How to Get along When COVID19 ‘Isolation’ Feels More Like an Endless Road Trip With the Family

Over the first two weeks of the pandemic I was surprised that most of the couples I do emotionally focused couple therapy with, were doing really well.  It’s not that all of their issues were gone, but they seemed to be communicating more purposefully, and working well together, in a crisis.  

COVID19 requires households to plan and to act.  What food do we need from the store?  Which room will you use for your online meetings?  Who will be with the kids, during which times of day?  All of these kinds of changes in a person’s day to day life necessitate communication.  And everyone is in the same boat, so there was a ‘we’re all in this together’ feeling that pervaded at the beginning of this wild ride.  

Many of my couples have a long history together and despite’s the difficulties they’ve faced, they do a good job in a crisis.  They’ve been through a lot and know how to rally together when necessary, for a short period.  

Some have more time now because they’re not working as many, or any, hours.  Despite the financial stresses that this brings, some couples and families have noticed that the time together has calmed some of the tensions between them.  Some family and couple difficulties are made worse from not having enough time together to simply be in relationship with one another. 

I noticed all of those positives in the first few weeks as I worked with couples over video on my computer.  But this past week, things were getting back to normal in some not so good ways.  The negative cycles that the couples are working on in therapy to dismantle, began to rear up again.  This does not surprise me, but reminds me that we could all use some pointers about how to get along in this time of prolonged togetherness.  

(Note:  This article is intended for people in non-abusive relationships.  If you’re in an abusive relationship, please call a therapist in your area for help, the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-7233, your state’s child protective services number, or if necessary call 911). 


  • SHARE FEELINGS, NOT CRITICISMS   There is a big difference between saying, in a soft, vulnerable voice, “hey Sweetie?  When you said that the way you just did, it really hurt my feelings…” versus, “don’t talk to me like that. that was so rude…”.  If you share your feelings softly and vulnerably, you’re more likely to get your needs met.
  • LISTEN  If your partner, or child complains, really listen.  And don’t just hear them, but hear them.  Try, for a moment, to ignore how they said it and instead try to really hear what they’re saying deep down.  So, when responding to your wife who is saying, (in that irritated tone), “I thought you were going to take out the trash… put the dog out… read to the kids… not be on your phone…”,  etc., do your best to respond to how she likely feels, not the defensive tone she used to tell you.  
  • BE EMPATHIC  Your job is to try to care about your family member’s feelings.  Try to let their concern move you.  Respond from a place of true empathy for their experience.  
  • VALIDATE  If you can, reassure them that you get where they’re coming from.  “It makes sense to me that that upset you.”
  • TAKE TURNS  What happens if two people try to walk through a door at the same time?  It doesn’t go well.  It also doesn’t go well if you both try to share your view point, or feelings at the same time.  No one gets their needs met.  If someone is upset and they’re sharing about it, it’s your job to catch them.  If you’re also upset about something, finish responding empathically to them, take an hour or so in between, and then you can share your feelings with them. 
  • DO WHAT YOU SAY YOU’RE GOING TO DO, and if you can’t do it, tell them ahead of time, tell them why, and apologize.  
  • OVER-COMMUNICATE about plans, sharing space and feelings.  Basically, explicitly communicate about everything for a while.  
  • TOUCH  When words fail, give a hug or a kind hand on a shoulder (as long as that touch is wanted and appreciated).
  • TALK TO THE TEACHER  If you are overwhelmed with your new parental responsibility, called, “being a teacher’s assistant,” take a breath, consider lowering your standard for yourself and your child and consider giving the school or teacher some kindly worded feedback about how it’s going.  I have had more than one parent give feedback to the teacher and then work was decreased or changed in a helpful way.  
  • BE FAIR  Be aware of the concept of invisible labor.  These are the many things that women are expected to do, because the culture is used to it being that way.  No matter how much we talk about, or may want equality in the home, regarding chores and responsibilities, we all tend to play in to keeping the status quo.  I am hearing a lot about this issue right now from women.  “I’m expected to work from home now, take care of guiding the kids learning, on-line and also do most of the cooking and cleaning.”  Or, “why is his meeting prioritized over mine?”  This is a really important time to consider what each of your responsibilities are, and get together and divide them.  Negotiate agreement on who will do what, when, and then try it for one week.  Give it your best shot and then sit down and talk about how it went and see if there’s anything that needs to changed for the next week.  Keep trying different things until you find something that works.  It’s not you against your partner.  You’re in this together, remember?  Trying to make it work and feel good for everyone.  
  • BE FORGIVING  Remember that everyone is stressed… in one way or another about one part of this pandemic or the other.  Everyone has their own real fears, real stress and real worries, whether they’re talking about them or not.  Change alone is stressful and we’re dealing with a lot more than change.  We’re dealing with loss of work, loss of income, loss of control, temporary but significant loss of a way of life, fear of the unknown and fear of illness and death.  
  • GIVE EACH OTHER SPACE   You’re all suddenly together a lot.  Make sure everyone has some time to themselves if they want it.
  • TAKE TIME-OUTS WHEN YOU NEED THEM   If you find yourself flooded with emotion and about to communicate in an unhelpful way, take a time out.  And if your partner or child needs a time out, let them have it.  Don’t follow them around insisting it gets worked out right away.  Letting each other cool down will allow you more healthy communication when you resume.
  • FIND WAYS TO SELF-REGULATE  If you find that you’re trying to do things from this list, like taking time outs when you feel triggered, but you’re losing your cool anyway, it could mean you need to give yourself some extra time to unwind, or get regulated.  This could look like taking a walk, meditating, doing some exercise, or just laying on the bed, alone for 10 minutes.  It could also mean that you’re dealing with more anxiety than you realized.  Feel free to read about managing anxiety, here and here.  
  • TRY TO SURPRISE EACH OTHER WITH SMALL KINDNESSES  This can be as simple as taking a moment to give a kiss, or a kind word.  It could be doing someone else’s chore to make life a little easier for them, or being explicit about the appreciation you have for them.  
  • UNWIND  Whether you’re working from home, looking for work or volunteering, take time for relaxing.  Find time for yourself alone and time for good connection with your family members.    

If your partner or family member is a medical practitioner or first responder, or if they are a delivery driver, sanitation worker, grocery store clerk, or one of the many heroes keeping vital services going, please be oh, so understanding.  

And if you’re a partner or family member of one of the above, get extra support from friends and family, and be kind to yourself.  

Tell me in the comments, how it’s going in your house?  What’s working and what’s not?