How to maintain relationships in self-isolation

  17 April 2020    Read: 1163
 How to maintain relationships in self-isolation @Getty Images

Isolation doesn’t have to be a bad thing. Time in quarantine, whether it means spending more time together or less, could be an opportunity to strengthen your relationships.

As the realisation that we were going into an extended period of lockdown began to dawn, a frenzy of questions started flying around the internet. Many people were wondering what it might mean for our romantic lives, from whether we should still date while social distancing to how to practice safe sex during the pandemic.

A couple of weeks ago these concerns mainly centred around the practicalities of going on dates when bars were closed or we were supposed to be keeping two metres between us. For many, that particular debate is now moot as restrictions have significantly increased in the UK and the rest of Europe, with other countries around the world following suit.

But what about at an emotional level? What should we do to keep our relationships happy and healthy during the pandemic? Lockdown could go one of two ways; it could suddenly mean we spend much more time together or much less.

As the UK stepped up its response to the Covid-19 outbreak on 24 March, Jenny Harries, the deputy chief medical officer for England, shed some light: couples who do not live together should see self-isolation as an opportunity to "test their strength of feeling" or consider moving in.

If you are self-isolating away from your partner, it won’t take long for you to start missing them. For one thing, isolation will deprive you of important physical contact. Kory Floyd, a professor at the University of Arizona describes a concept called “skin hunger” – effectively, deprivation of physical affection. More than just loneliness, this phenomenon describes why being able to talk to someone, or see them over video call, is not as fulfilling as having them close.

Efforts to replace physical touch with a technological solution – called tele-haptics – range from internet-linked pillows that glow and warm up when the other is being hugged to more intimate devices. There are ways to cope with the absence of physical connection without the need for tech. Amy Muise at York University, Toronto, describes how people with dissatisfactory sex lives use “sexual nostalgia” – reflecting on past partners or experiences. This specific type of nostalgia was unlike other types of sexual fantasy in that over time it eventually detracted from their sexual satisfaction. Effectively, dwelling too much on past good experiences was detrimental to their ongoing wellbeing.

Many couples are now faced with the prospect of spending too much time together or apart (Credit: Getty Images)

In the absence of a loved one, something physically sent by them can help. Katheryn Maguire, a professor in the department of communication at Wayne State University, talks about the remedying effects of a “good old-fashioned handwritten letter”. “There is something special about holding something they held,” she says. “The paper was in their hand; you see their writing, if they wear perfume [you can smell it], that makes it very present.”

But perhaps couples shouldn’t rush to hunker down as a couple, or quarantine with parents or in-laws. Research on long-distance relationships (LDRs) shows there are many reasons why living apart can be good for you. Likewise, distance from friends and family need not be a bad thing.

In fact, isolating together brings its own stresses. “In the current situation we are losing our boundaries – things are so blurred,” says Maguire. “It is hard to know when work stops and relationships start.”

People isolating with their partner are probably not used to the amount of time they are now spending together. As people’s romantic lives, work lives, and domestic lives begin to pile on top of each other, the importance of finding space from each other is paramount.

“It's important to... have some time apart,” says Erin Sahlstein Parcell, a family and marital communication expert at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. “Or at least time in parallel – spending time in each other's presence but attending to individual needs or interests.”

Sahlstein Parcell talks about the positives of finding individual interests to create opportunities to find your own space, and treating time together and apart as distinct. This is something that people with experience of long-distance relatonships area already able to do. And there is more that we can learn from spending time apart well.

When you might be better off being apart

Missing your partner has been shown to maintain your relationship health. Students on short winter breaks who reported missing their partner the most were more likely to associate greater feelings of commitment towards them when they were reunited, and made more attempts to use positivity, openness and assurances to maintain their relationship.

“A lot of the research has found that they [LDRs] are just as satisfying,” says Amy Janan Johnson, a professor in the department of communication at the University of Oklahoma. “They tend to be more idealised: they are not leaving dishes in the sink. You forget about the little things that irritate you. Geographically close couples have no experience of that.”

