Navigating relationships through the coronavirus crisis

Co-written with Shirlee Kay, a therapist and couples’ counsellor

30 March 2020

We have now had our first week of living under the government’s rules on staying at home and away from others.  Weather-wise it has been a glorious start to Spring with beautiful clear blue skies but otherwise it has been the start of an unprecedented new and uncertain way of life for those living in the UK and elsewhere during the COVID-19 crisis.

Marriages and relationships can be difficult at the best of times but we are now in completely unchartered territory. In this blog, Shirlee Kay, a therapist and couples’ counsellor, and I reflect on how these challenging times can affect relationships and provide some suggestions as to how couples can best navigate relationships through this pandemic.

How might COVID-19 affect relationships?

Whilst these are unprecedented times, we know that many people decide to end their marriages after spending intense periods of time together over Christmas and New Year and the summer holidays.  Not only does familiarity breed contempt but we are often fed unrealistic expectations of what a romantic or family Christmas or summer holiday should be like and the reality does not match it. Alternatively, for some people these times are an opportunity to take stock, gain perspective from their busy lives and make changes such as ending a relationship. I often also see this when people are taking stock of their lives after a major life event such as bereavement, illness, children leaving home or loss of a job.  Sometimes couples look back and think that they made this decision too hastily at a time of turbulence (which they may later regret) and at other times, it is the right decision and leads to a new life.

Someone having an extra marital affair is likely to find themselves navigating even trickier waters than usual. Even if the person having the affair does not necessarily want to leave their marriage, in my experience at these times of heightened intensity, they are more likely to be found out or to come clean.  During these crunch periods, there is less opportunity for an affair to continue secretly, and so people find themselves under pressure (or with no choice but) to leave their marriage for the other person.

Naturally, one of the biggest concerns is the worry, and sadly for many the reality, of our or a loved one’s becoming sick. Even without that, families will have to juggle home schooling and entertaining their children whilst working from home and being under the same roof as their spouse for an inordinate and indefinite length of time. In some households, both parties will be trying to work from home, whereas in others, workers in some industries, such as hospitality, travel, retail and entertainment, will have lost their jobs, either temporarily or permanently, and so be under added financial and psychological pressure. At the other end of the spectrum, NHS and other key workers will be working all hours trying to keep our country running. Many won’t be seeing their families and they will be under immense physical, emotional and psychological strain with what they and their colleagues have to deal with.

Of course this new chapter in our history and the pressures on relationships do not compare to Christmas or the summer holidays, but if relationships flounder at what are meant to be the highlights of the year, what chance do they have now? I have been a family solicitor for almost 18 years, yet I can’t predict how relationships will fare under the new rules occasioned by the pandemic.  However, we do know that adversity often brings people together and so I suspect and hope that as we adjust to our new lives people will get through this together, and that many relationships will survive and be strengthened as a result.

I asked Shirlee Kay, a therapist and couples’ counsellor, to share her thoughts on the initial impact she is seeing on relationships so far from the coronavirus crisis and for some tips on how couples can cope through this challenging time and withstand the test to their relationship.

Navigating relationships through turbulent times from a therapist’s perspective

By Shirlee Kay

When Rachel, a family lawyer, asked if I would like to co-write a blog on “Relationships in Times of Covid-19” my first thought was how different our jobs are. I work with couples to see if their relationships can improve and get better; Rachel works with them once they’ve decided that they can’t. That was then, COVID-19 has changed everything for all couples regardless of what stage their relationships are at.

In the past few weeks, I have noticed increased anxiety with some of my clients; they come into sessions just needing to talk, to name their anxiety and to give voice to it. I soon realised how important this process was for clients; it was a way of making sense of a world that they suddenly found themselves in. It was the beginning of going inwards to comprehend the incomprehensible: the ‘unknown dread’ of not knowing when or how this epidemic will end.

