I was a newly minted psychiatrist in 1989, when the largest earthquake since 1906 struck the Bay Area. The couples I was seeing were having trouble staying connected, and helping each other through the crisis. As I listened it seemed that some of their difficulty had to do with different coping styles. One person needed to talk about their experience, especially their emotional experience, in order to feel better, while the other needed quiet or distraction and talking about the difficulties made them feel worse. One might need to get a lot of information, hourly news updates, while the other needed to avoid disturbing information. Or as one man put it, “what you’re doing to feel better is making me feel worse.”
As I shelter in place now with my husband, we’re experiencing this difficulty. He’s from New York City. He’s reading the online version of the New York Times every 20 minutes. In between he’s looking at The Washington Post and The Atlantic. I’m reading the news once a day and being sure that we have enough hand sanitizer and food for dinner. He’s calling friends all over the country, some conversations to get information, others just to be in touch with familiar voices, I’m needing long walks and quiet.
For myself and for the couples I’m in touch with I have the following ideas about how best to deal with these differences in coping styles.
The first step, of course, is to do a bit of observation: notice what each of you seems to prefer as a way of meeting life and its challenges. You might ask yourselves:
- How do we each cope with difficulties?
- Are these strategies, coping mechanisms, different for everyday difficulties than in times of extreme difficulty?
The next step is to accept these as differences. While your partner’s reactions and responses may cause you extra distress, this does not mean that they are wrong or less good than yours. We all have our style, whether it is in the shirt we wear or the armor we put on when things are extra hard.
Finally, consider the idea that, just as we are all now busily developing protocols for social distancing to help us deal with contagion, couples may need new protocols for dealing with emotional connection. Your usual way of doing this may need review and revision. For example, you may need to think deliberately and act mindfully about when and how you share information or feelings. The practice of asking for clearance before bringing up a difficult topic will be useful here*. Your partner will be much more present and receptive if the two of you choose a particular time to talk about difficult topics rather than mentioning them the fly.
Get creative. Good ideas will come out of open discussions about what works, and doesn’t work, for each of you. And think of your new “protocols” as experiments. Pay attention to your results and then review to see if new experiments or modifications are needed.
Everywhere we are seeing that people are using the special circumstances created by this crisis to learn and discover. This can be an opportunity for your couple to advance toward more understanding, wisdom and connection.