Cohabiting-by-2 During Covid-19

It’s a painful irony that we share both our deepest and ennobling love, yet also reserve our worst behavior for those who are closest to us. And “closest” these days takes on a new and literal meaning. When his 97 year-old father fell sick after exposure to Covid-19 and was left alone by his regular long term care workers, my brother-in-law and my nephew jumped in the car and drove 250 miles to spend four days at the elder’s bedside until he passed last week. On a Zoom call among my mom and 7 siblings on Sunday the two men said, “death isn’t like what they show on TV.” That’s closeness. And love at its noble best.

The closeness also challenges, and as the lockdown honeymoon subsides, we can predict some tensions will rise. The stresses grow in us from uncertainty, health risks, economic concerns, fears of life without toilet paper (thank God for toilet paper humor), being locked in, etc.  Stress naturally seeks some expression and release, and often a scapegoat.

Crazy Kids thought I’d fall for this one.

Sometimes we turn it in on ourselves, but often we express it outward. Look out loved one(s).  That historically tense relationship with a sibling, child, parent, in-law, or yes, our number one partner may be strained again.

John Gottman, the legendary marriage researcher claims that 69% of the issues of marital conflict are caused by what he calls “perpetual issues.” These arise from deep differences in character, outlook or experience that we bring to the relationship.  (My partner Laura’s R2L blog last week offered a great free tool to step back and get perspective on some of your perpetual issues.)

To be honest, under the stress, I’ve been hyper-sensitive to what I perceive as my bride’s controlling behavior, and she’s surely felt my avoidant behavior; it’s a fault line that will always run between us: she thrives with order, while I cherish freedom and flexibility.  What can one do about these “perpetual issues” when they are Leading by Two – whether at home or at work – and in these stressed times?

  1. Recommit to each other and your shared purpose (vision). Remember it. Revisit it. Say it. Show it. Ask about it. Be proactive. A useful question might be: “What’s most important to us together?”
  2. See the perpetual issue as a third party, an entity, a fact that’s just there. Depersonalize it. Doing this lets you loosen your mental grip on your “rightness” and their “wrongness.” I guarantee this:  As long as you are believing (whether you’re fully aware of it or not) that you are right, they will feel that they are being put “in the wrong,” they will feel wronged, and they will fight or flee. Any little bit of just seeing the perpetual issue as a “system” independent of your motives and intent can give you both a little room.
  3. Own your own frustration. Your partner is doing what they are doing, but they aren’t “making” you feel anything. Jen may be doing something, but I am feeling irritated because of my (typically hidden) story that I am controlled. I can own my feelings and thereby begin to change my story. A more useful and accurate story would be: it helps her (and often me) to have order; she’s seeking something from me that will help her, not doing something to hurt me.)
  4. If you need something from the other, ask for it as a favor, rather than expecting it as a right.* One of my sons has become great at prefacing a request from me by explaining what would “help him,” and asking me if I wouldn’t mind doing it. When I hear it as a request for him and not a demand of me, my defensiveness dissipates and I find myself switching to an attitude of helpfulness.

I think we can predict that the next few weeks will get harder.  But remember “a crisis is a terrible thing to waste!” See if this passage we’re going deeper into doesn’t give you ways to become a better leading by two partner,

leading with your best selves!

*This is a close paraphrase of a line from Anthony DeMello, S.J.  I’ve searched for but been unable to find the original.