How to Protect Yourself from Landmines that Can Blow Up Your Relationship During Quarantine
Conflict can be expected for quarantined couples. Confiding, listening, and problem-solving skills help couples emerge stronger, more connected, and loving.
Can you think of a worse time to have a home dissolve into a tension-filled demilitarized zone than in the face of a global pandemic? Many of us are spending a lot more time with our significant others these days. More time on the field of life together can mean more conflict.
Becoming aware of the unique, often hidden expectations we bring to our intimate relationships is a good place to start fortifying. With structure and courage, couples can emerge from the COVID-19 threats stronger, more connected, and loving.
No Place to Hide
Hidden assumptions and expectations can be like landmines waiting to go off, especially during times of stress. With everything shutdown, there’s no place to hide. Deeper understanding and learning to become our own counselors and therapists may be the only choice. Skills that provide structure can help.
Often, we don’t even know what our expectations are of intimates until they’re not fulfilled. The signs are internal: anger, sadness, disappointment, fear, hurt, or resentment. More than the issues themselves, what we do about it determines the outcome.
Kris and Cathy are Quarantined
Kris and Cathy (not their real names) are quarantined together in a modest Fort Lauderdale apartment they just moved into. After a couple adjustment days, they spend Saturday morning rearranging furniture. From Cathy’s perspective, the furniture had been shoved wherever it fit by the Two Men and a Truck crew without any sense of planning or aesthetics.
Leave Me Alone!
The more things got moved around, the more agitated Kris became. As she noticed Kris brewing, Cathy tried to calm things down with some light chitchat. Kris exploded and stormed into the spare bedroom, slamming the door behind.
Cathy knew something was up, but waited until Kris calmed down to ask what caused the upset? In an instant, Kris was furious again, “Why can’t you ever leave me alone? Why can’t you ever leave anything alone? Why do you always have to change everything?”
Cathy Walks Away
Shocked that her attempt to reach out had been seen as intrusiveness, Cathy walked away. Neither of them spoke of the incident, or much of anything, for the entire week.
When they finally did discuss it, Cathy told Kris it was important for her to understand what happened because she had been uncomfortable ever since. Were there some unspoken rules that she had not lived up to?
Kris Opens Up
Kris, unaware until that moment that the incident had been such a big deal and broken Cathy’s trust, said, “This is the third time in a year that I’ve moved. I just started a new job. The living room was the only room in the apartment that worked for me, the only place where I could just relax. I liked it the way it was and I needed to feel settled. That’s why I got upset. When you pretended to ignore me, I got even angrier. I felt like you were pushing me around, trying to control me by telling me where everything should go.”
A confiding tool helped Kris break all of this down into a series of hidden expectations to come up with this list:
Loving Me Means …
- Loving me means knowing I need to feel settled and not changing around the places where I feel comfortable and secure.
- Loving me means paying attention to me. You should have known I was getting upset and why. When you ignored me, it felt like you obviously didn’t care how I felt.
- Loving me means not trying to control me. Trying to make moving the furniture fun when I was angry felt like you were treating me like a child.
After looking at the list, Kris apologized to Cathy. “I’m sorry it took me so long to think about what really bothered me,” Kris told her. “I guess I expect things of you that are unrealistic.”
Reworking Their Expectations
Together, they reworked the list of expectations to help them avoid similar misunderstandings in the future:
- If I expect you to understand what I need, I have to tell you. That means that I have to first figure out what I need. If I had thought about it instead of blaming you for how I was feeling, I would have understood why I got angry while we were moving the furniture.
- I can’t expect you to care about how I feel unless I tell you how I feel in the first place.
- I realize I have a choice about what we do, and that asking me to do something does not mean that you are trying to control me.
This discussion helped Cathy recognize some of her own hidden assumptions. She told Kris she realized that if she had worried less about avoiding a fight, she might have been more aware of what was happening. They agreed that if Kris had volunteered what was going on at the time, they would have decided to rearrange the furniture some other day or just to leave the living room alone.
