Magdalena Śmieja, PhD, professor at the Jagiellonian University, social psychologist. Specialises in the psychology of close relationships and emotional intelligence. She works at the Centre for Social Cognitive Studies at the Institute of Psychology of the Jagiellonian University.
I know couples who initially were happy they could spend time together thanks to remote working, but after just a few days things started to go bad...
The compulsory quarantine and the new normal of sharing space seven days a week is something completely new for many couples. Each of us have different social needs; and oftentimes need not just our partners but also our friends. For instance, if we like sports or parties and our partner is an introvert, then we enjoy that aspect of our lives with our friends. Now, for most people our needs must somehow be fulfilled with just our partners.
And what happens?
That forced closeness confronts us with the problems which we normally omit or fail to notice. Sometimes we know our partner’s annoying traits and characteristics but we have our copying mechanisms, for instance we turn the situation into a joke and run away to work.
For people who tend to use escape as copying mechanism, this is no longer an option.
A person who is evasive in a relationship feels good spending a lot of time at work and dedicating no more than an hour in the evening for intimate conversations. Now our partner may expect that we spend together to be much longer and that they will bring you even closer, because you are at home, we finally have some time for ourselves.
This can be difficult.
A recipe for disaster?
Not necessarily. We can treat it as a time to reflect and work on our emotional wellbeing, we may even come out of it having gained something. It’s here that we are going to confront and intensely experience the emotions and needs which normally exist in a larger space. Such an experience may make us stronger and increase our self-awareness.
So what exactly can we do in these circumstances?
First of all, it is good to set some rules of our cohabitation. If previously you spent all day separately and then the evenings together, you can’t pretend that nothing has changed. You should talk openly and say, for example: you work in the bedroom, I work in the kitchen, and we won’t disturb each other. It’s important that you don’t have each other on your hands all the time.
This doesn’t seem good.
Not always. There are couples who automatically benefit from the restrictions because they finally have more time for themselves, and before they would see each other only on weekends. But for many it is certainly more difficult. We can of course counteract the issues caused by social distancing.
There is research that shows that the new activities together maintain satisfaction in a relationship. So even if we don’t go out, we can start a new activity together: yoga, writing novels or recording podcasts.
However, we must switch to conscious management and be self-aware. This is certainly not a piece of cake.
Self-awareness – meaning...?
It’s a good moment to practise focusing on ourselves and our attentiveness. The confinement has caused us to have fewer obligations or tasks which take time, such as commuting, visits to public offices, shopping, etc. It is worth using this time to think how we feel and why. When we know what we want or feel, we become better companions. There is also the added bonus of better sleep; just think how much time we spend every morning on getting to work. Physical activity also helps with a goodnight sleep.
This may not be the best time for going out.
If we can, it’s worth doing exercise that does not entail contact with others. If option is there you can also partake in non-contact outdoor activities such as walking and hiking, but first check the restrictions on government websites, as the situation is changing rapidly. All the research indicates that exercise is very important for our moods. It works unconsciously, in our brain. So, to conclude: some exercise, self-awareness, attentiveness.
Unless you have kids; then I don’t see us practising attentiveness or concentration...
We understand how difficult this time is for parents, but we encourage that you maintain structure in the day. Some Online classes run during the day, such as the Alpha project – an online TV that broadcasts every day from 9:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m, which gathers together scientists who carry out experiments or talk about science. Setting tasks and creating a schedule, may even help you find some spare time.
But how long can we stand this rhythm?
We keep assuming that the situation is only temporary. We may live on the realistic promise that when all this ends, we will do something else, go somewhere, get involved in something that we have always wanted to do but never had the time. Such planning, even if it is only a fantasy, sustains our bonds because we can use the opportunity to talk about our needs and expectations.
What good can come out of such sitting together?
Research shows that relationships in which we have sacrificed something for our partner are stronger. People are closer to each other when they know they have sacrificed something for the other person, compromised on something. This brings people together.
And what if it all collapses?
The termination of an unsatisfactory relationship is also a value. What is also positive is that the intensity of the contact can make us identify a problem that would show up later anyway. Maybe only when our investment in an unsatisfactory relationship is much larger, the way out is more difficult.
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