Maverick Life

WELLNESS

2020: On living together… and apart

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The pandemic, like most disruptive events, is influencing our daily lives. We asked clinical psychologist and Maverick Life contributor Stefan Blom for guidance on how to deal with common struggles in relationships, especially during the pandemic.

“It’s been a tough year. Therapy was not used for personal growth, but coping. It was a year for survival for many, and with adversity we now start to look at new growth and opportunity” says clinical psychologist, author and Maverick Life contributor Stefan Blom, summarising what so many have experienced throughout this period.

As lockdown became mandatory in countries across the world, many couples faced – and are still facing – a situation together that was unprecedented in our lifetimes. For some, it meant suddenly spending all their time together, while one might have been used to being apart; for others, who might have found themselves on other sides of a country or the world, it might have meant being apart for weeks, if not months. For many, these different realities have not only been challenging, but redefined our experiences of space and connection.

Picking up the pieces

The recent worldwide events have been particularly stressful for us all, even though it might have been perceived and felt in different ways – each unique and personal to individuals; not only did we have to stop and rethink the way we live and interact with each other, but this global historical crisis also marked a considerable increase in people feeling even more anxious and sometimes depressed than before.

A study published by the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) on 14 August 2020, found that “During June 24–30, 2020, US adults reported considerably elevated adverse mental health conditions associated with Covid-19. Younger adults, racial/ethnic minorities, essential workers, and unpaid adult caregivers reported having experienced disproportionately worse mental health outcomes, increased substance use, and elevated suicidal ideation”.

Beyond the effects of Covid-19 on our health – should one get the virus – the consequences of the pandemic and the toll it took on our mental health won’t be clearly understood for a while. And yet, already higher levels of anxiety and depression will also affect our relationships and interaction with others.

Blom says that, “If you are struggling with depression and (you are) anxious, it’s very hard to be intimate. How difficult it is to be gentle in hard times. Intimacy and anxiety are not best friends”.

“The announcement of the lockdown was surreal and traumatic. And the nature of trauma is that we often only look at what we are experiencing not during the trauma, but post the traumatic event. In stressful and traumatic events, we often focus on coping and not creativity. And in my experience, as lockdown relaxes, we connect with a post-traumatic stress reaction. Now we are picking up the pieces after the accident and look back at how stressful or traumatic it really was and that often leads to a slow and sneaky appearance of low moods, lack of energy and motivation, also known as depression”, he adds.

Another important shift that happened since the start of the year is the readjustments we all had to make when countries went into lockdown – and how these changes are persisting today and affecting the way we live, think, operate and intermingle. Blom points to our personal homes as the main site of such drastic shift: “We are multitasking like never before, and all in the spaces of our homes. The table or couch is a school, your office, a place for eating and conversation; if you have a full-time job and you’re home-schooling, and you have to deal with domestic life while missing your friends and family, and you are under financial stress – that’s a lot of external pressures on the intimate space of any relationship.”

In addition, by modifying our living spaces and incorporating school and work into it, we have also reinvented and expanded our roles within our homes. “Couples are talking about being teachers and parents and running households and working and trying to find space for themselves and intimacy in their relationships. There is some role confusion or reconsidering of roles. When there is so much to do at home, traditional gender roles are being reconsidered out of necessity”, explains Blom.

Living together

Being ‘pushed’ to live together under such different circumstances requires that we spend time making sure we communicate as effectively as possible – be it with our boss, partner, colleagues, family or friends. As Blom notes, communication is key in order to understand the other’s feelings and possible struggles, and adapt our response accordingly.

“The more things are happening around us, the more we need to communicate in order to stay connected. You really need very strong communication skills and a mindset of kindness and empathy to stay connected during stressful times.”

However, communicating can also be challenging in today’s landscape. A Zoom call that doesn’t work properly; an unstable Internet connection that breaks off conversations; a microphone left on mute while the person is trying to voice their concerns; or a mic switched on at an incongruous moment… Maintaining seriousness and respect, showing interest or empathy when talking behind screens can be complicated.

On the other hand, communicating with loved ones when living 24/7 together can also be stressful. Stepping aside and being able to get some perspective sometimes by just being away for a few hours, can be a great tool in diffusing conflicts or heavy discussions.

But being aware of such challenges might help in finding new ways to communicate better: making time to see other people in one-on-one gatherings; sharing your feelings as they come about so they don’t bubble up into a bigger issue; or, now that we are allowed to step out, a walk in the park together, in the open air, to share feelings and emotions, can also be helpful. “Sometimes we connect and bond by doing activities together that everyone enjoys … Being exposed to things we used to enjoy, things we used to do together and that we loved, is a very important part of balancing a relationship,” notes Blom.

“The lockdown taught us a lot about living. Maybe the longing for things we used to do and could not do introduced a deeper appreciation for the small things in life that gives us great joy… We received some time and space for bonding and that memory is redefining our living” he adds.

