For many people, lockdown – even as it is slowly eased – will put significant pressure on their mental wellbeing. This post is part of a four part series covering working from home, anxiety & worries, relationship strains & loneliness.
If you’re in lockdown with others, the chances are things are going to be strained at times. You’re probably not used to seeing so much of each other, you may have different ideas about “what’s allowed” during lockdown and what isn’t, and conflicts can arise. Alternatively, you may be trying to conduct close relationships from a distance.
If you are struggling with your mental health either as a result of self-isolation or on top of it, you may be finding relationships particularly difficult to maintain. For many people though, this is exactly the time when they need support from others. Recognising the signs that you are struggling to connect with others, or are feeling overwhelmed engaging with others, is the first step in taking some control over how you think, feel and behave in your relationships.
Recognising the signs
You are the expert on yourself and only you will know if your thoughts or behaviour are different to how they usually are. Here are some signs that you may be struggling:
There’s nothing wrong with telling somebody you need their support, but occasionally we can cling onto people, always looking to them for reassurance rather than to ourselves, or expecting them to always be available. Sometimes this may be too much for them, leading them to push us away, making us even more in need of reassurance or causing conflict.
- Increased conflict
When we are struggling with poor mental health we might find ourselves creating conflict with others. This could be due to any number of reasons: we feel misunderstood, we want to push the other person away (so not to burden them or to ‘test’ their love for us, or simply because we prefer to be alone). While sometimes these things will feel as though they are not our fault, conflict can be very draining and damaging to our wellbeing in the long run.
You may know how much social interaction suits you (and we all need some “me-time”), but notice if you are isolating or avoiding others more than usual. (We know that in the context of lockdown this can be even harder to recognise!)
- Replaying conversations
It’s natural to do this sometimes if something surprises or hurts us, but be aware if you are frequently going over and over conversations as it can indicate a lack of trust in yourself to make judgements
Coping and connecting
Below are a few tips and resources for different kind of relationships at this time:
Partners you are living with
Here are just a few tips if you are living with your partner during lockdown and struggling with your mental health:
- Make time for the relationship
Think about having a “date night” (perhaps with a take-away!). Planning it a day or two in advance can help to give both of you something to look forward to as well as break up the week. Just as important, do not load these moments with too much pressure. Just because you have decided to spent time together does not mean that you have to be on your best form, nor does it mean you have to have sex or “talk about us”. It is simply time to be together and connect. Just a good long cuddle can send a rush of chemicals to the brain that help us feel safe and held – two really important things if we are struggling with mental distress.
- Make time for yourself
Balance out your “same-old routine nights” and “date nights” with the all-important “me-time” night. Again, it’s useful to mention that you’d like this in advance to prevent your partner from feeling rejected or lonely themselves.
- Have open and honest communication about your mental distress.
If you can’t talk easily about your mental distress with your partner or they struggle to support you emotionally, this does not necessarily mean they don’t love you, but it may mean that you should look for alternative support during this time. Many Changes members find they can talk more easily at a support group than to their partners and this does not mean that there is something “wrong” with the relationship.
- Don’t let your mental health be blamed for problems in the relationship unnecessarily e.g. “You are only reacting like this because of your depression”. This can be a really challenging one, but remember that you have a right to feel what you feel, and your reaction to stress may have nothing to do with any diagnosis you may have.
“How couples can create mystery and intimacy during lockdown” – Couples Therapist Esther Perel
“Building and dissolving boundaries with partners during lockdown” – Couples Therapist Esther Perel. For more from her, visit here.
Partners you are not living with
If your romantic partner is not living with you during lockdown and you are struggling with your mental health this could be a really testing time for you and the relationship. It does not forecast the end though. This period of social distancing and self-isolation will eventually change. Every relationship is very different but here are a few tips and ideas from our members and friends experiencing these challenges:
- Find the balance.
Regular communication is going to be important for both of you, but becoming overly dependent on your partner responding to messages or calls immediately can intensify your feelings of being alone and struggling. Talk to each other about how regularly you communicate. Sometimes setting a routine can stop the anxiety of wondering if your partner is thinking about you and allow you to focus on your own activities in the knowledge that you will speak to them at the time you’ve agreed.
- Make plans.
This is not easy at the moment, none of us know how long this will last, but pencilling in a planned trip for July (assuming your partner is in the same country as you) and deciding what you might do together can help to keep you focused on the future. Mental distress is often fuelled by uncertainty. You cannot be certain your plans will go ahead, but through making a plan you can be certain that both of you are investing in the relationship in the future.