Couples isolating together should try to spend some time "in parallel" - in the same room, but focused on their own needs or interests (Credit: Getty Images)

What has been repeatedly shown is that communication and negotiation are essential for good quality LDRs. “Typically distance equals bad and together equals good, but [my research] illuminated how each situation can have positive and negative impacts on the other,” says Sahlstein Parcell. “While being apart, relationship partners can work on themselves and other relationships, such as friendships, which they can bring to the relationship and positively affect it.”

Sahlstein Parcell says there is a strong assumption that relationships “happen" when the partners are together, and can feel "on hold" between face-to-face visits – which is a mistake. She says there is good evidence that being apart can in fact be rewarding for couples, and is important for healthy relationships.

“Long-distance partners can treat their time together as 'couple time' and their time apart as 'individual time',” says Sahlstein Parcell. “I think the key to successful LDRs is not letting this segmentation become too rigid.”

Some people are better at coping with the unknown than others – a concept psychologists refer to as tolerance for ambiguity. If you are someone who needs predictability and stability – the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic is probably depriving you of that.

Those people with a greater tolerance for ambiguity might use a kind of psychological segmentation to make the lockdown feel more orderly and under control. For example, by thinking of time with their partner and time without their partner as two clearly distinguished periods, they might be able to reduce any potential feelings of listlessness.

Research on LDRs, whether they are military families, transnational families or commuting couples, shows that the first few months back together are usually make or break

“One thing that long-distance relationships can teach us then is there is something about segmenting your life: being together and focused on each other when you are, and being apart and focused on that,” says Maguire.

Why reuniting can be bad

The time separated is not the only challenge for couples who are isolating. Transitioning back to normal life is going to be equally difficult. Research on LDRs, whether they are military families, transnational families or commuting couples, shows that the first few months back together are usually make or break.

“Coming back together is usually a turning point,” says Johnson. “Research on people when they retire finds they start to get on each other's nerves. Johnson talks about the imbalance in autonomy and connection: when couples are working, there is more time spent being autonomous at work. At the point that they retire, without the need to leave the house for several hours a day, they find themselves having to be connected much more.

Several studies have shown that communication is essential for good long-distance relationships (Credit: Getty Images)

On the other hand, military families are a perfect example of how separation and being reunited can work harmoniously – if done correctly. When separated, the service member and the family live to their own routines. Often this might mean strict meal times and early starts for the service member, which might be out of sync with their family. Leanne Knobloch from the University of Illinois describes the upheaval when service members return from duty as “relational turbulence”. The clash of routines takes some time to sync up again.

“But just because it is a turbulent moment does not mean it is insurmountable,” says Johnson. “It might not be a problem with the relationship, it could be a problem with the moment. We are in each other's way, we have to learn. We should recognise there will be turbulence and it will be stressful.”

Another danger to relationships after reuniting is to assume your partner has not changed, warns Maguire. “It is a fantasy to think that someone is exactly the same regardless of how much time has passed. You have to get to know them again: they may not have seen the changes that happened over time.”

Isolating with a romantic partner might be hard, too

Quaratine is hard for everyone. In response to the Covid-19 outbreak, Samantha Brooks from King’s College London reviewed past studies on the psychological impacts of quarantine. Most studies found that quarantine results in the short term led to boredom, frustration and anger – and some research suggests that these effects might be long-lasting, linking periods in isolation with post-traumatic stress symptoms.

Whether the effects will be that extreme for most people is yet to be seen. Clearly this will be a stressful time for couples. Though if the authorities remind us that we are isolating for the benefit of people in greater need, it can temper some of the stressful feelings, says Brooks.

The added stress and unique situation where people are restricted to their own home has raised particular concerns for those whose domestic lives are abusive.

For couples with children, there have been concerns about school closures, because they may have been acting as sanctuaries from abuse. However, in countries like the UK and the US, these have at least been answered in part with online lessons and free school meals.

But for children and adults alike, abuse in the home is generally harder to address when traditional methods are unavailable. Walk-in centres are closed and helplines might be unreachable if victims of abuse cannot find the privacy needed to make a call. Their abuser might be working from home now, or have lost their job – and as restrictions tighten it could become harder for victims to create an excuse to leave the house to phone a helpline.

