How Couples Can Avoid Conflict and Cope With the Stress of COVID-19

Learn how your relationship is the best way to cope with stress

These are unprecedented times. It’s the middle of a global pandemic and we’re all scared.

We’re afraid for our health and lives of our elderly parents. Some of us are worried about losing our jobs, or about how they’ll change once we’re able to get back to the office. Some of us have lost jobs already and are afraid we won’t be able to put food on the table.

We’re also confused. Navigating the general uncertainty around the pandemic means decisions that change and fluctuate depending on the latest findings and expert advice.

On top of all that fear and uncertainty, we are quarantined into spending every waking moment together.

The stress of COVID-19 is affecting all of us—which means it’s also affecting our relationships.

When fear and uncertainty is mixed with the pressure of having to be with your partner 24/7, it’s no wonder we’re frustrated, angry, or fighting. Even couples who normally get along well and obviously love each other are having a difficult time getting along. The primal instincts that accompany fear trigger needs in each of us that must be addressed in order to regain a sense of security and strength.

Fear Triggers Attachment Needs

Fear of loss—of jobs, of health, of loved ones—activates the “attachment system” for both partners. Attachment theory was put forth by John Bowlby after studying the maternal-infant relationship and the effect of the lack of that bond. It explains how we as humans need closeness to and comfort from other people, most significantly our parents and our romantic partners. This begins when we are infants as one of our most basic mammalian needs and affects how we interact with others even through adulthood.

What are attachment needs?

This built-in need to connect with other human beings is also known as “attachment.” Physical proximity to our loved ones, or “attachment figures,” helps satisfy our need for safety and security. When we have that proximity, it not only offers safety (think, early humans living in community to guard against predator attacks, or later humans living in community to farm together), but also helps us regulate negative affective states such as fear or sadness that stressful situations provoke. (Greenman & Johnson, 2012)

Seeking comfort and support during times of stress or threat is the same innate reaction in a toddler who runs to his mom for comfort and an adult man who craves physical or emotional comfort from his adult partner. The emotional bond between adult romantic partners functions in the same way as the primary attachment bond between mothers and infants. (Greenman &Johnson 2012)

According to Bowlby, the attachment system essentially asks the following fundamental question: Is the attachment figure nearby, accessible, and attentive during times of stress? 

Emotional connection to our loved one signals safety, whereas emotional disconnection signals danger (Johnson, 2008). If your loved one is nearby, accessible and attentive to you in times of stress, you will feel soothed and secure. When we’re emotionally connected, we also feel stronger and more resilient (Johnson, 2008).

While we’re all struggling with the uncertainty and the threat, and/or realities, of COVID-19, we are looking for that attachment to give us a sense of safety. During times like this of increased fear, being able to seek—and find—comfort from our partners is imperative, as basic a need as oxygen.

Different Ways of Coping, or Different Attachment Styles

All of us have predictable ways of coping and our own go-to strategies to manage stress and fear. These coping strategies are also known as “attachment styles.” There are 3 different attachment styles:

Secure Attachment Style:

People with Secure Attachment Style cope by initially turning up the emotional heat. They actively recognize their distress and are able to share it with their partner. They actively seek support, and once they get it, they’re soothed. At that point, they’re able to turn down the emotional heat.

 Avoidant Attachment Style:

People with Avoidant Attachment Style cope by turning down the emotional heat and shutting down. They deactivate emotional regulation, rely heavily on cognition, and fall into problem solving, which can look like working longer hours or diving into projects around the house. (Wiebe & Johnson, 2016)

Anxious Attachment Style:

People with Anxious Attachment Style also cope by turning up emotional heat. When distressed, they need more contact and reassurance from their partner. They need to talk more about what’s bothering them and they easily become anxious, angry or controlling (Wiebe & Johnson, 2016). Reactions in this attachment style can look like nagging or criticizing.

How Couples Under Stress Get into Conflict

We all learn to cope and adopt an attachment style in response to our life experiences. Couples under stress can be easily triggered and use those coping styles to try to get comfort from each other in ways that lead to conflict.

Let’s take a look at an example. An avoidant partner feels anxious about finances and his inability to work and provide for his family. He tells himself “I don’t want to burden my partner, so I don’t want to talk about it.” This leads to him turning away from his partner and managing his emotions on his own. He may also spend a lot of time on his devices or working on projects.

