We Were Already in a Struggling Marriage…
Your struggling marriage is suddenly under an entirely new kind of pressure. And it may feel as if it might break under strain.
You’re not alone. Many couples like you were completely unprepared to have their struggling marriage tested so suddenly and so severely.
If it feels like your struggling marriage might not survive coronavirus, understand that even the best of marriages will be sorely tested during this turbulent time.
In this post, I’ll discuss why it’s so profoundly difficult and offer a few ideas to help you and your partner manage chronic fighting with more skill.
Too Much Change… Too Quickly
Many struggling marriages are seeing increased levels of conflict now that they’re confined together at home. In part, this may be due to the disruption of comfortable routines, a loss of meaningful experiences (such as seeing friends, work, etc.), and the added pressure of economic and social uncertainty.
One of the essential aspects of Gottman Method Couples Therapy is its focus on the physiology of fear, anger, and anxiety.
Dr. Gottman uses the term ‘flooding’ to describe when our body’s nervous system reacts to stress, fear, and worry. This cascade of complex physiological processes inhibits our prefrontal cortex, which is the smarter, newer part of our that allows us to solve problems creatively.
Coronavirus is a particularly potent stressor. It threatens financial well-being, physical health, career, child care, and job security. Coronavirus anxiety is adding additional stress to an already stressful situation. And the people, places, and activities that you both used to soothe and distract yourself from your struggling marriage are no longer available to you.
Fear, Conflict, and Your Struggling Marriage
Fear is a force multiplier for marital conflict. It’s an evolutionarily-developed reflex of carefully coordinated responses.
Fear is designed to produce a massive physiological change in seconds.
The Autonomic nervous system has two branches: the parasympathetic nervous system (the rest and digest system) and the sympathetic nervous system (the fight-or-flight system).
Fear kicks your fight-or-flight response into overdrive. Your adrenal glands secrete adrenaline.
Blood flow decreases to your brain’s frontal lobe, which is responsible for logical thinking and planning, and the deeper, more primal parts of your mind—including the amygdala—take over. You react quickly, but less intelligently.
Your nervous system is now geared toward only one goal: staying alive. As your heart rate and blood pressure increase, you breathe faster, muscles tense, and your pupils dilate so you can see the threat more clearly.
Fear kicks our nervous systems into overdrive, activating the fight, flight response. When you’re in the fight or flight mode, it’s impossible to engage with your spouse responsibly. It’s better not to talk at all.
Diffused Physiological Arousal
Gottman calls this escalated state Diffused Physiological arousal (DPA
). We lose about 30 points of IQ, and we are only reacting, not responding to our partner.
Emotional flooding hijacks the nervous system, and we soon lose control.
“When we react in the grip of emotional flooding, we do and say the kind of things that are likely to trigger emotional flooding in our partner…and then both people in the room are out of control.” Dr. John Gottman.
What to Do First
The first thing about being flooded is recognizing that you are. Then take a deep, cleansing breath, and ask for a time out. Get out of eyesight and earshot of one another for at least 20 minutes. If you’re ruminating, read something. Tense and relax your muscles. Recall a calm memory. Continue to breathe deeply.
12 Ways for Struggling Marriages to Manage a Home Quarantine
- What if instead of coronavirus anxiety, you had a seriously ill child. Wouldn’t you both quickly agree to put your differences aside for the time being?
- Have a conversation about how the current situation is overwhelming you. Ask for a truce. There’s just too much to figure out right now. If you’re not interested in doing online couples therapy, you’re merely going to have to put your struggling marriage on the shelf for a while.
- Externalize escalation. Blame the damn coronavirus for everything. Be mindful of how you roll.
- Don’t try to change your partner. Pick your battles with care. Be strategic with power struggles.
- Don’t reach any conclusions or make any decisions about your marriage.
- Consider how making a severe decision like divorce, in the middle of a global pandemic is profoundly unwise.
- Be open to noticing and acknowledging positive change when you see it.
- Don’t expect emotional support. Neither pursue or withdraw. Just notice.
- Agree to table the idea of divorce for the time being
- If you need outside help, be willing to get online therapy to help manage practical issues.
- Get good emotional support from family and friends on social media. But don’t seek or encourage any new romantic entanglements. If you’re not going to work on the relationship that you’re already in…why, would you promote a new one? This is no time for a Facebook Affair. You have enough on your plate already.
- Agree to be in a holding pattern where significant decisions are concerned. If couples therapy is an option, use this time to prepare for it.
Struggling Marriages Need Space and Time
If you have kids, they should be your priority. Have a united front where they’re concerned. Find ways to support each other and problem-solve together. You can always divorce later. You don’t need to struggle now.
Most importantly, you may need some online couples therapy just to learn how to manage your nervous systems. If you bicker and fight, or nag it will compromise your immune system and erode your health, as well as the health of your spouse.
Escalation is the enemy right now. And either one of you can break the pattern.
Neither of you can go anywhere for very long. You may need time apart in separate rooms. Be gracious granting space. When you get through this global pandemic, there will be plenty of time to revisit your struggling marriage and entertain crucial decisions.
Let your marital issues soften and slow down. Now is not the time to make sudden changes in your family. Model patience, forbearance, and resilience for your kids. You will all get through this. This too shall pass.