Joanna Williams, Head of Counselling at Professional Help
As the UK enters its fourth week of Coronavirus lockdown, with the population only leaving home for essential work, exercise, food or medication, relationships are inevitably beginning to feel the strain. Many of us are acutely missing loved ones we can’t see at the moment, and as we approach the bank holiday weekend, perhaps thinking wistfully of the plans we made that we now can’t fulfil. People living alone may be feeling increasingly isolated and in need of company.
On the other hand, partners and close family who have been cooped up with each other may be wishing for a bit more social distancing – from each other.
While it remains to be seen whether and to what degree the current rules will be relaxed, it’s clear it will be a while before social and family life in the UK returns to anything like ‘normal’. So assuming we’re in this for the long haul, what can we do to make living on top of each other tolerable and give ourselves, and each other, a break?
Accept there is no right or wrong response to living through a global pandemic: schools are closed, many of us are working from home, we can’t go to the pub, the cinema or the gym or meet up with friends and family. It’s entirely possible you’re coping with many or all of the following changes, any of which would be enough to cause stress on their own: disruption to working habits, perhaps with attendant money worries; children at home making demands on your time and attention; less physical space to yourself; additional responsibilities for elderly or vulnerable relatives; and of course health fears. Nothing is normal, and therefore no response is really abnormal. If you feel anxious or scared? That’s normal. If you feel depressed or tearful – also normal. If you feel wildly energetic, super focused, obsessive, angry, hungry, exhausted, grumpy, giddy, or just plain normal, guess what? All normal! And if somebody else’s way of coping is different to yours, that doesn’t make them any more or less weird than you (providing nobody is being abusive or causing deliberate harm). So probably best to…
Acknowledge that it’s likely you’ll get on each other’s nerves. If there are two or more of you living under the same roof experiencing any or all of the above feelings, at the same time or separately, it would be amazing if it didn’t lead to conflict sometimes. Annoying behaviour that we could previously have overlooked or habits we might even have found endearing can quickly wear thin under the pressure of 24/7. If you find you’re quick to anger these days, that’s ok (as long as you don’t hurt anyone), but also be quick to apologise. You are human, your partner, relative(s) and children are human, and the sooner everybody admits that and prepares for the inevitable clashes, the sooner we can relax and get on with doing our best, making mistakes and being sorry for them. We humans are quite good at those things.
Have a routine: some people at the moment are finding comfort in keeping to existing routines, even if they have to be tweaked slightly. If you would usually go to the gym in the morning, can you go for a run instead or do a fitness class online? Try to eat and sleep at the same times as normal. Equally, you may need to create new routines, especially if there are multiple adults trying to share a workspace, for example. Draw up a timetable and work around each other, being as flexible as you can. And in the new routine, be sure to include time together and time apart, which reflects how you would normally behave. This might even be just half an hour where you each retreat to a different part of the house, for a bath, or in the garden if you have one.
Reach out beyond the household. If you have kids, remember part of their routine at school is not just learning but chatting to their friends every day. Try to facilitate this through phone or webcam. For the grown-ups too, you would probably see and speak to many more people in a normal day than just the ones you live with. At the moment it can feel a bit overwhelming that everybody seems to want to arrange social events using Zoom or House Party (and you can say no, just as you would with a real-life meet up), but there’s good reason for it. Seeing friendly faces, raising a glass in a virtual ‘pub’, sharing stories and having a laugh (even having a moan about your cohabitees – in a private space of course) can be incredibly therapeutic.
Date nights and family days out: now’s also a good time to look into the raft of cultural and creative resources that have been made available online. From virtual museum tours, to live theatre and gigs, to the humble pub quiz, there’s plenty to keep the family entertained – and help distinguish between worktime and downtime, keeping your weekends, evenings and, yes, bank holidays, for fun if that’s what you’d usually do. (Added bonus: no traffic and in most cases, no cost). And finally, you could always
Ignore advice like this and find your own way. There are a lot of lists out there, a glut of guidance, a heap of helpful how-tos. There’s a good chance you’re starting to find them annoying. That’s fine, too. If your way of surviving lockdown in your house is to grunt at each other occasionally over frozen pizza, while wearing slightly stained joggers and staring vacantly at Netflix*, well as long as everyone’s okay with this, guess what?
*Just an example and in no way an actual snapshot of life in my house.