The message was as loaded as it was terse. "I can’t stand it anymore. I need a divorce." The sender of the message, Alicia*, was a woman in her mid-50s. She has two children, both teenagers, and I have been counselling the family for the past few years.
When I spoke with Alicia, she immediately poured out all her woes. She and her husband Darren* used to work at the office each day, and only came home at night. The family would then go out for dinner together. However, since the pandemic hit, both parents were forced to work from home, and the kids also have been spending more time at home.
The days turned into months, and Alicia and Darren found themselves getting frequently frustrated with their younger son, with father and son often ending up in shouting matches, and the older son trying unsuccessfully to act as the referee.
She was also upset with Darren as he seemed to think that his work was more important than hers; he often trivialised her work meetings and asked her to run errands for the family while he tended to his work.
"He doesn’t care about me anymore. I’ve had enough!"
Alicia and Darren are not alone in their struggles. They are among a number of families who have had their lives turned upside down because of COVID-19. While the issues they face may not be due to the pandemic per se, their problems have exacerbated, especially since the situation has been long-drawn.
According to Hans Selye’s stress reactivity theory, there are three phases that the body goes through as it deals with stress. Phase 1 results in an increase in hormone levels which allows the body’s resources to be mobilised to address the stressor. This leads to Phase 2, during which the body remains on high alert; although many functions return to normal, and resources are utilised to resist the stressor. But if the stressor continues beyond the body’s capacity, there is an exhaustion of resources, and Phase 3 ensues. At this stage, hormone levels continue to increase, but because the body no longer has the resources to deal with the stressor, the individual may break down physically and emotionally.
The ongoing pandemic has affected our motivation to work and our ability to focus, as we struggle to keep up with the changes that are taking place. This may lead to burnout, which is a state of emotional and physical exhaustion caused by excessive and prolonged stress, as I’ve described in Selye’s third phase above. It can also make us feel a sense of hopelessless, as we start to believe that no matter how careful we are, we are not able to control what is happening.
But despite the difficulties magnified by the pandemic, it is not impossible for couples to deal with their stressors and work on their marriage. Here are four key strategies to help defuse the tension and foster intimacy and trust:
Use "I" statements instead of "You" statements. Avoid words such as "never" or "always". When couples argue, they often use phrases such as:
These statements attack the spouse as a person, and put the blame on him/her. We can instead use statements such as "I am frustrated when you promise to help with the laundry but don’t," or "I wish you had considered my feelings when you went out late and left me all alone to take care of the kids all night."
"You have never helped out with the housework."
“You are always thinking of yourself and not of others."
By communicating our needs tactfully, we are not directly attacking our spouse; instead, the focus is on addressing and resolving the problem.
Many couples in conflict yearn simply to have their spouse acknowledge them.
Affirm your spouse
Consider your spouse’s good points and acknowledge them often. According to psychologist John Gottman, a stable and happy marriage needs at least 5 positive interactions for every 1 negative interaction. As such, we need to continually acknowledge and affirm the strengths of our spouse. In my counselling work, I have observed that many couples in conflict yearn simply to have their spouse acknowledge them, and once this is done, the marriage relationship tends to head in a positive direction.
Be the change
Think of your areas of weakness and work on them. I am often asked this question during my marriage workshops: “What happens if I want to make my marriage better and my spouse doesn’t want to change?” My response is that unless something changes, the situation will remain the same.
If we really want something to change in our marriage, we must initiate it, which means identifying our attitudes and behaviours that are distressing our spouse, and making a change. Long-term change takes time – we just need to take one step at a time in a positive direction.
Take self-care seriously
We are living in a situation where the pandemic has caused some of us to be dangerously close to a state of chronic stress and exhaustion. We all need to take a break in order to recharge and manage our own emotions. This means doing something that would help us feel good – and to do it without feeling guilty.
For me, I make time to meet my friends for a meal or play board games with them. For my wife, she enjoys going on long walks in nature by herself, listening to her favourite Spotify playlists. These actions help us to replenish the drained resources, and to break the cycle of burnout and conflict.
It has been a couple of months since I last spoke with Alicia regarding the problems in her marriage. From what I gather, things have stabilised somewhat, with the family getting used to working and studying from home in the same living space. They now go out together to do sports, and Alicia makes an effort to go out on her own – which she has described as her way of "caring for her own sanity". And although the pandemic situation continues to play out in the background, the family seems to have harnessed new resources and ways to manage the situation as best as they can.
*All names and identifying features have been changed to protect the anonymity of the persons involved.
© 2021 Focus on the Family Singapore. All rights reserved.
Life can be overwhelming. Having a listening ear can bring relief, help you feel supported, and improve relationships. Make an appointment with a counsellor today.
Mark Lim is Consultant & Counsellor at The Social Factor, a consultancy and counselling agency which conducts training on life skills such as parenting, mental wellness and special needs. He and his wife Sue co-write a parenting blog Parenting on Purpose, where they chronicle the life lessons from parenting two young boys aged 11 and 9.
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