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Connecting with each other in anxious times

As with any crisis, the current Coronavirus outbreak, brings with it heightened stress, anxiety and potential trauma. As Ruth outlined in our last blog, we all respond differently under the current challenges. Some of us retreat; whilst others engage; some of us fight; whilst others take flight; some of us vent; whilst others freeze.


If we are isolating or locked down with a partner it is likely that we are having different responses to the crisis than each other, we are carrying our stress in different ways and we are processing our emotions differently. It is a time of great intensity where our lives are thrown together both physically and emotionally in a manner that few of us have ever experienced before.


In times of crisis there is often a process of loss and an associated grief. In his recent excellent article Michael McNulty argues that the level of uncertainty and ambiguity associated with the Coronavirus crisis means that it is very difficult to grieve and to process loss.

He argues that uncertainty provides one of the greatest psychological challenges to us as humans. Amongst other things, at present we may be experiencing uncertainty about:

  • The physical health and well being of loved ones or relatives
  • Our own resilience, mental health and ability to cope
  • The length of current measures of lockdown
  • Our children’s development, well being and education
  • The viability of our work roles / businesses / finances


For all of us and to varying degrees, life, as we knew it, has been dramatically halted and there is great uncertainty as to how things will evolve and what will emerge. McNulty refers to the concept of ‘ambiguous loss’ to describe this current state of affairs. This term, developed by Pauline Boss, refers to losses that involve ‘unimaginable or unknown’ circumstances. A key challenge with ambiguous loss is that the process of grief remains frozen. He suggests some great practical steps of how to face this challenge together.


So given then; the current intensity of our relationship; the level of ambiguous loss; and our individual differences in dealing with the crisis; there is likely to be a significantly increased potential for conflict in our relationships during lockdown. Some common flashpoints might come about due to:

  • Different domestic & work roles and how to divide labour
  • Different daily rhythms and routines
  • Different perceptions of risk about the disease and how to manage this risk
  • How to manage children and education during this time of home schooling
  • How to manage current financial decisions / financial hardship
  • Decisions around employment


With such a heady cocktail of potential conflict – how then shall we live? How do we navigate these choppy waters of lockdown. Here’s a couple of suggestions from the ever wise John & Julie Gottman that can help us.


Turning to each other


The real encouragement from the work of the Gottmans is that good relationships are not a mystery – they are built on friendship, kindness and the nature of our small everyday interactions. We have written before about their work on our bids for emotional connection. These are our everyday verbal and non-verbal attempts to connect with our partner, the subtext of these bids is often to pose the question ‘are you with me’? The first challenge is are we being sufficiently mindful and present to notice our partner’s attempts to connect with us? The second challenge is then the choice we make as to how to respond – do we turn away and ignore, turn against by pushing back, or do we turn towards by positively engaging?


For some of us in the current crisis our bids for connection may be imbued with additional meaning – “Can we be together?”, “I’m scared”, “I’m lost”, “I’m anxious”, “What are we going to do?, “I’m not coping”. Our bids can therefore have an additional layer of vulnerability. When the stakes are higher, so are the risks of feeling rejected by our partners. The importance therefore of trying to be gentle, compassionate and affectionate in the way that we turn towards our partners is crucial. At a time where there is little that seems within our control, our choice to be present, to pay attention, to be responsive and to be kind and accepting is something that we can control. It is also something that can be transformational.


Finding new rituals of connection


One of the challenges of the lockdown is that, at the very time when we may be spending more time with our partners than ever, we can feel a sense of loneliness or alienation in our relationships. Being in the same physical space doesn’t necessarily mean we are connected, we can be physically together without being emotionally together.


As Ruth explored in our last blog, according to our personality types and our level of introversion / extraversion we will be dealing with the whole daily dance of managing personal and collective space very differently. Ritualising some moments or periods of connection can be really helpful in giving definition and boundaries to the times together and the times apart. This can help the extraverts know when they can expect connection and the introverts know when they can get space .


For most of us our normal rhythms of connection with one another have been dramatically disrupted and we have had to adapt to a new normal. During lockdown we may have very different demands on our time depending on the nature of our work; if we have lost work or been furloughed; whether we are working from home or going out to work; and if we have childcare or home education roles to fulfil.


There have been, however, potential opportunities for many couples to put in new rituals of connection and points of contact. We may have had hobbies or activities that we did together that are now off limits due to the closing of social space- so what new ones have we put in place? We may have developed new patterns of eating together, drinking together or taking breaks together. New rituals of daily exercise together may have emerged and new rituals of connecting with activities in the home. Amongst the different threats of the current lock down there are some opportunities to be found that can have a lasting impact on our relationship.


Questions & Actions


  • What are points of loss that you are feeling at the moment? How are you able to process your grief for this loss? (see Michael McNulty’s blog for some more advise on processing grief)


  • What aspects of loss do you think your partner is experiencing, find some time to ask them about it and share you experiences.


  • Over the next couple of days try to notice all of your partner’s bids for connection. How do they express their emotional needs? Try to consciously choose to turn towards them with kindness and acceptance.


  • What rituals of connection have you managed to keep from before the crisis? Are there any that you have lost? What new rituals have you developed? Are there any others that you would like to negotiate with your partner?

Richard Elliott

Father, husband, teacher, coach, Richard is a director of Pickwell Manor Ltd and a co-founder of the Pickwell Foundation - a grant making charitable trust focusing on displaced people and climate change. He has a diploma in Business, Executive and Life Coaching and a background in post 16 education which he taught and managed Social Science subjects. He has a particular interest in how values shape individuals, relationships, families and organisations.

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