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  • Megha Saklani, Counselling Psychologist

Managing Intimate Relationships in Times of Quarantine

With the persisting global pandemic, our circumstances escalated so rapidly wherein we never really got the scope to fully fathom the implication of our emotional and mental wellbeing. In the midst of this grave economic catastrophe & the alarming loss of populace there is a high susceptibility to take a toll on psychological and mental health. This could have far-reaching consequences on our intimate relationships. Consider this scenario, Preeti and Ankit met through a dating app and moved in together about 2 months ago. As the relationship was fairly new and considering other factors such as logistical reasons they felt it was only viable to live together. Both of them have had an erratic schedule due to their odd working hours and felt it would be feasible to spend time together at home for the relationship to flourish. They were only getting used to each other's schedules and presence when they found themselves in a lockdown together. Soon, the initial rose-tinted glasses began to fade away and arguments and altercations on the slightest of insinuation began to surface.

Now looking at another scenario, Amit and Jaya are a couple married for the last 9 years and reside in the heart of Delhi at Amit's parents’ 2 bedroom apartment. They had an arranged marriage and soon after their wedding, their relationship went sour. Jaya was experiencing the sourness in the form of excessive criticism and unacceptance from Amit's parents. All hell broke loose when they found out that Jaya couldn't conceive a child due to her infertility issues and soon their relationship soon became highly toxic and abusive where Jaya often would be physically and sexually be assaulted by Amit. The only thing that kept Jaya going was her work to which she was extremely passionate about and her work served as her only anchorage. She would often be fearful of going back home due to the ongoing debacle and would often extend her working hours at the office and sometimes prefer to work on weekends as well. However, all of this changed when the unfortunate global pandemic hit the country and a full lockdown announced. Jaya's worst nightmare came true and she found herself confined to her home which she had successfully evaded by finding solace and comfort at work. She found herself trapped with her abuser instead.

As practicing therapists these are a few instances that my colleagues and I have been witnessing in our on-going work with our clients amidst the global pandemic and the nationwide lockdown. Our Clients have repeatedly reported trouble at home and intimate relationships going awry as partners find each other quarantine together for prolonged periods of time.

In fact in these critical times, a few legal experts have been anticipating an overall rise in the number of divorce and separation cases in the next few months as the situation continues to get more stringent.

Mental health professionals have observed a few factors that may be determinants in this unique phenomenon.

The relationships that perhaps have the worst impact with quarantine are the ones where there may be pre-existing or unresolved issues with poor communication, resentment and lack of healthy boundaries which can be substantiated in the case of Amit and Jaya or where the partners might be finding it hard to cope with this novel crisis individually and thus manifesting their stressors into the relationship.

Admittedly, couples may be at a higher risk of succumbing to the negative effects of the quarantine if they fail to keep their own mental health in check as in the case of Ankit & Preeti. In one such instance where almost two weeks into the quarantine Ankit found himself only nitpicking on the negative aspects of his partner's personality disavowing anything that she was trying to do for him. He would often feel frazzled and helpless with the state of affairs in his work life and would find it hard to draw a boundary between his personal and professional life. In such cases we also can see how enmeshed boundaries between the partners can often effect and deteriorate the functionality of the relationship.

In this context, a few indicators would be helpful to watch out if you feel your relationship might be taking the brunt of the quarantine:

1) You find yourself in a negative mood mostly in the general course of the day but it seems to further elevate in presence of your partner.

2) You feel like avoiding your partner

3) Communication seems to be gone awry and you feel it's getting difficult to openly express things to your partner

4) There may be more taunts, nitpicking, sarcasm or even dismissal involved in your communication

5) You fee a lack of empathy in the relationship

6) Household chores are often becoming trigger points of altercations or fights.

If you find yourself identifying with the list above you may not be alone as it is a mass crisis world over. However, not all hope is lost and implementation of a few healthy strategies could be beneficial not just in the dire straits but also for a foreseeable future. Here are a do’s to be mindful of:

1) Set your individual goals: Setting your individual goals for the day or even the week would give you a sense of directly and control and promote a goal oriented approach in your life. You’ll find your actions to be more meaningful and directive thus clearing out any avenues of distractions or goal frustrations.

2) Follow a schedule similar to that of a regular work day: Given the novelty of the situation, many people are struggling to structure their days and manage their chores. A schedule would give you a sense of stability especially if it’s similar to the one that you followed on a regular work day. It could make it easier to transition into the quarantine and be familiar at the same time, making your day feel a tad bit normal.

3) Mutually divide tasks and contribute: You may opt to do the dishes while your partner may opt to do the laundry. A clear segregation of tasks from the very start helps you wave off any possible confrontation when it comes to the daily chores and prevents any one single partner from feeling overwhelmed and swamped with tasks.

4) Invest in your own mental health: Taking regular mental health check-ins with yourself could be a healthy way to keep your emotions in check during the quarantine. Taking small self-compassion breaks during the day, journaling your thoughts and emotions, picking up a new hobby, mediation or even making an appointment with a mental health professional could be key contributors to your mental health. Remember a balanced individual equals to a balanced partner.

5) Pace the relationship: Often couples make the mistake of spending too much time together at the onset of such times. One needs to keep in perspective that a situation like quarantine may not come with a definitive timeline and therefore to space out the time you spend together and the time you spend doing other things needs to be moderated.

6) Focus on quality time over quantity time: You’re in a lockdown together which means you’re spending all your time around each other which may often come with the being bored with your partner’s presence. This may happen especially where you take your time together for granted and not invest it in rediscovering each other and the relationship. Pick up a hobby, a movie, a board game or even a completely new skill with your partner and make those few hours quality time with them.

7) Get your social life going: While quarantine primarily is about social distancing and self-isolation it doesn’t have to put your social relations to a halt. Make the best use of technology and check up on your friends and family you may be missing. It will make you feel connected to the world outside your apartment and even often you a cathartic space.

8) Set and respect boundaries: Since you’re going to be spending all of your time in each other’s vicinity is important to communicate certain boundaries to your partner and how both of you can best ensure they’re maintained. Communicating things like what your work- from- home hours look like, when is it that both of you could share a meal together, what does your workout schedule look like and at what point of the day would you be most accessible and help both of you to have clarity and predictability about the days that’ll follow.

9) Not just talk but learn to communicate: Talking isn’t always communication, for communication would involve engaging with the other’s thoughts & emotions, understanding one’s own thoughts and emotions and also operating from a space of empathy. You could utilize your time together to build healthier communication channels with your partner, improve empathy in the relationship and even understand their love language.

At this juncture it is also important to note that while these strategies are advantageous, it may only be restricted to people in healthy & functional relationships. However, if you find yourself in a situation similar to Jaya’s you may want to understand a few aids to help yourself out of a threatening situation. It is important to have a safety plan in place & weigh your options and keep your essentials like some cash, medicines and a few important documents in place. Furthermore, if you trust somebody outside your immediate physical environment who could help you in case of an emergency, keep them informed.

You may also want to reach out to women’s helpline at their toll-free number 1091 or report domestic abuse and seek for assistance in being rescued on 181. You may even reach out to the authorities at the newly launched National Emergency Number at 112 for any official assistance in case of an emergency.

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