With households cooped up in the home all day and normal routines out the window it’s a challenging time for all, but one consequence of the current constraints can be a strain on family relationships.
We spoke to Mary Johnston Specialist in Marriage and Relationship Counselling, Accord Central Office, Maynooth and now working remotely from her home. The three Accord companies on the island of Ireland have over 50 local centres combined and are best known for their marriage preparation courses and marriage and relationship counselling.
Mary said that there is an element of cabin fever in many households which can give rise to tension and frustration when people are not able to do the normal activities that they enjoy. Being in the company of the same people all day can amplify and exacerbate minor habits or characteristics that are normally brushed off.
When added to the anxiety and fear that are a natural response to concern about the health and wellbeing of loved ones this can give rise to a situation where tempers are short and arguments can flare up. It’s important to share our feelings with one another: to be able to say “I am frightened.” Or “I am worried.” and talk it through with one another. Talking to a partner is one of the biggest advantages in a life.
In particular, parents can find it challenging when the responsibilities of working from home are combined with home schooling. The need to be mindful of how children are feeling, to answer their questions honestly but simply, to encourage them to occupy their time wisely, and provide hope and joy in the everyday are very demanding on parents’ emotional resources.
ACCORD counsellors are very conscious of the potential for stress and conflict amongst couples in these situations. Unfortunately their normal, face–to–face counselling work has had to be suspended so alternative means of supporting couples under pressure have had to be put in place. It’s more difficult to do this work remotely as, in a therapeutic situation, body language is an important component of communication that a therapist will observe so telephone support is challenging but in this present crisis it is very important that couples and individuals experiencing stress should be able to reach out to professionally trained counsellors for support.
Mary highlighted the underlying need for people to manage the new normal at this time by adjusting expectations to accept that conditions will be different with the need to share space, while not being able to go on outings. A change in mind set is needed for our new circumstances. Once we have “let go” of our previous assumptions and expectations, then we can begin to develop creative ideas about how to manage the new circumstances.
Key to this is establishing a routine and structure for the day with time for family activities together, but also to find some protected time for oneself, for reading, quiet time, praying, looking after your mind and body, and exercising.
Of course this doesn’t work out perfectly in real life and conflict is unavoidable. However Mary stresses that conflict is a normal part of life. It does not in any way represent failure in itself, what is of key importance in maintaining good relationships is that conflict is dealt with constructively, with listening and respect and a desire to identify a way through it. Many conflicts can’t actually be “solved”, but can be negotiated and compromised on. Respect is of fundamental importance, and the way we speak and listen must be respectful, even if we need to challenge something in another adult or child.
The words of the Apostle Paul to the Colossians can be of encouragement here, recognising that we do and will have grievances against one another, but we can choose how to respond to them:
Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity.
Let us pray for one another, and for the relationships in our households during this exceptional time.
Accord have launched three Relationships Support Lines, for couples and individuals, recognising that COVID–19 has changed every aspect of family life – all of our familiar ways of living have had to be adjusted.
Many may have had to self–isolate due to the virus; or may be finding it difficult to get personal space for themselves within the confines of the family home; some are trying to combine working from home with efforts to provide a home–schooling environment; or it may be that the fear and stress caused by these exceptional circumstances are causing high levels of concern and anxiety.
Accord’s Relationship Support Lines are available 9.00 am – 8.00 pm, Monday to Friday at:
Northern Ireland: 028 9568 0151
Republic of Ireland: 01 531 3331
Dublin: 01 905 9555 (10.00 am – 1.00 pm)
They offer support to those who are trying to reduce distress within their personal relationships at this time.
Their website: www.accord.ie also provides links to material designed to increase understanding of, and support for handling challenging couples’ and relationship situations.