sheltering-in-place on YouTube. // 415-322-0417, thecouplescenter.org