Many families who feared that the new coronavirus would affect their health ended up dreading its effect on something seemingly even more difficult to protect: the well-being of their relationships.
Sitting in front of the webcam sending their message to the BBC viewers, a beautiful young couple joked that ever since the state-imposed quarantine, divorce rates have soared in their city, Wuhan. ”I mean, for us, we are fine”, he said, smiling at her, ”but others are beginning to discover, like never before, flaws in their life partners that they hadn’t had time to notice before isolation”.
For some, life in lockdown can feel similar to a holiday like Christmas, a British divorce lawyer said when recently addressing the British parliament. “But that’s not necessarily a good thing”, she continued. “Prolonged periods together can prove make or break for a relationship.”
There are voices saying that isolation will be beneficial for families, and even that we will witness a baby boom, the birth of a so-called “COVID-19 generation”. Others, on the other hand, say that under quarantine, couples will face their own fragility and that the pressure of isolated living will crush many marriages, leading to their dissolution.
But even before sociologists figure out the direction in which we are headed in this pandemic, which couples will be affected and how isolated living will affect them, the existing literature allows us to intuit many measures to prevent and treat family crises and which could be applied in almost any kind of tough situation. The apparent superficiality of this statement dissipates when we find that the most reputable current theories of family crises extract their scientific sap from a single theoretical model—ABCX—introduced by Reuben Hill in the middle of the last century. Hill’s model inspired all later published models because his observations are truly fundamental and even cross-cultural.
In short, Hill said that any family crisis (X) occurs when a family facing stressors (A) does not have or cannot access resources (B) to combat stressors and perceives their situation as hopeless (C). But let’s see what kind of realities this theoretical framework takes on.
From a psychological perspective, the idea of living “happily ever after” does not exist. This is not because there are no happy couples, but because this classic fairy-tale conclusion presupposes an unchanged continuation of the relational status quo until old age. And this is not realistic. Any relationship is like a living, changing, developing organism. It is an entity that interacts with the circumstances, but also with the transformations of each person within it and adapts in response to them. Happiness in a relationship, psychologists say, is one in which each member feels that their needs are met. Achieving this success depends on the couple’s ability to adapt to the demands to which it is subjected.
(A) The demands
Anne and Matthew got married 6 years ago and have a 3-year-old child. At first, they lived in a small apartment in Matthew’s hometown with his father, who is a widower. After completing her maternity leave, Anne was promoted to a project manager’s position and was offered the opportunity to take over the management of a subsidiary her company opened in another city. The prospect of a home of their own and a better salary appealed to both of them, as well as the fact that their little girl would be able to start kindergarten in the new city. Matthew is a freelance photographer and can work from anywhere, so the two felt that it was a very good idea to move. The company helped them with relocation, and they had no problems switching homes.
Anne works hard at building the best possible relationships with her new co-workers because she feels it’s good to lay a solid foundation at the start of their collaboration. Unfortunately, this takes a lot of time and exhausts her. Matthew had a tougher start in the new city, where recreating the customer base is more difficult than he expected. He stays at home most of the time and takes care of their daughter, while also curating several online projects.
In the beginning, small issues—such as Anne’s working overtime or having to order take-out because Matthew is not very talented in the kitchen—amuse them. These are details that definitely do not seem end of the world problems. But as time goes on, tensions begin to arise.
Matthew has no friends in the new city, and he doesn’t like Anne’s co-workers. The time the two of them spend together amounts to only a couple of hours in the evening, because Anne is always very sleepy. The weekends are crammed with making improvements to the new place, shopping, visits to the in-laws. Matthew feels that Anne has become too materialistic and that she neglects her child and him. Anne, on the other hand, is frustrated that Matthew—who she thinks doesn’t do anything all day long—is not grateful for her efforts that benefit the whole family. When Matthew’s father is diagnosed with a terminal illness, the two feel that the rules of the game, in which both had already begun to lose, are changing more than they can bear.
Anne and Matthew’s story is just one of the many scenarios of a family in a crisis. Stressors, which pressure partners, can often be positive demands (promotion at work, the chance of a new start in another city), but also negative (lack of time together, distancing). They can be internal (the two no longer communicating as before), but they can also be external (the increasing health needs of Matthew’s father). They can be predictable and normative (things that normally occur in a couple’s life—for example, the harmonious development of a small child requiring time, attention, and material resources). Or they can be completely unpredictable and sudden (like an unexpected diagnosis).
Stressors are cumulative, and if they pile up more than the couple is able to manage, then the relationship becomes unbalanced. Restoring balance requires partners to work together, as a team, with the resources at their disposal.
Each couple shares an ability capital that can include problem-solving skills, mutual support (either emotional, informational, or taking on tasks), effective communication skills, and adapting to changing roles or patterns in the couple, in order to cope with stressors.
Anne is a conscientious and responsible person, otherwise she could not have climbed the ladder in her company. Matthew is very intelligent and a committed family man. Intelligence helped him cope without a classic job, and his love for family helped him find real joy in fulfilling even the most unattractive tasks related to raising their child. All of these are resources that, if needed, can be a shield against the negative effects of stress.
Unfortunately, due to the distance between them, extended family and friends cannot provide the couple with consistent emotional support, constant validation, help with problem solving, financial help or help with various responsibilities (for example, staying with the little one to ease time demands on the parents).
