By Greg Smalley
The coronavirus has changed our daily lives. The pandemic has caused job losses and isolation. We’re working from home, teaching our kids at home, attending church at home. When we make the rare trip to the store, we find empty shelves. The changes have disrupted our daily routine and have changed the way our marriages function. All this change leads to conflict. How do you manage conflict when everything around you is changing?
Change is never easy. Familiarity is seductive. Familiar things like surroundings, activities, food, music, and clothes make us feel comfortable — safe even. Our brains are hardwired to steer us toward familiar things. As the old saying goes, “A known devil is better than an unknown angel.”
When life is crazy and chaotic, we turn to someone familiar, someone who can help us manage conflict — our spouse. It’s comforting to think we know everything about our spouse and how they’ll react in tough times … but predictability is unrealistic. Change is certain. And because so much is changing, our families — our marriages — are feeling the friction. So, it’s important to understand what’s causing so much conflict during this unprecedented time and learn how to make your marriage work despite the conflict.
Identify the challenges
Now that home has become the hub for work, school, church and play, you and your spouse are together all the time. Spending time with your spouse is good for your marriage but being together 24 hours a day creates conflict. Why?
You and your spouse will annoy each other because of the amount of time you’re together and the lack of space. It’s called cabin fever, and it’s the claustrophobic feeling you get when you are stuck in an isolated location or confined for an extended time. Married or not, everyone struggles with cabin fever.
Constant interruptions. Can you relate to this? “Daddy, I can’t get my homework to download.” “Greg, the garbage disposal isn’t working.” “Can you help me carry this out to my car?” “The exercise bike’s pedal just fell off … can you fix it?” “What should we cook for dinner?” “Someone take the dog outside.” “I need a clock up in my room.” I didn’t make these lines up. Since I’ve started writing this article, these are the word-for-word interruptions I’ve heard. Since I’m not a multi-tasker, these constant interruptions keep me on edge and keep me from getting my work done. I’m feeling like I’m failing at my job and becoming irritable and impatient with my family. It’s hard to manage conflict when dealing with so many interruptions.
Differences. Most of the time, couples don’t exist together 24/7. The old chestnut is true: “Absence makes the heart grow fonder.” It’s good for couples to be apart — even when it’s only for eight hours during the workday. Under normal circumstances — when we have a healthy time away from our spouses — we don’t have to work constantly to manage our differences. However, being “sheltered in place” can magnify our differences and lead to conflict. Differences are a gift from God, and I’m so thankful for the ways that Erin and I are different. It’s just that managing these differences — managing conflict — can be challenging. For example, I’m an introvert. Erin is an extrovert. I recharge by spending some alone. Erin gets energy from connecting and talking. During this extended time at home, I’ve learned that I have moments when I don’t want to talk or connect. I want to be alone. So, it’s easy for Erin to misinterpret my actions and feel rejected or disconnected. If we don’t recognize our differences and deal with them in a healthy way, conflict can easily follow.
Multi-taskers are frustrated with compartmentalizers. In many marriages, one spouse (often the husband) separates work life from home life. But because of the current work-at-home situation, these two worlds have collided. And two personalities — the multi-tasker and the compartmentalizer — have collided with each other. The multi-tasker becomes frustrated that the compartmentalizer seems to block everyone and everything off and isn’t helping more.
Bickering and bored children. After several weeks of physical distancing and sheltering at home, I’ve heard my kids complain “I’m so bored” about a million times. Managing my kids’ conflict often makes me feel like I’m a referee. It’s hard to remain patient when my kids are bored and at odds with each other. And all this frustration can overlap into my relationship with Erin, and I feel impatient with her.
Space invaders. Many times, one spouse manages the home and the kids more than the other (even if both people work full time outside of the home). Now that you’re together 24/7, one spouse may do something contrary to the way they normally do things. This unintentional invasion causes arguments and frustrations for the spouse who normally makes these decisions. As a result, the other spouse feels marginalized, excluded or controlled.
Grief issues. Some losses are tangible: the death of a loved one, a miscarriage, a job loss, divorce or losing a treasured object. But loss can also be intangible: the loss of innocence, identity, control or independence. Whenever we experience loss, we suffer a “blow” and are thrown off balance. The more significant the loss, the more intense the grief.
Fear, panic, stress and anxiety. Some spouses may feel fear or anxiety about losing their job or income. Others may feel stressed about health issues or physical distancing. These fears and worries can lead to hypervigilance, grief, helplessness and the feeling of losing control.
Expectations. Both spouses have expectations about how this season will work; when expectations go unfulfilled, it leads to confrontations or resentment.
Exhaustion. Couples are worn out from managing kids 24/7, homeschooling and working longer hours at home.
Inability to do things that recharge and bring life. Couples no longer have to option to go to a fitness center, grab coffee with friends, go on date nights or take part in favorite hobbies.
Relational disconnection. Spouses can’t manage conflict when they aren’t connected. From kids sleeping in parents’ beds to working odd hours from home, spouses find it difficult to connect. The more disconnected they feel, the more conflict they face.
Conflict causes people to feel unsafe. When people feel unsafe their hearts close. A closed heart causes people to react (say or do things that compromise their integrity and hurt their spouse and marriage) and to create emotional distance in the marriage. So, it’s extremely important — despite the changes caused by the coronavirus — to create a home that feels like the safest place on earth. A heart will open when it feels safe.
So, let’s look at how to create safety so that hearts remain open to each other. You need two open hearts to manage conflict and deal with the coronavirus.