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On Each Other’s Nerves? How to Navigate “Coronavirus Relationship Conflict”

how to navigate conflict

by Andrea Blundell

Is being cooped up during a pandemic about to ruin your relationship? How to navigate conflict when self-isolating together?

10 Ways to Navigate Conflict in Lockdown

1. Lower expectations.

Thought coronavirus lockdown would be a time of great bonding, only to find it’s a time of great bickering?

Cut yourself and the other person some slack. These are unprecedented times. It’s normal to find ourselves in stress reactions and feeling exhausted, leading to being snappy, miserable, and disconnected.

And yes, that means NOT comparing yourself to other couples who seem to be doing better, or with social media feeds of an endless lockdown love-in. 

Social comparison theory‘ in psychology suggests that comparing ourselves is an innate drive in all of us. But we have a tendency to compare upwards and see ourselves lacking (a meta-analysis of over sixty years of social comparison research found this to be the case). In troubles times it is actually more useful to practice ‘downwards comparison’. Notice that others are doing worse than you if it helps you to feel better.

2. Be careful of big conclusions.

You aren’t getting along in self-isolation. Or the sex has gone terrible. This must mean you aren’t meant to be together… right? 

Not necessarily. It might just mean one or both of you is so extremely stressed by the situation you are being far from yourself. Or that unresolved trauma or mental health issues are being triggered by pandemic.

If you are both coming from your most stressed out selves, and are managing to get along at all, then it could mean that you are doing just fine. 

3. Discharge.

Conflict happens when we go into conversations ‘charged’. We are stressed, angry, or trapped in an assumption, and our words come out accusatory.

So how to navigate conflict better? Use tools to help you find calm in advance of mentioning something that is bothered you. This could be journalling, mindfulness meditation, or doing some physical exercise like yoga to to calm down. 

Also consider discussing your day first, before discussing what is upsetting you. Research by relationship psychologists Gottman and Levenson showed that a ‘reunion conversation’, aka talking about the events of your day, before a ‘conflict discussion’, meant that the conflict was more likely to veer into a positive outcome. 

4. Remember key communication skills.

You know these things already. But you haven’t really being putting them into action. Well now is definitely the time.

  • Don’t use blame phrases (You make me feel… But you did/said….).
  • Use responsible language (I feel ______ when you ______).
  • Reflect back to clarify and ask questions if you aren’t sure you understand.
  • Don’t assume you are right. Assume you could be wrong. (“I could be wrong, but I feel you are upset with me”).
  • Keep it between you and them (don’t bring up their mother, or what your friends say).
  • Listen fully, not preparing what you’ll say next in your head, allow pauses for that.

5. Take alone time.

how to navigate conflict

photo by Daria Nepriakhina

How to navigate conflict? By sometimes stepping right back. Yes, even if you are sharing a cramped apartment or stuck in the same room. Set a timer, vow not to talk or look at each other for a set amount of minutes, and do your own thing.

Psychologist John Gottman also discovered, in later research with his partner Julia Gottman, that if you take even a 20-minute break after a tough discussion to stop talking and just read magazines? When you get back to discussing the issues, you will again have access to affection and humour

6. Actually discuss compromise. 

Global pandemic already sees us compromising in all sorts of ways. And relationships in lockdown definitely require compromise as well.

The trick here is not to compromise secretly, which can lead to victim mode and a buildup of resentment. If it feels a compromise, let them know, even if you are happy to make it. This means you are at the same time letting your partner know your needs.

Or just keep asking each other, “What’s the helpful compromise here?”. Focus on how the situation moves you forward, not tears you apart.

7. Give the benefit of the doubt.

You know your partners flaws inside out, of course you do. He is too picky, she is too codependent. But if we are assuming the worst of them we can entirely overlook how hard they are trying right now.

But before you assume that they are driving you crazy because of their personal deficits, take a pause to consider if it’s external circumstance. If they didn’t come back from the shop with toilet paper and your first thought is that they always forget what you ask, consider if it’s because they didn’t want to fight someone for it.

8. Be a support system over a destruct system. 

how to navigate conflict

photo by: Taylor Hernandez

Being cooped up together can mean we start that easy game we know we shouldn’t but can’t resist, of  projecting our stress onto our partner. If you can’t stop this happening, at least counteract it. 

If you’ve never really focussed on supporting each other, consider making an effort now with coaching and counselling tools like:

9. Escape the present together. 

Speaking of talking about future goals. You might also go the other way in time.

Usually being present moment focussed and mindful is a great way to develop intimacy. But when the present moment is limited — it’s not like we are having an opportunity to have bonding adventures at the moment — then perhaps it’s time to go back to the past and remember the good times.

Nostalgia has been shown by research to be very beneficial to our mental health and relationships. A team of psychologists at the University of Southampton focussed on nostalgia found that–

Nostalgia helps people “report a stronger sense of belongingness, affiliation, or sociality; they convey higher continuity between their past and their present; they describe their lives as more meaningful; and they often indicate higher levels of self-esteem and positive mood.”

10. But do really enjoy any good moment that does come. 

Of course do try to savour the sweet, good moments that do come from quarantining together. The same team of nostalgia researchers did a study that found that ‘savouring’ an experience meant we were more likely to then look back with nostalgia on that moment four to nine months later (when this pandemic is hopefully over). And that this process creates optimism. Now who couldn’t use a bit of that?

Need someone totally unbiased to talk to? Or think it’s time for some couples therapy? Don’t let pandemic stop you – you can work with one of of our top London therapists over the internet. Or use our booking site to find a wide range of online counsellors for every budget.


Still have a question about how to navigate conflict? Ask below. Or why not share your own tip with other readers?

Andrea BlundellAndrea Blundell is the editor and lead writer of this site. 

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