- Widen your support network. If you’re struggling with your mental health, it can be tempting to overly rely on your partner (who is also likely to be your best friend) to support you. While leaning on them can strengthen your relationship, leaning elsewhere can also relieve some of the pressure on the relationship. Are there others close to you who you can share your feelings with? Or could you utilise support services like ours who could listen and validate what you’re going through?
“How your relationship can survive if you’re living apart” – Daily Telegraph
NOTE: Official guidelines advise against couples living separately meeting and touching as of 10th May, although you may now meet at a social distance.
Lockdown has put considerable strain on many family relationships. Not everyone can use video calling, older family members can be a source of worry, and some have gone home to live with their parents as adults with no clear sense of when they may return to their own space. Because there are so many possible situations we have focused on thoughts around setting boundaries and being assertive, two things that can present real challenges for people struggling with their mental health.
What is assertiveness?
Assertiveness is the ability to honestly and openly express what we need and how we feel. Assertiveness involves respecting your own needs and needs of others equally or standing up for your personal rights in a way that doesn’t ignore the rights of other people.
Benefits of being assertive
If you can master how to assert yourself you are more likely to get what you need. This can give you confidence about asserting yourself, creating a positive cycle. It also means you can focus more on creating your own personal goals instead of putting everyone else first. It can reduce conflict and create stronger relationships between yourself and others.
Assertive vs. Passive
Being passive is placing other people’s needs above your own or not feeling able to communicate your needs. It can lead to:
- Feeling ignored and as if others are taking advantage of you.
- Feeling helpless and as if you have no control over your life.
- Feeling frustrated at yourself.
Assertive vs aggressive
At the other end of the scale, being aggressive involves disrespecting the needs of others in order to achieve your own. It can lead to:
- Difficulties in relationships because people feel disrespected and ignored.
- Increased conflict.
- Not getting your needs met because others feel less inclined to help you
In summary, the differences might be thought of like this:
Passive behaviour results in: “I’m not OK, but you are OK”
Aggressive behaviour results in: “I’m OK, and it doesn’t matter if you’re not OK”
Assertive behaviour results in: “I’m OK and you’re OK”
You may find that you fall into both passive or aggressive styles of communication based on different situations or relationships.
Tips for being more assertive
A) Identify what you need
It can take time to work out what you really want and need. Listening to your feelings can help point the way – if something feels wrong, work on thinking about what would feel right.
B) Express your own opinions and feelings
Look at the other person and keep a calm tone of voice, try to relax, be polite but firm. There’s no need to apologise if you feel you are being reasonable. Take ownership using “I”. If you are unhappy about a situation, use “I” to say how you feel about it, such as “I feel like I am doing too much at the moment” instead of saying “you never help me out” which could come across as an attack.
C) Learn to say “no” without feeling guilty
Many people find saying “no” really difficult. They may feel guilty for saying no or find it easier to “cave in” to what others want rather than standing up for what they need. Practising saying “no” is an important step in asserting yourself.
D) Listen to others
Part of being assertive involves listening and respecting other people’s opinions. A simple way of showing you have listened is to repeat back in your own words what someone has said.
E) Agree to disagree
Remember that having a different point of view doesn’t mean you are right and the other person is wrong.
F) Start Small
Practice assertiveness in situations you find less stressful. You can then build up to being assertive at times that might feel tougher for you.
A note on domestic violence
This period of lockdown has also seen an increase in domestic violence. Domestic abuse is unacceptable whatever the situation, it does not matter what stresses you are under. The government have issued the clear message that: “The household isolation instruction as a result of coronavirus does not apply if you need to leave your home to escape domestic abuse”.
Resources if you are in danger
- If you are in danger and unable to talk on the phone, call 999, and then press 55. On a mobile this will transfer your call to the relevant police force who will assist you without you having to speak. The police cannot trace your location with this call.
- The Men’s Advice Line is a confidential helpline for male victims of domestic abuse and those supporting them. Telephone: 0808 801 0327
- Refuge runs the National Domestic Abuse Helpline, which you can call for free, and in confidence, 24 hours a day on 0808 2000 247.
- Galop runs the National LGBT+ Domestic Abuse specialist helpline. Telephone: 0800 999 5428
- Hestia provides a free mobile app, Bright Sky, which provides support and information to anyone who may be in an abusive relationship or those concerned about someone they know.
- Chayn provides online help and resources in a number of languages about identifying manipulative situations and how friends can support those being abused.
- Sexual assault referral centres continue to provide non-judgmental advice and support services to victims and survivors of sexual assault or abuse. Interviews, forensic examinations and sexual health and counselling services are offered in a comfortable environment where staff will ensure that victims and survivors will be managed safely to comply with coronavirus guidance. Please call your local sexual assault referral centre to arrange care and support, which may be provided in person or remotely depending on your needs.