Now that Matthew’s father has fallen ill, he is the one who needs support. However, this support involves weekly round trips of several hundred kilometres and using days off to accompany him to the hospital when he has an emergency.
With Anne always exhausted, Matthew feels that the responsibility towards their daughter and towards his father is unfairly placed exclusively on his shoulders. He can’t rely on Anne, because any sudden change at work can threaten everyone’s financial stability. So, Matthew tries to protect himself and refrains from any blame game, swallowing his frustration and feelings of helplessness. He withdraws. However, despite his good intentions, this reaction actually weakens the family’s cohesion and, implicitly, its ability to cope with the situation. Matthew doesn’t realise it, but his strategy doesn’t really contribute to reducing stress levels. On the contrary, Anne perceives his distancing as a form of passive aggression, and she feels betrayed. The perceptions of both play an even more important role than they realise.
Numerous studies have shown the extremely important role of perception. Partners under pressure from various stressors have a diminished ability to perceive reality correctly. Many patients undergoing couple therapy cannot even agree on the incidence of certain behaviours that occurred only within 24 hours.
Anne is convinced that Matthew is wasting his days on the internet, although Matthew, even if he does spend a lot of time online, researching his father’s illness, feels he still manages to take very good care of the little one, too. Matthew begins to feel he no longer recognises Anne, the “corporate artist”, as he used to call her. He sees her hidden under thick layers of careerism, and it seems to him she has virtually no concern for others. Anne feels that Matthew pushes her to give up everything she built for her new job, because he is tired of household responsibilities and to avenge his feeling of being the only one who suffers in their family. Matthew feels that he is losing not only his father but also the bright picture he had painted for his family, who is still only at the beginning of the road. No one can see any way out.
Schlesinger and Epstein say that “the extent to which members of a couple may perceive themselves as helpless in managing unexpected, catastrophic stressors may influence the likelihood that the two will enter a crisis.” In other words, when they see the stressors in their lives as “challenges” that they can overcome through active effort, instead of as uncontrollable events that they just have to resign themselves to, couples are more likely to come out stronger from a crisis. Psychologist Pauline Boss said that, except in some rare cases (for example, when you are a prisoner of war), in most situations it is not good to take a passive stance in the face of stressors because this attitude only maintains stress and fuels problems. This is how the crisis is reached.
(X) The crisis
If it continues to escalate, a family crisis can take one of two directions: it ends up either in abuse (emotional or even physical), or separation. Fortunately for Anne and Matthew, things didn’t get there.
The pastor of the church they regularly attended organised a seminar for families, at the end of which Anne asked him to counsel them. The first thing the pastor told them was that whatever action they decided to take, it would be greatly blessed if it were taken in the spirit of unity that Christ was speaking of when he quoted from Genesis: man and woman “shall be one flesh” (Matthew 19:5, Genesis 2:24). This was Christ’s way of affirming that for millennia the divine intention concerning the family has not changed.
As he listened to their story—trying to understand their situation and determine what issues threatened their unity and health as a couple—the pastor taught them how to constructively express their feelings and how to listen to each other. Healthy communication is like breathing: we inhale by listening to the other and exhale when we express ourselves.
Listening, psychologists say, must create the framework in which the other feels that they can express their feelings as freely as possible. That is why one of the skills needed to be a good listener is not to interrupt the other so that they can express ourselves. Experts recommend that, at this stage, the listener look the speaker in the eye, pay attention, observe the nonverbal language, understand the meaning of the other’s words and, before answering, check that they have understood them by asking questions. In the expression stage, psychologists suggest that the couple recognise the subjectivity of their own thoughts and emotions, use ”I sentences” (thus avoiding blaming each other), communicate empathy and respect for each other, and use gestures that denote their interest and openness to their partner.
Anne and Matthew understood that, although they loved each other, the stress altered the way they interpreted each other’s actions. The pastor taught them to place recent actions in the broader picture of the person’s actions and to assess how plausible an accusation is. He taught them to directly express their intentions, desires, expectations and standards.
In addition to listening and expressing, partners need to develop actual problem-solving skills. So, the pastor helped the couple to evaluate their solutions together. They discovered that, for the good of the family, it would be advisable for Matthew’s father—who was needing more frequent and sustained medical attention—to be hospitalised in one of the care centres in the city where the young couple now lives. The Social Assistance Directorate could partly contribute to the financial burden involved.
This way, Matthew could be closer to his father, who would benefit from the medical supervision, without any of these positive objectives threatening Anne’s work, which is the main source of income for the family. Anne realised that she needed to be trained in efficient time management and to give a generous place in her agenda to spending time with her family.
It was necessary for Anne and Matthew to start doing more pleasant activities together. That’s why they agreed that something that would make them both very happy would be to start having story time with their little girl each evening. It would also give them the opportunity to share thoughts about their day, read from the Bible and pray together.
Anne had prayed for her marriage on her own but had never prayed about it with Matthew. The conversation with the pastor changed both of their perspectives (just as a session with a therapist would help those who do not seek a pastor’s advice). He showed them that their situation is not hopeless, that their way of seeing things, especially in difficult circumstances, is affected by subjectivity, and that they have more resources to bring into the fight for their marriage than they might have thought. They discovered that God often answers prayers through the help of people around us who decide to give us a hand at just the right time.
Alina Kartman is a senior editor at ST Network and Semnele timpului.