Just a few weeks shy of the spring equinox, New York City was enjoying nearly perfect 70-degree weather. The start of rooftop season was a welcomed early gift in March, and I excitedly coordinated a happy hour session with my boyfriend at at one of my favorite Midtown restaurants so that we could take in the surprisingly pleasant temperatures.
As we tried to soak in the ambience, an undeniable uneasiness lingered in the air. New York City had just announced its first confirmed COVID-19 case a few days prior, and we were working together as a couple to sort out how our outings and interactions should shift to keep each other safe.
Suspended in a state of denial while sipping my second glass of rosé, I sat while he thoughtfully strategized an action plan to minimize our potential exposure to the virus. My knee-jerk reaction to the unknown threat was to try to maintain our routine, while he was much more planted in the idea that everything needed to change…now.
And everything did change. Within a week, our city was on the brink of an unprecedented catastrophe. Businesses, restaurants and places of work and worship closed indefinitely. The bustling streets we know and love became tense battlegrounds against an invisible enemy, and any and all human interaction was now considered a health risk.
In the weeks since that last outing, my temperament has ranged from eerily calm to complete hysteria. It’s already difficult to deal with your own emotional life during a crisis, but couples must go a step further to somehow carve out space for their partner’s thoughts and feelings too. There are some folks who thrive under stress and others who crumble from the pressure and retreat to find balance. Some personalities find peace in planning, while others may need to pause all productivity. There is no right or wrong way to manage you emotions, especially right now, but how do you resolve conflict in your relationship when your individual coping mechanisms fundamentally clash?
Psychotherapist and founder of The Difference, Bea Arthur, tells ESSENCE that it takes a lot of grace and patience to maintain a relationship when both parties are grappling with trauma.
“It’s undeniable that everybody is in a collective state of survival mode,” says Arthur. “However that shows up for you–it can be many different manifestations, but understand that it’s a direct physiological reaction to act in trauma.”
Arthur explains that trauma has four traditional responses: fight, flight, freeze, or fog. I discovered my early insistence on preserving the “status quo” was actually a symptom of a “freeze” response. “Fight” can show up in reactions like hoarding toilet paper, and a “flight” response can be when someone is avoidant and detached.
“You’re in a state of shock–that’s what freeze looks like. And then there’s also the reaction of fog. Fellow therapist Dena Crowder introduced me to that idea of ‘fog,’ and that means you’re kind of confused,” Arthur adds. “And unfortunately, that kind of overlaps with everything we see right now because of the constant onslaught of information.”
As we all tussle with the news cycle and panic overload, certain characteristics or traits could show up in your partner, transforming them into someone you barely recognize. Arthur recommends that people in relationships use this time to gather new information about how their partner survives under stress.
“This is a really excellent opportunity for couples to learn about each other and how to better deal with each other. Because again, real love is acceptance,” she says.
Continuing, “Just because your man, when he is stressed out, needs to play video games, doesn’t mean all of a sudden the work ethic that you fell in love with isn’t there anymore. So there’s a whole lot of judgment about people who have different coping mechanisms.”
Arthur emphasizes having “respect for other people’s processes,” while having the courage to set boundaries without hurting your partner’s feelings. That looks like using a lot of “I” statements, such as “I become anxious when I am constantly inundated with all of the latest COVID news,” to let your significant other know they can’t share every breaking news update with you anymore. You both can allocate time slots where you are free to indulge in “bad” behaviors like pacing the house, eating junk food, or zoning out to your favorite Netflix show, without fear of judgment. You can even establish non-verbal cues with your partner to communicate your emotions without a whole discussion tied to it.
“When I put my hoodie up, I’m not in the mood to be bothered,” Arthur suggests as a way to set up a system of understanding between yourself and your partner.
“Everybody’s entitled to whatever reaction they have at any moment during however long it takes,” Arthur says.
On top of general anxiety about the future as a whole, circumstantial and clinical depression is rampant as communities all over the world wade through the emotional, economic and physical toll of the coronavirus.
“The reason you just feel sad right now, the real cause of the circumstantial grief, is what you are seeking is lost. Things have changed forever,” Arthur says.
If your partner is struggling with depression, keep in mind they may not be able to properly express what they need to feel better.
“Clinical depression is where you have a chemical imbalance, where no matter what’s going on in your life, you will just feel really low. And sometimes it can dip into straight up apathy, a really numb feeling. So when you also ask somebody ‘What’s the best way to take care of you?’ depending on what kind of episode they’re having, they don’t know. They are completely detached and disconnected from any emotion.” Arthur explains.
Be patient with yourself as your observe your partner and create a plan around helping to keep them afloat.
“It’s on you as that person’s partner and support system to learn their ways, learn their triggers, learn how long the episodes usually last, and also to really know and understand what makes this person feel better when they feel bad, because we can’t expect an episode to completely turn around,” Arthur insists. “But if you can get it incrementally better —and this is actually what the point of most psychotropic medication does to feel a little bit better–just ten percent better, that person on their own can see hope.”
The days ahead are uncertain, but our ability to endure the worst moments of this crisis will be dependent on how much patience we show ourselves and our loved ones. You won’t win every fight, and compromise won’t feel like a win, but there is a potentially stronger relationship on the other side of this endless tunnel.
“I really encourage individuals to be gentle and non-judgmental with themselves,” Arthur says.
“I would encourage everybody to do the same with people they care about.”
Bea Arthur is a psychotherapist and entrepreneur based in New York City. Her online therapy platform, The Difference, provides on-demand access to therapy as Amazon’s first mental health Alexa skill.