Business Insider Edition

Here is how my husband and I have learned to handle conflicts during quarantine

Melissa Petro , Business Insider US
 May 10, 2020, 09:13 AM
Melissa Petro and her husband have been sheltering in place with their two children.
melissa.petro/Instagram
  • Melissa Petro is a freelance writer who lives with her husband and two children in New York City.
  • During their time in lockdown due to the Covid-19 pandemic, Petro and her husband have had moments of bickering and miscommunication - but they're working on better ways to deal with marital conflict.
  • With the help of a therapist, Petro and her husband are learning the importance of taking accountability and showing appreciation to each other.
  • She recommends avoiding a "harsh startup" when opening a conversation so that you're more likely to elicit help rather than defensiveness.
  • For more stories go to www.BusinessInsider.co.za.

My husband and I have a strong relationship: We're totally committed to one another, we share fondness and admiration, and we enjoy one another's company. Even after over a month of lockdown, there's no one with whom I'd rather shelter in place.

There is one way, however, in which our relationship doesn't always work fabulously, and that is how we deal with conflict.

While we're sharing space with one another 24/7, even minor annoyances have the potential to snowball into epic blowouts. Negativity can linger for days, and it wears away at marital morale.

According to a recent study, we are not alone in feeling tested.

According to researchers at University of Michigan, couples are arguing more as a consequence of the global Covid-19 pandemic. The team accredits the uptick to economic uncertainty, likening today's climate to the financial crisis of 2008.

Unlike some couples, our relationship is not in crisis - in fact, in many ways, my family is functioning better than ever. Still, we don't have energy for bickering, and so - with the help of our family therapist - we're learning strategies to help us manage disagreements and resolve tensions when they arise.


1. Soften your startup

Kathrin Ziegler/Getty Images

Studies say the old adage, "Happy wife, happy life," is actually true. To be sure, it's true in my marriage. Whereas my husband is inclined to keep it to himself, I'm quick to complain - sometimes aggressively - and so our therapist is teaching me to "soften" my startup.

For example, instead of hysterically shouting "Seriously? The laundry basket is right there! How many times do I have to pick up your towel? I'm not your maid!" I'm supposed to say: "I feel overwhelmed. There's a dirty towel on the bathroom floor and I need to start dinner. Can you tidy up?"

To avoid a harsh startup, don't assign blame or get critical. Instead, describe the situation as specifically and objectively as possible, without judgment or evaluation. Begin with an "I" instead of "you." State how you feel. When you kindly ask for what you want or need, you're more likely to elicit help, instead of picking a fight.


2. Don't get defensive

skynesher/Getty Images

The point of a soft startup is to help your partner avoid defensiveness.

If I complain to my husband "You left a huge mess in the kitchen!" You can bet he's going to come back at me with a list of all the (very important) things he's been doing, and reasons the kitchen is untidy, and possibly a list of all the things I've recently not done up to his standards.

A softer start up might be "Thank you for walking the dogs and tidying the dining room. There are still some dishes in the sink. We agreed that whoever wasn't giving the kids their bath would clean the kitchen. Can you finish those up before coming upstairs to relax?"

My husband and I are still really bad at all of this, by the way. The other day, I asked Arran how he was feeling, and he said something like "I'm exhausted" - and I launched into a defensive list of reasons why I, too, was exhausted and why his exhaustion wasn't my fault.

Defensiveness is a natural response to feeling criticised, but it can come off as though the person doesn't care and your feelings don't matter to them - which just leads to more defensiveness. An appropriate response would have been a simple "I hear you."


3. Take a break if you have to — but don't stonewall

Morsa Images/Getty Images

Sometimes one or both parties need to take a break. If I feel myself getting swept up in negative emotions and on the verge of saying something I don't really mean and will probably regret, I'm learning to hit pause. Often, once the tension subsides, I realise there's nothing to argue about. If one or both of us still feels there's something we ought to address, we'll make time to do so that afternoon or save the discussion for our weekly family meeting.

Even under quarantine, most of us have at least one other room we can go into. Shut the door behind you if necessary - just don't slam it.

There's a sometimes-not-so subtle difference between "I need to take a break" and "I'm refusing to have this conversation, you can go fuck yourself." To make it clear you're not stonewalling, put a pin in the conversation with an "I feel" statement such as "I don't feel like you understand me right now," "I feel blamed," or "I'm feeling defensive. Let's talk about this when we both calm down."


4. Take accountability and show appreciation

Weekend Images Inc./Getty Images

The Covid-19 pandemic means we're both working harder than usual: We're parenting 24 /7 while working from home, sometimes in small and unaccommodating spaces. We're managing our households in these unique circumstances while also juggling health and safety concerns and economic uncertainty. I can blame the stress and overwhelm I'm feeling on my partner, or I can appreciate all that he's contributing towards my well-being. I can regard how hard he is working, and the fact that he is also stressed out and overwhelmed.

When I realise I am wrong, which is frequently, I try to let my husband know it. Saying "I'm sorry" communicates to your partner you hear them and that you care. Sometimes the best Arran and I can do is say "I'm sorry we're fighting."

It may not put an end to it completely, but it's a good start.

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