“I don’t want to be so angry with him anymore,” Matt replied when I asked why he and his husband Greg were seeking couples therapy (not their real names).
Like so many couples over the past year, Matt and Greg dealt with multiple stressors. They worked remotely, had financial and health concerns, and were challenged by helping their two kids, ages 8 and 10, succeed at online schooling. Their lives were upended, and they struggled to adjust.
Stress, loss, and parenting in 2020
Matt and Greg’s experience is all too common. A Harris Poll survey conducted in 2020 found that while overall mental health was worse and general stress levels were much higher than in previous years in the U.S., parents had significantly worse mental health and higher stress levels (46%) than adults without children (28%). Seventy-one percent of parents said that managing distance learning was a major source of stress.
As the pandemic wore on, several stressors added up. Greg was furloughed for a time, the kids struggled in school, and the effect of everyone together 24/7 led to tension and resentment. The couple’s relationship suffered. Matt and Greg argued over who did more with the kids and who had it worse. They felt they failed at work, as parents, and as partners. The combination of stress with the lack of alone time and freedom to go out led them both to feel angry and disconnected. “We don’t feel like a couple anymore,” Greg told me.
It is completely normal for relationships to deteriorate given the past year. Everyone lost something, from health and employment to the ability to celebrate milestones. The losses are too many to label. With loss comes grief, and Matt and Greg had lost a way of life that they loved. Travel, time with friends, eating out. Normalizing feelings of overwhelm, anxiety, and confusion has been an important part of couples therapy work this year and is part of helping people deal with “ambiguous loss.”
The Gottman Method and therapy
Maybe the most confidence-inspiring aspect of the Gottman Method is the deep body of research available to guide and inform our work with couples. Using the Gottmans’ theory of The Sound Relationship House, Matt and Greg could focus on and improve several key aspects of their relationship.
First, we talked about how the tension and anger that they felt was making it difficult to listen to each other. They both had a shorter fuse and were quicker to flare up in anger. We had to slow down these conversations so they could be more productive. They learned to take breaks and calm down when things got too heated and one or both were “flooded.” They learned about the antidotes to the Four Horsemen and practiced them in some of their charged conversations, which tended to be about differences in parenting. They practiced having these conversations using the Gottman-Rapoport exercise.
Some of this work also helped them as parents as they found they could de-escalate some of the arguments they were getting into with their oldest child about school work. In turn they modeled healthy conflict for their kids.
The major source of pain for Matt and Greg was how disconnected they felt from each other. “We see each other all the time, but I miss him,” said Matt. This is common with couples who worked from home and parented through the pandemic. There’s not enough alone time or quality time together. Parents tend to focus on their kids’ well-being instead of their own. We began to work on restoring their friendship and intimate connection.
They made a decision that turned out to be critical in repairing their relationship. They did not wait for the pandemic to end before making their marriage a priority. They carved out small amounts of time each day when they turned towards each other. Sometimes this was a quick text message. Sometimes it was a walk around the block together when the kids were in class. They began to make plans for future vacations and got excited about the possibilities ahead. A couple of times a week they did an online yoga class together. These small positive actions generated positive momentum. They began to use the Stress-Reducing Conversation to talk and empathize with each other. “We pulled things back from the brink,” said Greg after a couple of months.
Steps toward connection
Greg and Matt didn’t wait for the world to change before they did. Being intentional about rebuilding their connection was key. Here are some steps you can take to stay connected if you and your partner are parenting and working from home:
- Take breaks from charged conversations. Too much togetherness and no breaks leave us exhausted and not at our best. Avoiding repetitive fights requires self-soothing and calming down before engaging.
- Carve out small windows of time where it’s just the two of you, no kids. Do something different even if it’s just some meals without the kids.
- Share your stresses with each other. Often we don’t want to complain or burden our partner, but this can lead to feeling disconnected. Use the Stress-Reducing Conversation to turn towards and support each other.
- Develop small rituals of connection that the two of you can look forward to. Greg and Matt developed a ritual where every Thursday was “old black and white movie night” with popcorn after the kids went to bed. It became a highlight of the week and something they enjoyed.
- Finding meaning in stressful and traumatic times is a way to cope and persevere. Greg and Matt, being gay parents, overcame many societal challenges and created non-traditional ways of doing things. Reminding them of how resilient they are helped them to reframe their current challenges as opportunities to support each other, and their kids, in different ways.
Are you currently looking for a Certified Gottman Couples Therapist to use research-based approaches to help your relationship? The Gottman Institute is seeking couples to participate in an international outcome study on Gottman Method Couples Therapy. Learn more here.