How has the pandemic affected your relationships? There is no doubt that our relationships with people have changed quite a bit since March 2020. Some relationships were strengthened as we leaned on others for support. Some relationships weren’t given the chance to grow due to the lockdowns. With all of our time spent sheltering in place, are any of your familial bonds feeling a little stressed? What about those relationships on your periphery? When do you think you’ll see those familiar faces at your child’s school or the gym again?
These questions had me thinking about the effects this pandemic is having on our relationships, and how our relationships might look like on the other side of the pandemic. I’m sure many people have learned a lot about themselves – who they need in their lives, who they can go without. Perhaps you are unsure how to navigate the world socially once the pandemic ends. Do you pick up where you left off, or do you instill new boundaries? I reached out to Anne Miller Leba, a licensed professional clinical counselor to get some insight into this subject.
eplife | As the world starts to open up again as the covid vaccine continues to roll out, what are some strategies you have for navigating in person interactions again?
Anne | Some of us are going to feel gun shy about socializing again. I encourage folks to embrace this about themselves. And yet we are social creatures, we are not meant to live in isolation.
I love the idea of sending a message to a friend or neighbor to simply say hello. It feels good when others reach out. But start small. Social media can be a starting point to help us finds connection, but then take that extra step to ask a neighbor if he or she would like to go for a walk. I have yet to hear from someone that they regretted the exchange.
eplife | Being in large groups scares me, even with a vaccine, how do I get my mind to feel ‘ok’ about it?
Anne | Feeling anxious is often a result of boundary failure. Are we going out because everyone else is doing it? Now that I received the vaccine, do I need to feel that I shouldn’t have any health fears? Our nervous system is activated to communicate with us. If our body is communicating fear, it is our job to calm our nervous system. If you don’t feel comfortable in large groups, acknowledge that limit for yourself and act accordingly.
eplife | How do I turn social invitations down when I’ve realized I’m much more introverted? Will I lose friends?
Anne |I want to emphasize that relationships take work. They need nurturing, love and attention. This is obviously easier for some folks than others. But as I have mentioned before, we are meant to be connected. Even if we don’t feel comfortable being physically connected, the effort will still need to be present for social connectedness. As a therapist I will be keeping an eye on my single, introverted clients. The narrative that they share is that they like the pandemic, they like being inside and being at home. But just as social media has stripped many young (and older) folks from healthy social skills, the pandemic has haulted our ability to stretch that muscle as well. I believe that with time and practice we can resume healthy connectedness, but it will mean some growing pains along the way.
eplife | What are the three most common marital issues you see in your practice? What strategies do you offer to couples looking to fix those issues
Anne | 1. Under-appreciation, 2. Poor communication, and 3. Sexual dissatisfaction
Couples tend to fall into a pattern of taking one another for granted. Meals are made, laundry is complete, and home projects start and finish. Yet, often these items go unnoticed, and often are simply expected. The simple gesture of telling your partner “thank you” will build an immediate intimacy connection. Even if a couple succeeded with acts of gratitude prior to COVID, I encourage even more acts of appreciation now.
When we are under stress, our ability to maturely communicate our wants and needs tends to fail. Often couples will “make up” a story about why their partner did or did not do something. It’s these stories that we make up in our head that drive us crazy, not the actual person! When we can take accountability for these stories, it changes the trajectory of the exchange.
Sexual dissatisfaction is not simply solved by more sex (but it doesn’t hurt!). Often couples are missing physical connection moments. I encourage the 6 second kiss and/or the 20 second hug to improve physical intimacy. Research shows that cortisol levels decrease and dopamine levels go up with the addition of the longer smooch and embrace.
I coach my couples to listen with curiosity. Listening is a true super power. It’s no wonder people seek out therapy because for 50 minutes, they have the undivided attention of one person listening to their story. My rule of thumb for any relationship is that you should listen just as much as you talk.
eplife |Have you seen an increase in people seeking marriage counseling due to the pandemic and being together all the time?
Anne | It probably won’t come as a surprise that marital discord is at an all-time high for couples. In March, media reports coming out of China indicated that the number of uncouplings was rising as couples were coming out of weeks long government mandated lockdowns. Whether both worked outside of the home, or one stayed home while the other was away working, there was a natural break from one another. I often hear couples say “I miss missing you.”
Couples have been struggling with the lack of transition time from work life to home life. Alone time is all but non-existent these days. Whether a woman worked outside or inside the home, she often still carried extra responsibilities.
Once stuck at home, the division of labor tended to be unevenly split for many couples. Research also indicates that women tend to reveal more of their emotional lives to one another than men do. Men tend to socialize with activity-based experiences. Therefore, men tend to rely on their romantic partners to receive all of their deepest fears and traumas. So, when the pandemic hit, the burden fell heavily on the woman to not only calm her own fears and her children’s (if present), but to also calm her husbands. The exhaustion that came from that was a breaking point for many.
eplife | How can you identify a toxic spousal or friend relationship?
Anne | A good litmus test is “What people occupy your most mind space? Who makes you feel the most drained? Who and when do you feel the most resentment?” When we take an honest look at these answers, it can be a good motivator to decide if the relationship needs to change or end. Often unhealthy relationships stem from an individual not sharing their truth. For example, if a friend is constantly gossiping about other people and you never say anything about how this upsets you, the responsibility lies with you to speak up and tell her how this makes you feel. I believe that many relationships can be improved with increased responsibility and honesty. If we are not truth telling, aren’t we just as guilty as the gossiping friend? If/when a relationship turns into an unsafe or abusive situation, that is when professional help is warranted and it is not necessary for the individual to try and salvage the relationship.
Will your relationships with people look the same post-pandemic as it did pre-pandemic? It’s really up to you to decide. You can use this time to clear your slate and redefine your relationship and social boundaries. We all will be navigating a different landscape once this pandemic ends, so give yourself and others grace!
Anne is hosting a 4-week Zoom workshop called Better Boundaries, Better Relationships for Couples. It is focused on teaching couples what it means to engage in boundary violations and how to make repairs. Defining and setting boundaries is critical in creating healthy relationships. The series begins March 1, 2021, and is from 7-8:30pm. Visit https://www.relationaltraumarecovery.com/workshops for more information.
Anne Miller Leba is a Licensed Professional Clinical Counselor who has been in private practice for almost 20 years. She sees individuals, families and teens virtually. She is very excited to reunite with her clients in her Edina office sooner rather than later.
Anne Miller Leba — Center for Relational Recovery (relationaltraumarecovery.com)