While domestic abuse is thought to be on the rise, experts are alarmed that the number of calls to helplines seems to have gone down (Credit: Getty Images)

“We think abuse would be higher because of [the unemployment and uncertainty caused by the lockdown]. We are worried about the reduced access to social support, too. You can't go to a friend’s house if you need somewhere else to stay,” says Renae Franiuk, a professor of psychology at Aurora University, Illinois.

However, across many countries under lockdown, cases of domestic violence have spiked. In Spain, there reports have increased by a fifth, while in France they have gone up by a third, with similar trends seen in the UK, US and China. 

Worryingly, while domestic abuse might be on the rise, some crisis helplines say that requests for assistance or advice have dropped, says Franiuk, who also holds a voluntary position on the board of Mutual Ground, a crisis helpline and emergency shelter for people who are experiencing domestic abuse in Illinois. 

In the UK, the picture is mixed; some charities have noticed a significant increase in online requests for help, while others have reported "worrying" drops in calls.

Franiuk says that those charities that offer online chat or text services can help where traditional telephone helplines cannot. However, asking victims to seek help via messaging and social media assumes that they will have access to their phones, which they might not.

Franiuk is optimistic that domestic abuse services will open again as soon as the restrictions begin to be eased, and points out that many shelters, like Mutual Ground, are still open even if they are not currently offering face-to-face counselling.

Some countries are also intervening with more direct measures. In France, Italy and Spain the governments are renting hotel rooms for domestic violence victims, and in the UK the home secretary has made it clear that domestic violence victims are allowed to leave the house to seek help. How they might do so, though, is less clear. 

Franiuk also warns that the lockdown could have long-term repercussions for the welfare of victims of abuse. “A lot of people are losing jobs, especially in the US – we are not seeing good job protection. When victims and abusers are losing jobs, it will keep them in violent relationships even when restrictions lift. Economic pressures mean victims can’t afford to leave.”

It's important for reunited couples to get to know each other again - and realise that the other person may have changed (Credit: Getty Images)

How to prepare to be reunited

Even for those of us who don’t have to worry about domestic abuse, the transition back to normal life could be hard. Romance aside, many of us might not be used to spending so much time with our families, or so little with our friends.

And with so much ambiguity as to when the restrictions in Covid-19 affected countries might be lifted, it will be difficult to know when and how to prepare. At least for military families, there is usually a fixed end date on each tour of service.

Sahlstein Parcell recommends trying to ease that transition by seeing the positives in time apart, and not idealising togetherness.

One key piece of advice for couples either reuniting or returning to normal life is to put in the groundwork beforehand. “LDRs shouldn't 'put off' dealing with conflicts while they are apart, for example, although they often do,” says Sahlstein Parcell. “What is troubling about doing so is that resentments can form as partners hold on to their problems until they can talk about them face-to-face.”

She says couples avoid conflict when they are face to face because they want that time together to be quality time. Putting off conflict when apart and deferring it when together creates a vicious cycle that can set a relationship on a trajectory for failure.

Maguire concludes that if the only problem you have is being away from each other – well, that’s a really good sign. Likewise, couples isolating together should remember that the stress of quarantine will pass.

“Times like these really bring into bold relief how togetherness is not always good and separation is not always bad,” says Sahlstein Parcell. “It does give us the opportunity to see the positives and negatives of both, and hopefully take lessons learned beyond this pandemic period.”


Domestic violence: Useful contacts

US: The National Domestic Violence Hotline

Spain: National helpline 016; email [email protected]; psychological support service via WhatsApp +34 682 916 136/+34 682 508 507; ask for Mascarilla-19 in a pharmacy

UK: National Domestic Abuse Helpline 0808 2000 247

Italy: Government helpline 1522

Belgium: Access support via 0800 30 030 in French or in Dutch on 1712

France: the national helpline is 3919, and in an emergency send an SMS to 114 or call 17.

Russia: Anna Centre helpline – 8 800 700 06 00

Across Europe support services via Women Against Violence Europe (WAVE) Network.



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