With the COVID-19, many of us are under severe amounts of uncertainty and fear. No one alive has ever lived through anything like this before. Each day we wake up, we are faced with something that we have yet to face. Naturally, with all this uncertainty, anxiety soon follows and relationships are burdened with something they might not be fully equipped to deal with.
During this time, many of us are running in survival mode. The alarm systems in our brains are literally going on overdrive, potentially scanning our environments for danger and there’s a lot of perceived danger out there right now. As a partner, our goals are not to fix our partner’s feelings or dismiss them as being irrational, it is to help calm our partner to allow them to work through their own feelings.
So how do we help support our partner during this time of high anxiety, stress, and confusion? I’ve compiled a list of three ways in which to be supportive to your partner dealing with not only the stress of COVID-19 but any stress in the future. Because unfortunately, stress and chaos is never ending.
If you’ve been a client of mine, you might get sick of hearing this, but empathy is one of the greatest skills we can learn in a relationship. Empathy is the ability to see life through our partner’s eyes and “sit in the mud with them”. Let them know they’re not alone in this, for lack of a better phrase, shit storm.
How exactly do we listen with an empathetic ear? I actually have a really neat blog post that goes more specifically in detail with this skill in case you’re in need of a refresher course. When we listen with an empathetic ear, we listen for feelings. Here is a list of things to ask yourself as your partner is talking.
“What is my partner feeling right now?”
“What is my partner needing right now?”
“I wonder what this is really like for my partner?”
“Does this remind my partner of another painful part of their past?”
It’s important not to get lost in your partner’s words or your own anxieties, but rather read between the lines. Look at your partner’s body language, read their face, feel the energy of their emotions. This will help you to not try and fix an unfix-able problem for your partner, but rather help them hold and make sense of all the craziness going on.
Sometimes there is nothing better than a squeeze from a loved one. Words are hard to find right now and not a lot of words can probably describe how we are feeling at times. Physical touch is vital to a relationship as a way to physically let your partner know that you are there. It’s a very clear representation of your support and can be helpful when you can’t find the words to say.
Physical touch is also great for the chemistry of the relationship, biochemistry that is. When we touch one another, it releases the feel-good endorphins into our bloodstream making us feel calmer by just a single touch. Think of a crying baby. The embrace of a mother and father on a baby can instantly calm a child. You also can have that effect on your partner. (If your partner is sensitive to touch, be sure to ask before touching your partner when they are in a heightened state).
A term that goes hand in hand with empathy is validation. Validation, however, is given a bad rap. Many dismiss their partner’s feelings and thoughts instead of validating for fear that if they validate their partner’s feelings, they are condoning or agreeing with their reality.
Let me tell you a thing about reality, it’s relative. What an obvious, but important observation. We often get stuck in arguing with our partner that our reality is the ultimate reality. If our partner just saw things the way we did, this would all be a lot easier. That simply isn't the case. You each have your own way of seeing the world. In that, you each have your own way of reacting to the world.
Even if your partner’s fears seem irrational to you, that does not mean they are any less real to your partner. It’s the worst thing to be feeling a certain way and to have your partner disregard your feelings as being “valid”. We never want to perpetuate a feeling of loneliness that our partner is most likely already feeling.
In validating your partner’s fears, try and find one piece of what they are saying that you could imagine how that would be terrifying for your partner. It’s important to keep in mind that your partner hasn’t experienced the world like you. Things that are scary to you, might not be scary to them and things that are scary to them might not be scary to you.
Put yourself in your partner’s shoes, given their background and experiences and allow it to be a lens in which you experience your partner through. For example, your partner who grew up in poverty in childhood, might be really terrified when there is uncertainty in their job and creating a heightened stress response during this time. There might not be any imminent threat, but your partner may be reacting to a similar situation.
That’s part of being in a relationship. We have to see the world through our partner’s perspective and see that our partner’s perspective, like ours, is also valid.
Brittany Malak, MA, LMFT