His maxim is the old Buddhist saying, "When your roof burns down, you have a beautiful view of the sky." His wife criticises such proverbs harshly: "If your roof burned down, you were probably being irresponsible and in the future, you should use your head more."
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There are better and worse moments in every relationship, but unfortunately, in the age of the pandemic, the worse ones often prevail. This is especially true for those couples who have lived together in isolation for many days, spending a lot of time together. Being stuck at home is really challenging – both for people in new relationships and for those who were used to only spending a fraction of their busy day with their partner. The constant presence of your loved one may generate difficult communication challenges.  One of these, for example, is to reach a consensus on how to live under one roof so that one party does not feel dominated by the other.

Cleanliness extremes vs. coronavirus memes

Let’s take a look at a young married couple, Antek and Martyna. They’ve been working remotely since the beginning of the epidemic. They have a rather stormy relationship, though they like to call it full of fire. Unfortunately, the subject of the pandemic is a bone of contention. Antek keeps it light. He wears a mask rather negligently, he keeps ripping his gloves when he takes them off. He’s reluctant to disinfect his groceries, but in general, he’s careful. Sometimes he goes for a walk with a friend, but he keeps his distance. Recently, he’s been amusing himself with coronavirus memes. That’s simply how he reacts to stress: by negating it, devaluing it, invalidating it. It’s easier for him when he’s trying to keep up appearances of normality. “I don’t understand my husband’s attitude. He keeps trivialising everything. I disinfect the whole house. I scrub my hands. If I could, I’d douse the flat with bleach every few days. I’m afraid of the coronavirus and especially of Antek bringing it home because of his carelessness. So, when he enters the house, I talk to him as if I'm talking to a child: go to the bathroom, don’t touch your mouth. We had a row lately because he didn’t iron his mask before he left the house. I thought it was unreasonable and, unfortunately, I called him an idiot. I’m losing my temper in this pandemic,” Martyna confesses. Indeed, in extremely stressful situations, our traits become more prominent, which is why we are all a little “too much” – the nervous are too nervous, the careless are too careless. Martyna, pedantic in normal circumstances, during the pandemic goes to extremes of cleanliness. But her relationship is suffering, as she doesn’t leave room for any deviations. Antek either behaves the way she wants him to or has a fight coming. He’s getting tired of it.

Discomforting flashbacks pop up in his head – Martyna has basically been telling him how to behave and treating him like a thoughtless teenager for years.  She is a perfectionist and strives for Antek to behave perfectly too, at all costs – to clean like a maid, to speak English fluently or to plank with her every evening. Only when it’s perfect is she happy and calm. If something is not ten out of ten, there’s instant resentment, sadness and a sense of defeat. Antek sees the world a little differently. His maxim is the old Buddhist saying, “When your roof burns down, you have a beautiful view of the sky”. His wife criticises such proverbs harshly: “If your roof burned down, you were probably being irresponsible and in the future, you should use your head more.”

Reactance – give me my freedom back

How do such messages affect people? Antek feels deep psychological resistance whenever he hears from his beloved that he SHOULD do something. In psychology, a technical term for such a reaction is reactance, i.e. rebellious behaviour towards excessive prohibitions and control. Reactance usually occurs when we feel that our freedom of choice is restricted, when we learn that something is forbidden to us or something is not allowed. The more unbearable we find those prohibitions, the more frustrated we get. And then, even the other party’s sensible arguments don’t work – we want to act in the teeth of them, sometimes even daringly demonstrating our independence. But sometimes a person rebels quite unconsciously, suppressing anger deep inside and remaining calm on the outside. Such repressed anger, according to psychoanalysts, may then suddenly resonate in random reactions such as “ripped gloves” or “an unironed mask”. 

Compromise is sometimes not enough

Martyna remembers her wild campaign for vegetarianism. Antek sure didn’t suppress anything then. Eventually, she laid down her arms and dropped the subject, but for a long time debated with herself, wondering what to do. This time Antek, who would usually succumb to her expectations, put his foot down. He won’t stop having burgers, end of conversation. Martyna tried all forms of persuasion, from threats to arousing guilt. He didn’t give in. Fortunately, they managed to agree that he will cook for himself, but for her it was poor consolation. Those quarrels made Martyna realise for the first time how difficult it is for her to accept that the character of her partner is made of many different elements and that she doesn’t have to like all of them.  Naturally, every person has their own set of unique opinions, so when people start a relationship, clashes on one level or another are inevitable.

