Family relationships can be loving, joyous and fun – but also messy, stressful and irritating. All of us have strengths, weaknesses and flaws in the ways that we relate and communicate. In normal circumstances, couples and families commonly find ways to work around these problems and patterns, and often that’s a combination of time spent together working through issues, and much-needed space and time apart.
None of us are perfect, but we often expect our relationships to live up to unrealistic and unattainable ideals. Placing several perfectly imperfect humans into pandemic lockdown conditions at home together? The disruption of routines, uncertainty about the future and lack of time apart from each other can create a perfect storm of conflict.
In usual circumstances, counsellors and psychologists work with couples and families to get an understanding of their personal challenges, address the underlying factors creating conflict, and resolve the issue by finding a positive, peaceful way forward. Yet these are not normal times.
During periods of self-isolation when families are spending endless days in close quarters, tensions often increase and help-seeking may be inhibited or feel overwhelming. If you notice this dynamic starting to build in your household, it is essential to act early and get support to reduce the risk of any conflict escalating. Take every opportunity to make this time at home together as comfortable as possible – and look after each other as best you can. Your mental health has never mattered more.
If you are in self-isolation or lockdown and relationship/family conflict is increasing, it might be helpful to remember that:
- Our current circumstances are unprecedented, difficult and stressful. Be generous to each other as you cope in imperfect ways.
- You need to take responsibility for yourself and your wellbeing before you look after others (like if the oxygen masks fall in a plane!).
- You cannot pour from an empty cup – if you’re feeling overwhelmed, it’s really hard to be there for someone else. Looking after yourself is looking after those you love, and you’ll need to be the best possible version of yourself in this time. Give yourself permission to focus on that.
- Strong partners, families and friends take time to listen to each other and really hear each other’s perspective, experience and feelings.
- You’ll each need some regular time apart within your home if possible – this will create a circuit breaker for conflict and allow each person to self-regulate their stress levels.
During conflict, these strategies may help:
- Try using “I” statements, such as “I am really feeling angry about this” or “I am not liking the way we are managing at the moment”. Statements that start with “you” tend to instantly put the other person on the “What are they blaming me for now?” defensive.
- Avoid the ‘blame’ trap to reduce unnecessary conflict. When we start finger-pointing at each other, there’s no room for growth or change. Often in conflict we start to tunnel vision and massively prioritise our own perspective whilst minimising and dismissing the other person’s experience and position.
- Use the 90/10 rule. When talking about difficult things, try putting 90% of your energy into being curious and open to learning about the other person’s experience, and 10% on voicing your own perspective.
- Don’t assume that the other person is experiencing things the same way you are! Focus on getting an understanding of what is going on for them and how you can be helpful to them now. Try using open-ended questions like “How are you finding the lockdown period?” or “How are you coping with everything at the moment?” to help this process.
- Find your reset button- and use it! Download a free evidence-based app like Mood Mission, walk the dog, cook a meal with your favourite music in your ears, give a friend a 5 minute call to talk about something else.
- Take responsibility for what you have done to contribute negatively to the conflict. Try using statements such as “I know I’m finding it really stressful being couped up, I’m sorry I got upset and walked out before”.
- Forgive the other person or people for how they may have contributed to the conflict. Acknowledge any efforts they are making to resolve it, too.
If you can’t make progress by hearing each other’s perspective, acknowledging your own contribution to the situation, and forgiving the other person’s shortcomings, it may be helpful to intentionally park the conflict. This involves both parties acknowledging that the conflict exists, that each party has a different perspective and that at the moment you don’t have the resources to move forward.
Acknowledge that you are stuck, that you need assistance to move forward, and make a plan to address this conflict when things settle down (and actually do that). Even though you are agreeing to press pause on any discussions of that particular issue, it’s important to take the time to talk about what each person needs to do to respect each other whilst the conflict remains unresolved and the household is still in lockdown.
Other factors that may contribute to conflict, and ways to cope:
- Forced isolation can consciously and unconsciously remind people of previous traumas and struggles in their life. This can trigger very strong unwanted feelings and memories for some people. It’s important not to force a conversation, but gently remind them that you are there if they ever need to talk, or want help to access supports
- Financial, employment and housing uncertainty is affecting many families in horribly stressful ways at the moment. Unfortunately there may not be much that you can do to change these stressors whilst you and your family are in lockdown, but you can minimise the impact it is having on your mental health and relationships with others by setting up some positive household structure and routines
- If alcohol and drug use are associated with increased conflict, it’s important to discuss those concerns when every person involved is sober. Reducing or moderating use, or for some people avoiding substances altogether, may help to rapidly de-escalate tensions and stop your family slipping into destructive relationship patterns
Lockdown is an opportunity to do something differently. Everyone is sequestered together at home and this tends to put a spotlight on what is, and isn’t, working within your relationship and family dynamics.
If you’ve tried some of the ideas above and things still haven’t improved, we can provide the extra support your household needs. We will help you figure out how to find and nurture that sweet spot where you’re able to live in harmony, together – no matter what happens. Our counsellors and psychologists are available 7 days a week for the whole time our community is impacted by COVID-19. When needed, we can provide same day services.
Marcus Andrews is the founder and director of Life Supports, which was established in 2002. He has extensive professional experience working as a counsellor and family therapist across a broad range of issues. The core component of his role at Life Supports involves the supervision of other counsellors, including secondary consultations. Marcus has worked in many sectors, including private, government, non-profit, health, forensic and community practice.