Recently, as the virus worsened, and the government started shutting down schools, businesses and restricting movement, I began to notice other things shifting with my clients. What interested me was the focus of the sessions. Couples began to fixate less on their divisions and more on what they shared in common. The compassion that was often absent was suddenly accessible to couples, despite feeling scared and depleted. I left sessions in awe of their capacity to be generous and loving to one another when the week before some were at each other’s throat. Their clarity and perspective shifted, and they began to see what mattered, what was important, and what wasn’t.

Some of the issues, both practically and emotionally, are still being worked through in sessions (via Skype). With most couples, the immediate priority is to address the forced changes to everyday life. With schools closed, child care is a major issue that couples need to negotiate. I spoke to a client yesterday who said that her children were home, there was no child care, and both her and her husband needed to work from the house. She said she was stressed about juggling this and was apprehensive about asking her husband for help because he earned more than her. In normal times, this conversation might be manageable, and even avoidable, but now this couple needed to address it immediately. These times open up the opportunity to allow us to be authentic and honest with each other, to cut through the narratives we all carry in our heads and to see things clearly.

In the light of this crisis, we have the chance to create a new paradigm for our relationships, our children, and how we move through our lives now and in the future. But, before we are able to do this, we need to learn to manage our anxiety and fear. Some of us will find this far more challenging than others, for those who suffer from high anxiety the challenge to contain it is far more difficult. Still, after working with couples for decades, I truly believe in people, in their resilience and ability to overcome adversity and come together.

Some tips from Shirlee Kay to lower anxiety and support each other in the relationship:

  • Remember, you need to take care of yourself before you can take care of your partner.
  • Acknowledge your feelings but stop yourself getting caught up in your negative thoughts. Pause, let the thoughts go, and return to the feelings until they pass.
  • Keep to a daily routine. Get dressed, have a to-do list of things that you need to do that day and keep to it. Make a list of things you’ve been putting off and do them together. It doesn’t matter how trivial or tedious the list is – routine is important.
  • If you need some ‘Alone Time” gently tell your partner and take it. You’ll both need it.
  • Go within. Take time to meditate, breathe, ground yourself the best way you know how. I’ve been listening and rereading all of Eckhart Tolle books and YouTube talks. Find something or someone that speak to you.
  • This is an opportunity to learn something new. There are online courses and a vast wealth of knowledge to be had out there.
  • Exercise. Keep moving. Have a walk/run (if restrictions allow), do an online yoga, pilates or Hiit class. The choice is infinite.
  • Take the time to talk about what’s bothering you with each other. Whatever you’re feeling, try and listen with compassion to your partner (not an easy task when you might feel anxious too).
  • Make an effort to do little acts of kindness for one another every day: a hug, a love note, a kind word. Play games together.
  • Stay connected to friends and family daily. This is the time we need to hear from people we care about and love. Don’t isolate; reach out to others; and open your heart.
  • Limit your news and media consumption.
  • Finally, try and stay positive and know that we humans are made for this….to survive and thrive.

Further information

If you are affected by any of the issues raised in this blog, please contact a member of our family team. No matter what stage your relationship is at, we can advise you on your position, the legal process and the options available to you. Our clients’ problems are often not just of a practical but an emotional nature and we work extensively with psychiatrists, psychologists and divorce/relationship coaches so that our clients have  360 ̊ support.

About the authors

Rachel Freeman is a partner in Kingsley Napley’s family and divorce team. She specialises in dealing with the implications of the breakdown of a relationship. Rachel’s areas of practice include all aspects of private family work, with particular expertise in complex financial proceedings, often with international aspects ,and arrangements for children.  She also advises in relation to prenuptial and postnuptal agreements.

Shirlee Kay is a London-based therapist specialising in couple’s, individual, sex therapy and fertility therapy. She works with couples and individuals to help them understand the wealth of emotional intelligence and strengths they already possess and use them to make the best choices. With the outbreak of Covid-19, she is offering clients phone and video sessions. Further details about Shirlee can be found on her website.

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We welcome views and opinions about the issues raised in this blog. Should you require specific advice in relation to personal circumstances, please use the form on the contact page.

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