Dr. Suzanne B. Phillips

Licensed Psychologist, Psychoanalyst, Diplomate in Group Psychology, Certified Group Therapist, Author, Radio Host and Media Consultant Covering a Wide Range of Psychological Topics

Post: Coping in Captivity: Improving Couple Dynamics During COVID-19

As couples have been sheltered in place or quarantined for some time, many have had the opportunity to be with their partner for more hours than they would ever have spent in the five, ten or 45 years together.

The Positives

The upside is appreciation for someone by your side to get through an unimaginable life event. Someone for support if one or the other gets sick, someone to hold down the fort if one is an essential worker, someone to juggle the children’s ever growing needs, someone willing to swap rooms and beds to make a good night’s sleep possible, someone to discuss the financial worries, the meal preparation, the chores and the sense of emotional and physical stress endemic to COVID-19.

The Negatives

Notwithstanding these affirmed positives, there is no guarantee of constant peace and happiness when coping in captivity. Understanding the possible reasons for clashes and disconnects fosters the ability to step back and re-evaluate what is going on together.

Human Stress Reactions

Being human under difficult and dangerous circumstances brings with it our human Survival Responses of Fight, Flight and Freeze which may be reflected in different ways by each of the partners at different times. One partner may be quick to anger, the other may escape to Netflix, hours of texting or just seem unable to respond even though the kids are looking for him. One may be able to tolerate the news, the other may find it too much to hear or bear. Being able to consider that you and your partner are reacting to a dangerous reality of illness, economic loss and ambiguous loss of life as you both knew it puts your reactions into perspective. It may give both of you license to reference it at difficult times.

“ I had to walk out – I got overwhelmed by the news.”

“ I know I left you with the kids, but the work situation really depresses me.”

Just the effort to make meaning of a disconnect due to stress is a reconnect with a partner. It sets up the possibility for both to consider what to try at those times or how to let it pass and move on.

Disruption of Dependence/Independence

For most couples the balance of dependence and independence that improved and stabilized their relationship was disrupted. For many whose jobs were put on hold or even put on-line, there has been a loss of the balance that traveling to work, involvement with work issues, interaction with work friends, clients, vendors, etc. provided. The outside world fosters self-esteem, intellectual simulation, and multiple aspects of self that supplement and enhance couple relationships.

For essential workers in this pandemic, the necessity of working and putting themselves in harm’s way to respond to the unfathomable impact of COVID-19, has taken a toll on their relationships in terms of fear and worry. While most have been proud of what their loved one was doing to save lives, their feelings were underscored by concern for their partner’s health and the possibility of contagion.  It has been more like a spouse going to war than another day at the office.

In many cases both partners enrich their own lives and that of their spouse by outside friendships and activities. It works for one that a partner loves running with his friends while the other loves spending time in the garden. It works for both that their children’s friends have parents that enjoy big gatherings of parents and children. It is valuable to meet your partner’s working friends and see your partner through the eyes of others. That opportunity to expand the view and appreciation of a partner in differing contexts has been lost at this time.

How Do Couples Cope?

An important key is regulating the Human Stress Reactions that we experience when facing something like a Pandemic.

Deep Breathing

Experts have shown that nothing reduces the Fight/Flight Response and restores calm as quickly as deep breathing. To do this requires breathing deeply and exhaling slowly, ideally so that the exhalation lasts twice as long as the inhalation.  In children the same is accomplished by blowing bubbles ( not a bad a idea to suggest that your kids join you) .If it helps connect the breathing to a step outside the house, associate it with a song, or a place to be alone– let it become your instant down switch.

 A Mindful Self-Compassion Pause

Dr. Kristin Neff who researched Self-Compassion underscores that in life self-compassion is far more important than self-esteem. Self-Compassion is a powerful self-regulating tool because it stops negative ruminating and self-criticism. It has  even been shown to reduce PTSD because it does not encourage avoidance of thoughts of or feelings about what has happened; it invites you to is treat yourself with the compassion you would give someone else in your circumstances.

Mindful Self-Compassion which comes from the joint work of  Drs. Chris Germer and Kristin Neff involves starting with a deep breath to reset reactivity. You then take a moment to ask yourself “What am I feeling?”  In response to possible feelings of “ fear, inadequacy, or self-loathing,” you consider “Most people would feel this way in my situation.”  ( this connects you with others) “I am doing the best I can at this time.” ( this affirms self) Following this with a thought of gratitude is empowering. It builds resilience.

 How Do Couples Enhance Their Bond?

 The Power of Touch

 The Survival Responses all reflect dysregulation in the face of the danger we are feeling.  One thing that couples living together have that no one has taken away – is the power of touch. It is almost an immediate way to reduce the stress reactions of Fight/Flight/Numbing. Touch taps into the parasympathetic nervous system which works to calm us.

The touch of a hand when there is nothing to say, the squeeze of a shoulder after a verbal clash does more to calm partners that they often consider.  During physical affection, our bodies release oxytocin, a hormone produced in the brain, called the “cuddle chemical,” Oxytocin helps manage stress and anxiety, which impede good health. Researchers found that when people received hugs they were better able to respond to conflict and stress later.

Given the restrictions for contact due to COVID-19, couples have the advantage of hugging and kissing each other as well as their children and their pets. It is worth saying that when your children see you hugging – their stress is reduced. Their lifelines are safe.

Couple Time

The COVID-19 Pandemic has hi-jacked time – school time, work time, travel time, gym etc. and changed it to quarantined time, sheltered time, incubation time, ICU time etc.  With the exception of the time given up by couples for whom one or both are frontline medical or essential workers who need to recapture their time together, COVID-19 has not eliminated couple time.  The stress you feel and the unending things or lack of things you need to do- may seem to have eliminated it.

Take Back 10 minutes of Couple Time a day. In my work for years with couples after trauma, I have learned that the respected and guarded time for the cup of coffee together early in the morning, the routine of walking the dog together, the late night snack, become rituals that means “ we” matter. What will you talk about? Ideally something unrelated to day to day chores, money, politics or what you both think is wrong with the relationship.

Why? Because you are in a highly stressed situation. First reset the face to face bond of a 10 minute connection.Find out what might be right before you take on what is wrong. In captivity let’s lean into connection vs. contention.

Consider planning for each 10 minute rendezvous with the suggestions by one and then the other i.e. – Tomorrow we each guess the other’s favorite movie, share a childhood memory, remember what each other were wearing on the first date, the location of the first kiss, the song that makes you think of the days you met and more – it’s about a daily dose of intimate time to maintain your bond at a time when nothing is certain but the time you have together now.


Listen in to Dr. Chris Germer Discuss Mindful Self-Compassion on Psych Up Live