Unfortunately, the lack of openness to differences makes us completely unable to accept the perspective of the partner and, as a result, we usually question whether the relationship makes sense at all or we start fighting.  “I gave up on vegetarianism. I have my views on animals, he has his. I hope he’ll pick it up one day, but it’s not an absolute value for me, like human rights. If it turned out that my partner was homophobic or xenophobic, I would not seek agreement, flexibility or understanding, I would just end my acquaintance immediately,” says Martyna, rightly emphasising that compromise and flexibility may concern issues that are important but not crucial. The key worldview is one on which we base our identity, our ideals and our morality. It must be compatible, otherwise the relationship resembles a ring and usually ends with a double knockout.

Automatic replays from childhood

Ordering partners to do anything is therefore the way to break up rather than to strengthen the relationship.  If we find such a need in ourselves – to transform our partner into someone else – it is worth considering where this lack of acceptance comes from, what makes us unable to accept our loved ones for who they are. In order for Martyna to stop being so rigorous and harsh towards Antek (she has really tried to do it many times – without success), she should first take a closer look at her own, sometimes ruthless, standards. She owes these to her parents, who accepted her conditionally – only when she was the best, she had the highest marks or she finished a marathon first.

They showed her warmth, love and kindness only under such circumstances. When things didn’t work out, they were silent or encouraged her to work harder.  She’s never heard that she has the right to be second or get a “C” on a test. Today, she maintains this harsh attitude towards herself and her husband – everything she does must be perfect, worthy of an “A+”.  She constantly feels like her parents are standing behind her back, sniffing at her behaviour. “You’re eating too slowly, you’re dressed badly, why not an ‘A’?” Such sentences, heard and repeated several times during childhood, are internalised and become our personal voice. An inner critic who doesn’t work in favour of our own Self. We’re hurting ourselves the same way we were hurt in the past. We simply automatically replay familiar, memorised phrases in our heads whenever we have to make a choice, oppose something or when we are evaluated.

Sometimes realising our own inner voice makes us able to distance ourselves and start the process of change. We want to get a break and stop repeating over and over again our parents’ phrases that we have memorised. Realising that these are not our own thoughts but automatic replays from childhood builds new messages. Milder, more understanding of shortcomings. Psychotherapist Jeffrey Young, the creator of schema therapy, suggests replacing strict duties with kindness to one another. But do it gently, changing your behaviour step by step, letting go of nervous control. Even one small change towards pacifying ruthless standards often makes things easier for both partners.

Despite their differences, Martyna and Antek have a lot in common. Slowly descending from her high standards, the woman noticed that they agreed on essential issues – they both want to be healthy, they both want to remain safe and they both worry about the pandemic. These are things that they have in common. When fighting, we often fail to see that, in essence, we both want the same thing – to be fine. It’s just that each of us has a different way of achieving this “fine”.  Seeing the points of contact makes it easier to go further, to lower ultra-high standards, to make borders more flexible and decide calmly on when to give up and back out and when to keep fighting. The key here is accepting the fact that we don’t always have to agree, but it’s good when we always try to understand our different points of view. And that’s what is worth achieving by learning to communicate with each other.

Katarzyna Kucewicz – is a psychologist, pedagogist and psychotherapist. She runs the INNER GARDEN Psychotherapy and Coaching Centre in Warsaw. She conducts individual and couples therapy. She works within the integration movement, with scheme therapy always being the closest to her heart. The main area of her work are relationship and family problems. She’s the co-author of “Pięknie odmienni. Jak uwolnić związek od codziennych sprzeczek i nieporozumień” (“Beautifully different. How to free a relationship from every-day arguments and misunderstandings”). She has her own weekly series on Instagram, “Nocne Rozmowy Terapeutów” (“Therapists’ Night-time Chats”), in which she talks to other psychologists about how to deal with emotions during the pandemic.

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