Space for reflection

Another very important aspect of relationships that was most impacted by Covid-19, is the experience of space.

“The lockdown really highlighted the values and meanings of space for relationships. Space is a place that we go to recover. When we ‘step away’ or ‘put down what we do’, we recharge, we reflect and gather our thoughts. To me it feels like a kind of landing in your self.

“I visualise it like an artist or a person standing away from their work, thinking about the work. During the lockdown, we lost or forgot that… because we were so forced into this space of togetherness in an unfamiliar and stressful context. Although it was a break from life, it wasn’t a break from the stressors of life. We feel burned out and have ‘new conditions’ like ‘zoom fatigue’”, he says.

Blom adds that trying to find some space doesn’t mean one has to be disconnected – but it does require us to be creative about how we craft time for self-reflection, “me-time” and time out.

“We need to rethink the meaning of physical and emotional space in relationships. We are learning to be in smaller spaces. Although you can take space in your mind, relationships seem to also need to live in many spaces with varied meanings in order to be balanced and enriched.

“Space in relationships is important for reflection. When we feel claustrophobic or when we constantly don’t feel a need for intimacy or closeness (on an ongoing basis), we need to step away and take some space for reflection. As we stand back and think about ourselves, our relationships and work, we tend to see things with greater awareness and dimension”, he explains.

Interestingly, many of us have taken to writing down or documenting life during lockdown as a way to share but also to record what was happening to us. In an article published recently in The Atlantic, Janis Whitlock, a research scientist at Cornell University told the author Morgan Ome, “I was thinking I would like to somehow chronicle these moments because I know they are history in the making – deep, deep stuff … So this is my start. I don’t know if I’ll do it every day, but I’m going to try to do it as much as I can, just so some flavour of this time is captured.” Ome adds, “The dual nature of journaling – as a marker of the present and a remnant of the past – has attracted many writers to the practice of chronicling their pandemic days”. Journaling is also an effective way to reflect on events, conversations, and creating spaces to think through moments in time.

Living apart – long-distance relationships

While many found themselves together under one roof, others have been unable to see each other for extended periods of time, living apart for months.

“Long-distance relationships (longing with distance) reminds us that too much distance can create disconnection. In my experience, distance creates distance in the sense that it really is tough if both parties are going through a lot on their own, and they have to deal with these different and demanding realities by themselves and then try to still stay connected”, says Blom.

Although each situation will be felt differently, depending on who you are far away from – colleagues, life partners, families, friends – this is a time to focus on what Blom calls “creative coping”, instead of unearthing issues, trying to resolve them while away.

“I’ve been encouraging people not to put pressure on their relationships, especially if they went through traumatic experiences. Expectations of intimacy and closeness can feel hard or impossible, because you are coping with the stress of the experience. There is always time for intimacy, it’s maybe more the time to focus on creative coping, enjoying and living life and to keep your communication open. We must also not forget to dream again, set goals for our relationships and visualise the lives we want to live”, he suggests.

And once we’re able to travel again, and see each other face-to-face and not through screens and calls, Blom recommends to avoid romanticising the moment of physical reconnection – this doesn’t have to apply to couples only but to all of us reconnecting with people we haven’t seen in a long time and who, just like us, might have to deal with immense changes, pain and confusion.

“As much as one romanticised the idea of being together again, once you are together, it is an adjustment or transition. The metaphor I see for transitions is a plant being pulled out with roots tearing and then moving through the air with roots and soil dangling, only to be replanted where the conditions hopefully would be better. It is a period of uncertainty and readjustment that is often characterised by mood-swings, poor concentration, distractibility and a lack of energy”.

So take your time, try not to rush into a new situation – 2020 has given us our fair share of adjustments, making it the year of adaptability. This is something we may have to carry even once Covid-19 is under control.

What lies ahead

Blom encourages us to use this opportunity to reflect on our relationships. “Think about what you’ve been through, really think about what you would like to reinstate in your relationship, what you love to do. Be accepting of your new roles and decide what was temporary and what should stay. As so much is constantly changing, we need to reassess, redefine and reinvent. What’s happening now might be very different a month from now and Covid-19 has been our invitation for change, even if we did not want to accept it.”

He is also optimistic that the lockdown provided opportunity for relationships to develop and strengthen.

“We learned so much about each other and about our relationships. Any crisis really is an opportunity for learning or sharing; it was a chance to get to know each other better. And I think a lot of couples really learned a lot about each other as our outside world felt out of control.

“It has also introduced a lot of positive changes. We’ve learned that we can find space within small spaces. We can cohabit and be together and apart. It’s opened up new possibilities in terms of how we can possibly live, like how we find joy in the ‘small things’ in life … It has been a massive kind of reflective and stocktake period, giving us an invitation to renew and grow. It is redefining relationships (if that is what you choose) and has deepened our appreciation of living”, he says. DM/ML

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