Quarantine: The Ultimate Stress Test

Whether you’ve been married for years or dating for a few months, dealing with stress is, well, part of the deal, but some situations are more stressful than others. As we’ve discussed before, there’s even a scale that measures these events; the Holmes-Rahe Stress Inventory describes the most stressful events an individual can experience. The problem with this scale, though, is that there’s no box you can check for “Pandemic” – easily one of the most stressful situations most of us have faced in our adult lives.

The fact is, if you look at the Holmes-Rahe Stress Inventory, you’ll find that our current circumstances actually check a number of boxes all at once. Using the inventory’s language, right now we’re facing:

  • Spouse beginning or ceasing to work outside the home
  • Major changes in working hours or conditions
  • Major changes in living conditions
  • Major changes in type or amount of recreation
  • Major changes in social activity

In addition to all these stresses, some are also facing major changes in their financial situation, or even complete job loss. Taken together, it’s more than most people can easily handle, and given there’s no end in sight to this situation, couples need to hone their stress management skills to keep their relationships healthy.

A Simple Rule: You’re Both Right

Though we may not know a lot about how living through quarantine during a pandemic impacts relationships – it’s not as though there are a lot of recent examples we can explore – but we do have substantial information about the impact of other crises. And one key takeaway from past struggles: you and your partner can both be right.

Text - Eric Spiegelman @ericspiegelman My wife and I play this fun game during quarantine, it's called "VWhy Are You Doing It That Way?" and there are no winners 10:24 AM · 4/4/20 · Twitter Web App

Obviously, you and your partner can’t both be right about whether or not it’s safe to go to the gym or invite friends over for coffee (hint: it’s not), but when it comes to low-stakes activities like how to load the dishwasher, or coping strategies like how much news you read about COVID-19, there isn’t one right answer. This is an important time to give your partner leeway, and vice versa. As long as neither of you is developing a drinking problem or performing disruptive home repairs, leave it alone.

Create Structure

If your household is just you and your partner, having a routine is worthwhile but not absolutely necessary. On days my wife and I are both home, for example, we find it helpful to set check-in times to keep the day moving along. If you have kids at home, though, structure is an absolute necessity. Create a clear structure for school, work, meals, and who should be supervising the children. Most importantly, block off prioritized family time.

Specifically allotting family time may seem silly right now since you’re always together, but you’re likely getting less quality time than usual, and you’re also facing new challenges together. Not only should this time include activities like playing games or cooking together, it should also make room for real conversations. Your kids, especially, may not know how to talk about what they’re experiencing, but you can make intentional room for those conversations.

It’s All About Empathy

One of the most contentious arguments right now is about whether or not it’s okay to mourn certain losses – the vacation you couldn’t take or the big school event – when people are getting sick and dying. These are what Professor Carol Bruess describes as “ambiguous losses” and it’s important to acknowledge them, especially if you’re the sort of person who is inclined to look on the bright side or compare your situation to those who have it worth. We all experience losses differently, and this is a time to emphasize empathy, not comparison. Let your loved ones grieve, even if you wouldn’t be inclined to do so.

We all can hope that we never experience anything like this current pandemic again, but right now our common goal should be to survive our present circumstances with our relationships intact. All we can do is to take things one day at a time.