Mind Matters – Two years of COVID how are your relationships?

A number of very welcome announcements have been made recently to highlight the role of talking therapies (counselling and psychotherapy) and the range of services available for young people and adults. In this article I thought it worth shining a light on our relationships.

The pandemic has brought many changes that have impacted upon relationships – home working and schooling, lockdowns, reduced social contact, fewer holidays, loss and bereavements, more time or less time together – so something that can be said with certainty is that our relationships have experienced change.

Having relationships is crucial to our health, as is the health of our relationships and, as we approach the two year anniversary of COVID now is a good time to reflect on how they have changed.

There is such potential for us to look out for and be helpful to each other as we continue to navigate our way round, through and out of the pandemic but often whilst people notice changed behaviours in themselves and others they do not know what to do with their experience. The result of this is that often opportunities are missed to reduce each other’s suffering or catch spiralling negative patterns of behaviours.

Often people say they understand each other until such a time when they say they don’t understand each other as though a switch has been thrown. In reality understanding is always by degree and we have approximate levels of understanding that are either tolerable or not.

For example, you have a friend who is always late, it is something that the two of you laugh about and then one day you are late, they are furious and suddenly you both realise it is not the relationship you thought you had, you no longer trust that there is understanding.

The desire for understanding in our closest relationships comes from a need for both security and safety – often closely associated with the idea of loving or being loved. Naturally those closest to us are the people most likely to be relied upon in an emergency and in emergencies nothing is more important than clear communication and understanding – it is nothing less than a need born out of a drive for survival. Potentially it all starts from birth – if understanding does not exist between us and our primary carers then we risk death – therefore the first thing we do as babies is fight for understanding.

How we do this varies depends upon what we learn in our attempts to gain attention – is it more effective to be noisy or quiet, happy or sad, laugh or cry, eat heartily or refuse food, be well or sick, tidy or messy, dependent or independent, creative or practical – the list is endless. Therefore what we learn in the early days is the closest we come to having an approach to life and relationships that is “hardwired”. Simply put, we are good at doing or being in ways for which we have felt the existence of understanding.

The implication is we need to challenge our assumption we understand and are understood around the most basic of concepts. For example, love. How love is expressed varies enormously across cultures, communities and families. Just ask your friends how love was shown to them as children and you are likely to get a wide variety of responses from food, fun, time together, talking, not talking, sharing, giving, taking, education, discipline, fairness, holidays the list is endless.

Another good example is how people are looked after when sick. In some cultures it is common for everyone to visit sick friends and relatives, in others the patient is cared for by being protected from visitors. Neither is right or wrong but someone who is used to visitors when sick will feel neglected and uncared for if their partner tells everyone to keep away as they need rest!

Fundamentally a shared language can be all we need to build and maintain healthy relationships and understanding. It sounds basic however, the single most important idea to hold onto is understanding is not something we achieve before focussing on something else, understanding is a constant process of interaction that helps us to maintain sufficient understanding as change happens. In my experience relationships break down due to the conversations that have not been had rather than those that have.

Here are some basic rules:

  • Words like “love” are short cuts – use them at your peril. Instead, never assume that the word means the same to you as others.
  • It requires commitment from all parties to develop an understanding.
  • If you feel hurt by something that your partner does or says then (as long as it is not physically or emotionally abusive) it is likely that your defences and theirs are revealing a conflict of understanding. Do not assume that the intention was to hurt you, instead say how you felt and ask if that was what had been intended. Likewise ask how you have been experienced and what the other person thought of your intention.
  • Never underestimate the possible impact of change, difficult times and stress. Anything that changes your routines or patterns can bring stress that triggers defences – at difficult times in life you might find it difficult to recognise each other. Look out for bereavements, fertility issues, children arriving and leaving, career changes, health challenges and traumatic events.
  • Remember that relationships are co-created and the most resilient ones are those where there is an expectation that how they are going will always be open to discussion and scrutiny, with feedback always being welcomed and offered.
  • Finally, if you are struggling then do not hesitate to seek professional help. If you’ve had a conversation more than once then you are not having it, so try something different. Many people seek help when it is too late – when there is too much misunderstanding and hurt and not enough energy and commitment left in order to make the changes required.

Nicholas Rose
Psychotherapist, Counsellor, Couples Counsellor and Coach

UKCP registrant, MBACP (accred), UKRCP
PGDip, MA, Adv Dip Ex Psych

Nicholas Rose & Associates
Counselling, psychotherapy and coaching for children, adults, couples and families.


Read more blogs by Nicholas Rose

Read the previous one – New year but old patterns of negative thinking?

See all Nicholas’s Mind Matters blogs here

Read a profile of Nicholas here

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