Hidden Assumptions Many Share in Common
Our hidden assumptions and expectations are unique to each of us, but there are several that couples have in common. For example:
- Loving me means not trying to control me.
- Loving me means knowing what I want and what I feel.
- Loving me means agreeing with me.
Exacerbated Under Stress
Many landmines are set off by the way we deal with an intimate when he or she does express feelings of anger and pain.
- When I try to tell you how I feel, you criticize, advise, judge or dismiss my feelings. I feel frustrated, betrayed and not listened to, so I stop confiding in you. We live as strangers.
- When you are in pain, I feel that it is my responsibility to fix it for you, but I don’t know how or I can’t, so I feel inadequate. I blame you and distance from you so I won’t feel inadequate.
- When you are unhappy, it must be because I am not doing something right. I feel guilty for not being able to make you happy, so I withdraw from you.
Finding Their Truth
Although it takes courage, expressing your feelings about a given situation and asking for your partner’s honesty in return is the only way to discover truth in your relationship. That doesn’t work when couples expect mind reading or communication is primarily nonverbal. Genuine, thoughtful responses are vital. Telling someone what you think he or she wants to hear, instead of what is really going on, leads to more pain, distance, and resentment, postponing finding useful solutions to whatever problems arise.
While some assumptions may be unrealistic, that does not invalidate the feelings behind them. When we don’t understand our own emotional intensity, we often either suppress it or act on it in ways that make things worse. Dismissing an emotion because you don’t understand it cheats you out of the chance to understand more about ourselves.
Preventing a Wedge Between Them
If Kris continued to ignore the anger that was there while moving furniture, they would have set themselves up for repeated outbursts and misunderstandings that would drive a wedge between them. By using the experience to understand the basic need to have a place that felt safe and secure while every other aspect of life felt uncertain, Kris and Cathy were able to create a routine that gave them both what they wanted, including a place in their apartment that was entirely for Kris.
Three Typical Sources of Friction
These kinds of relationship landmines are often around three areas that are a common source of friction or disappointment for many couples.
We’re not the same: Many people point to differences (about politics, taste, work, food, children, etc.) as evidence that their spouse does not love them. Differences are a natural part of every relationship. The irony is that we’re often drawn to people because of differences. Couples have to be able to negotiate solutions. We cannot assume differences mean a lack of love.
Some people feel that when differences surface, it means one person must be wrong. When it comes to intimacy, the goal is to deal with differences in ways that improve the relationship for both people. That’s not something that comes from winning or blaming, but it does come with understanding and empathy.
Don’t tell me what to do: Tensions often develop when one person believes the other is being controlling, smothering, or trying to change them. If we can’t be in a relationship where it’s safe to ask each other for what we want, we are likely to miss out on one of life’s greatest pleasures. Often, changing that attitude of hearing requests as attempts to control, rather than expecting a change in the partner’s behavior, is what it takes to stop feeling powerless.
I can’t fix it: Many people have the belief that when someone is upset, we have to fix it or fix ourselves. When we can’t fix it, we feel resentful, inadequate, or guilty. To avoid those feelings, we decide we don’t want to hear about our partner’s feelings. Without emotional openness, intimacy eventually dies. Along the way, this attitude leads to alienation and isolation. We need to be able to listen to and confide in our partners.
Checking Out Assumptions
The best way to avoid relationship landmines is to openly check out your own assumptions and your partner’s. Anytime you are confused about something a loved one did or said (and sometimes even when you aren’t confused), ask what’s going on. Often, our assumptions are not correct. If we don’t check them out, we can’t really know, react appropriately, and allow the relationship to evolve and blossom. Behavior based on false assumptions leads to enormous misunderstandings and distance.
We need to teach loved ones what pleases us and what distresses us. At the same time, we need to be able to listen for information and decide if and what we can (or want to) change for a better relationship. Learning to give and receive in a mutually loving relationship is a source of great joy.
For couples quarantined together, emerging with deeper understanding, acceptance, and closeness is a gift worth all the courage it takes.