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Counselling Couples Through COVID-19

By Dr. Ken Fung

While it may seem that the serious physical threat of the virus may be receding in Hong Kong, the emotional effects have still not been fully understood. Relationships, for one, have been particularly affected by isolation measures.

We have heard that domestic conflict and abuse have spiked among couples who have self-isolated. Divorce filings in China are jumping in the wake of the outbreak. Loving relationships, supposedly built on common ground, mutual respect and trust, are crumbling. What is going on behind all those closed doors?

All Day, Every Day

As a clinical psychologist who specialises in couples counselling, I hear from many couples that they feel overwhelmed by the amount of time they have to spend with their partners. Without regular office hours, these people simply don’t know how to deal with each other all day, every day, for weeks on end.

Having meals together, working on the same couch as each other, choosing which TV program to watch – all these innocuous, mundane activities become more fraught as time marches on with no escape. Each small activity can become a friction point for pent up frustrations, finally exploding into a full-blown fight.

This may be due, in part, to the fact that social isolation measures have robbed us of ways to cope with stress and feel supported. Having a friendly drink with co-workers or playing a sport to blow off steam both help manage stress. Connecting with family or friends in a lively restaurant is a very pleasurable way to strengthen social bonds. All of these routine activities that formerly acted as a way to regulate our emotions have been made unavailable to us.

Intense Insecurity

For couples who do not live together, matters can also be precarious. Without the opportunity to meet, or with one partner more inclined to stay home than the other, worries arise about commitment. Intense anxiety takes over, with one person believing the other never really cared for him or her anyway. The result, which I have encountered frequently as a professional counsellor, is an intense fight which took one partner completely by surprise.

A common thread running through all the complaints I have received is a strong sense of insecurity. This then morphed into anxiety, fear, depression, disappointment and even anger. Dealing with insecurity then, is the first and most important step to nipping many relationship problems in the bud.

Recognising your own insecurity can be tricky. Admitting that your anger or disappointment is, in fact, a mask that covers your most vulnerable self is not always easy. If you ever find yourself getting disproportionately upset at something your partner has said or done, stop and ask yourself: “how am I really feeling here and why?”. If you are honest with yourself, you may discover your partner has not erred, rather some deeper fear of yours has been being triggered.

Honesty and Self-Awareness

Remember this difficult situation has affected everyone. Many people have been home schooling their children, losing income, missing their family, and otherwise struggling to cope. Acknowledge that you live in uncertain times, where uneasy feelings are not far from the surface. Understand that it is easy for things to escalate quickly, and to be more aware of your own feelings in this environment. Turn that awareness to your relationship.

Being honest with yourself and developing self-awareness is brave work. But with these in hand, it is easier to communicate with your partner and solve the actual problems that may be affecting your relationship. I can assure you, it is much easier to find support and resolution from, “I really miss my friends and going out with them”, instead of, “I hate seeing your stupid face!”.

Honesty and self-awareness can also open to door to problem-solving. Anger usually begets anger, so attacking your partner will likely start a fight. For example, saying, “You have barely spoken to me in three days! You don’t care about me at all?” is basically a call to arms. Strive to structure your communications with your partner in a sincere and solution-oriented manner.

For example, rephrasing the outburst above might look like this: “I feel worried…” (communicate your feelings), “…because we haven’t spoken much lately”, (the reason you are having those feelings). Follow this with a do-able suggestion to help. “Let’s find 20 minutes to talk together.” The chance of you being truly heard and accepted will be much higher with this approach.

A Safe Space

Honesty, self-awareness and an approach that seeks to solve problems is a healthier route for relationships anytime, not just during a pandemic. At this time though, we are dealing with many psychological stressors that were not present before, and affect our ability to cope.

We must pay attention to our feelings, and ensure that we do not bring the ill effects of the pandemic into our relationship. Rather, we should use our energies to protect our partners and ourselves, and maintain the relationship as a safe, loving space in these uncertain times.

Dr. Ken Fung is the BFDC’s Couples Counsellor. Contact him if you wish to speak with him on your own, or with your partner. Or, join him this June for a Summer Couples Workshop on communication.