Honey, I’m (always) home! If you live with a partner or a roommate, coronavirus quarantine isn’t just about managing your own needs and anxieties. It’s about finding a way to coexist with someone and all of their needs and anxieties, every minute of every day in a confined space for an undisclosed amount of time. If you think that should be easy because you already live together and love one another, you’re wrong, and you know it.
There would be no escape from the squabbles, for one thing, whether they’re about toothpaste or President Trump. The experience would be stressful and taxing and maybe even traumatic. If you do end up quarantined due to the spread of Covid-19, the extended period of isolated-yet-never-alone confinement you’d be facing has more in common with shipping out to an Antarctic research station, a submarine, or the International Space Station than it does with your domestic daily grind. If you want to come out of it with your relationships and sanity intact, it’s time to start preparing for your mission.
While the experience will be easier for some (sorry, extroverts), quarantine will mess with everyone’s heads. Research shows you’ll be bored, frustrated, lonely, angry, and stressed. Humans don’t like to be thrown out of their routines, particularly when the changes leave them feeling trapped. According to Samantha Brooks, who has studied the psychological impact of quarantine at King’s College London, people in a lockdown become extremely afraid of catching the disease and catastrophize any minor ailment that even resembles a symptom. “If you're with someone else and you hear them cough, you'd start to panic about their health and your own too,” she says. “More worryingly, there is some evidence that people in quarantine are more likely to report symptoms of depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress.”
If you’re isolated long enough—months on end—an adverse quarantine experience could even alter your brainwaves. “Under conditions of confinement, the brain and one's behavior begins to exhibit something similar to the hibernation of animals during winter months,” says Lawrence Palinkas, who researches psychosocial adaptation to extreme environments at the University of Southern California. “When exposed to restricted light and limited environmental stimuli, the brain slows down to conserve energy.” According to Palinkas, it’s something that happens to researchers in the Antarctic during the harsh, dark winter. “You may find people essentially dropping out of conversations,” he says. “They refer to it as ‘the Antarctic stare.’” You don’t want this to happen to your partner; your partner doesn’t want this to happen to you. Fortunately, you can work together to improve your situation and stave off frustrations or creepy Antarctic withdrawal.
The first step is to look inward. “Perfect harmony is not the goal. It’s really about self-awareness,” says Elaine Yarborough, a conflict-resolution consultant who has been managing interpersonal and business conflicts in 30 countries for the past 40 years. “If people have not cultivated it, or even partially considered it, they could be in trouble.” When you do come into conflict with your roommates or family members, Yarborough recommends thinking carefully about what you actually want and feel, and then say that rather than whatever snarky remark your cranky brain wants to put out into the world. If a minor argument concerns old baggage or you’re really upset because you’re grieving the loss of your social life, say so. “Differentiate between a surface and real interest,” Yarborough says. “For example, you may get angry that another has not taken out the trash. The real issue is that you feel ignored and unimportant. Express the latter.” In other words, this is your time to hurry up and start acting like a well-adjusted adult.
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Structure will be your friend. “Do what you can to ask for space when you need it,” says Peter Coleman, a social psychologist and conflict-resolution researcher at Columbia University. “Intentionality can help.” Even though you’re used to sharing space, you can’t treat quarantine the way you would a lazy Saturday. Coleman suggests negotiating how you divide time and space, how and how often you check in on each other, and to acknowledge that what you’re going through is big and difficult. The lack of privacy grates on everyone experiencing group confinement, despite the isolation. “Having structured time allows people not to feel like others are constantly observing them or constantly present,” Palinkas says. “You can come together for periods of entertainment. Watching old movies used to be very popular at Antarctic research centers. It gives people a chance to interact socially for a structured period of time, and then gives them a period to retreat.”
Easy entertainment isn’t an indulgence in this situation. It’s a requirement. If you find yourself slipping into a crochety pattern of conflict with your partner, switch things up. “Sometimes you need just plain distraction,” Yarborough says. “Leave the room. Dye your hair.” Quarantine could also be a time to take up a shared fitness routine or creative or intellectual pursuit with your partner—do sit-ups, paint, learn a new board game, read that book you’ve been talking about reading. Just don’t get carried away. “People will say that this is a great opportunity to learn a new language or read a stack of books,” Palinkas says. “New challenges can be helpful, but they also have to be kept in line with reasonable expectations so you don’t start feeling guilty about wasting time.” Remember, you’ve got to acknowledge that being quarantined is difficult all on its own.
Does preparing for a healthy quarantine period sound a lot like therapy? It does, which means that, like therapy, it will be work. Necessary work. “Generally speaking, with marital relationships, where emotions really matter and sentiment really matters, if you sit down with your partner and you have a conflict, you need five moments of trust or understanding or compassion to every stinging rebuke,” Coleman says. (Curiously, Coleman’s research has shown that perfect strangers only need a positive to negative ratio of 3:1 to keep the peace.) “Negative encounters go much deeper—they are remembered much longer and have much more of an impact on our experience in our relationship than positive ones,” he says. Coleman suggests doing everything you can to fill the reservoir of positivity between you and your partner, knowing that this time of confinement will intensify every feeling and interaction that passes between you. Even if that means deliberately looking for the positives and letting little stuff slide.
Still, you may find that your positivity reservoir dries up. “Sometimes under stress, it all becomes clear. It may be that in the long run you’re not going to be with that person,” Yarborough says. “But when there is a major death in the family, the advice is, ‘Don’t make major decisions for at least a year.’ This is kind of one of those loss, grieving, stress times.” Don’t rage-dump your partner after a heated debate over the dishwasher, but Yarborough does recommend seeing this as a moment to really evaluate what you want out of a relationship and whether your partner is someone who can give it to you. Shared confinement is an ultimate test of compatibility. That’s why during World War II, the United States assembled submarine teams based on how well they could meet each other’s psychological needs.
That said, don’t try to be each other’s everything. The key of emotional health during the coronavirus outbreak and the extended quarantine periods that may follow will be virtual connections with the outside world. “It’s important for people to remember they’re normal for wanting connection,” Yarborough says. “Social media is so marvelous. It’s like prisoners finding a language of tapping to say, ‘I’m here. Are you OK?’ This is our sophisticated tapping.” As cellmates go, your partner is the best-case scenario—as long as you’re both willing to work at it.
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