His partner, who is also feeling highly anxious about this situation, knows something is going on but sees the avoidant partner pulling away. Their partner won’t talk to them, which makes them feel even more afraid—and in their anxious attachment style, that makes them pursue their partner even more. To complicate things further, when the anxious partner feels alone, they have a tendency to nag and criticize.

This is the beginning of the vicious cycle. The more the avoidant partner shuts down, the more the anxious partner feels anxious and alone, and the more each falls back into their respective coping mechanisms.

Once couples are stuck in the cycle of constant fighting and withdrawing, it’s hard to get out.

Facing the Fear Together

As COVID-19 continues, and our fears with it, we need the support of our partners more than ever.

Couples that are able to turn to each other and be accessible and attentive during stressful times maintain a secure bond. They achieve this by first tuning into their own emotions, identifying them, and naming them. They put out a clear and coherent message of how they feel inside and ask their partner clearly for what they need (Feuerman, 2020).

The more we can follow the model of coping within the secure attachment style, the more likely our partners will be able to respond to us. Then we can face the fear together, which can also have a powerful effect on our relationships.

When we reach out, communicating our needs effectively, and our partner is able to respond, we feel secure in our attachment and soothed in our fears. We know there’s someone there facing this enormous catastrophe with us. We don’t have to be alone.

The more we can share our deep vulnerable emotions, and the more our partner responds to us, the more we’ll create bonding moments that strengthen our relationships.

Intimate and close relationship is the best way to deal with the stress of COVID-19.

Studies show that positive, loving connection protects us from stress and helps us cope better with life’s challenges and traumas (Johnson 2008). Simply holding the hand of a loved one can calm our brain. One experiment measured brain activity in female participants while receiving a small shock both alone and while holding her partner’s hand. During the experiment, fMRI revealed the activation of the stress center of the brain with each shock. However, when a participant’s partner held her hand, the patient registered less stress and less pain. This effect was even stronger in participants who reported higher levels of satisfaction with their partners, aka “Super couples” (Coan, 2006).

Contact with a loving partner acts as a buffer against shock, stress and pain. According to the researcher psychologist James Coan (see Wiebe & Johnson, 2016), connection releases pain-blocking chemicals in the body. Connection to your loved one can be your “Motrin.”

In the same way, emotional connection with a partner helps us deal with emotional pain. A strong bond with a loved one is the most potent and efficient means of stress regulation. That bond with our partner can calm our nervous system and soothe our fear during COVID-19.

One of the most effective therapeutic strategies for developing strong attachment between couples is through a specific type of therapy. Emotionally Focused Therapy (EFT) is an evidence-based method that helps couples create those loving and supportive bonds and better communicate their attachment needs during times of stress. Seeking closeness is adaptive against danger, and finding it allows both partners to thrive despite chaos, uncertainty, and fear. Couples who receive EFT are able to create a secure connection that calms and soothes (Weibe & Johnson, 2016), and can create a combined emotional strength to help them weather the stress of any storm – even one as strong as COVID-19.

Dr. Irena offers online therapy for couples in Texas and New York who are having difficulty being together during the quarantine. She uses research-proven Emotionally Focused Therapy to help couples develop and maintain emotional connection and support each other through stressful times. She has helped highly distressed couples be available and responsive to each other, access their resiliency, and strengthen their relationships.

If you would like to schedule a session, email Dr. Irena for a free 10-minute video consultation:  [email protected] or call (281)-267-1742.

References:

  1. Coan, J.A., Schaefer, H.S., & Davidson, R.J. (2006). Lending a Hand: Social Regulation of the Neural Response to Threat. Psychological Science, 17(12), 1032-1039
  2. Feuerman, M. (2020). Emotionally Focused Therapy:Effective Treatment for Distressed Couples. VeryWellMind.com.
  3. Greenman, P.S., and Johnson, S.M. (2012). United We Stand: Emotionally Focused Therapy for Couples in the Treatment of Posttraumatic Stress Disorder. J. Clin. Psychology: In Session, 68, 561-569.
  4. Johnson, S. (2008). Hold Me Tight. New York, NY: Little, Brown Spark.
  5. Wiebe, S.A., and Johnson, S.M. (2016). A Review of the Research in Emotionally Focused Therapy for Couples. Fam Proc, 55, 390–407.
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