Relationships in Lockdown: How To Diffuse Arguments

Annie Gurton

Relationship Therapist

Being locked up with your partner for days already, and at the point of murder? You are not alone. There are many people who are finding that their relationships are at breaking point now that they are forced to be together 24/7. 

In normal circumstances, one or both go to work and works acts as a circuit breaker in conflicts.  In the past when a disagreement started to arise, one or the other left the house for 7 or 8 hours or more, and when they come back together the heat is gone from the rupture. Then, usually, the couple is able to talk calmly. Not any more. There is no place to hide, no place to go, and your beloved’s smallest habits become highly irritating.  Suddenly, the way they eat, the way they drink, even the way they breathe, can become things that drive you crazy.

Its a normal response.  For the most amiable among us, these are testing times.  And for many, there are new, added stressors like worries about whether you even have a job, whether you’re going to run out of money and not be able to pay the rent — big things which are major concerns.  Having these on top of being irritated by the other’s existence to lead to a volatile and unpredictable time.

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The worrying thing though is incidents of that domestic violence and abuse have risen sharply since the pandemic began. For some it is an escalation of abuse that has been going on for a while, for others it is something new.  Most often domestic abuse is subtle and comes in the form or criticism, blaming, shaming or humiliation.  Sometimes it is ‘stonewalling’ or giving the ‘silent treatment’ which affects people differently.  For some, the silent treatment is quite alarming and reminds them of childhood feelings of abandonment or bullying.  In the confined space of a unit or house, being subjected to these abusive behaviours can feel overwhelming.  I am hearing of couples who are arguing like never before.

I have to assume that the couple are reasonably mature, and want the situation to change. They have to want to start to do things differently, and be willing to back off for a time. Within 24 hours maximum, the couple can begin to discuss things again.

Strategies for dealing with an argument in a close space:

1.         Agree on a code of behaviour.  When a safe place is employed, the argument needs to stop.  You should also have a hand signal, like a ‘time-out’ sign, which means that both stop.  No talking, no shouting, all of the argument goes on hold.  Take time to calm down.

2.         Designate safe areas to each other.  The first thing to do is to assign safe areas of the home to each other, so that you each have a space they can go to where you can trust the other not to invade or attack them.  For as much as we are social creatures, we also need privacy and safety; if we don’t have those two things we will feel more hurt and vulnerable.

You need to agree that when the other is in the bedroom, living room, or on a certain chair or space, they are safe and protected against an ongoing conflict.  At the same time, the one who retreats to that space can’t continue an argument, or to lob grenades at the other.   

3.         Recognise emotion. As you calm down, try to recognise the other’s emotions at this time.  Try and cross an imaginary bridge into their world, and think what has upset them.  Recognising this does not minimise or diminish your hurt or frustration.

4.         Set a time when discussion will re-start. When that time comes, sit so that you can look each other in the eye.  Standing feels unsafe because the other can leave at any time, and avoiding eye contact does not feel safe either. It’s important to make and hold eye contact.

5.         Decide who will go first in expressing themselves.  This person is the ‘sender’ and the other the ‘receiver’ for about 10 minutes.  The receiver needs to simply mirror what they hear the sender say.  The sender ‘sends’ in short bursts of information – we have an 8-second short term memory, so don’t overload the receiver with too many words.  Just say what is upsetting you, stop and allow the receiver to mirror.  Keep to one subject at a time.   Then the receiver will summarise the essence of what they have heard, and ask if they’ve heard correctly.  Then the receiver will say what makes sense to them in that.  Saying what makes sense to them doesn’t mean that they agree with it, or that they don’t have a different point of view.  The receiver shows empathy for the sender’s point of view.

6.         Remember that quality trumps quantity.  So when you are spending all your time in the same home, set aside quality time to be with your partner and nurture your relationship.  You may not be able to go out on dates but you have the opportunity to learn more about what your partner is like, their history and backstory, and get creative –  dress up for dinner, play board games or do jigsaws together, watch movies together, do online yoga, and if you can get out of the house to exercise, go on walks together.

7.         Take time apart.  It’s important to have private time, and ideally have private space in the home.  Take time in the bathroom, use a headset to listen to podcasts or talk to friends online, alone.   Some couples find that having a designated timetable for ‘alone time’ and ‘shared time’ works well, partly because it replaces the structure that work brings with a new pattern.

8.          Establish a routine.  We are creatures of habit and one of the disconcerting things about this current isolation is the loss of routine.  Have a timetable which includes meals (this also helps stop the tendency to snack more than usual).

9.        Be kind to each other.  Recognise that this is an unusual and difficult circumstance, and it will pass.  Try and be the best and sweetest version of yourself, and Remember:  You can be right, or you can be in a relationship!

Annie was recently featured in a Manly Social video interview on surviving lockdown with your partner. Watch the video below to get her expert advice.

Rescu Me Academy’s Reignite Your Relationship Course is here to help. Click here to start now. 

Annie Gurton is available for online couples sessions.  Book yourself in through her online booking system at www.anniegurton.com   

Visit our online Education Hub RESCU Me Academy for our courses, free ebooks and resources.

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