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You Didn’t Sign Up For This – 4 Ways To Battle Back When Quarantine Makes Your Marriage Worse

This is a guest post written by Toni Nieuwhof. Toni is Carey Nieuwhof’s wife. She’s also the host of The Smart Family Podcast, and a member of our speaking team, and is available for podcast and media interviews on family and relationship issues (inquire here). 

By Toni Nieuwhof

So you’ve been sheltering in place and quarantined with the people you’re supposed to love most for over a month now.

And how exactly is that going? If you’re like most people…well, it’s got its challenges.

In this post, I’ll give you four strategies to make your quarantine time together better, not worse.

My husband Carey (who writes this blog) and I are no strangers to conflict either, and we’ve had to battle back to make our house a place where we both love being home.

Believe it or not, the adversity has the potential to grow you closer.

I’ve seen the other side of adversity because, in addition to being married to Carey for three decades, I’ve also worked as a divorce attorney. And in that respect, I know first hand that facing adversity doesn’t always result in a deeper affection and closer bonds.

I’ve listened to person after person name the burden they’d faced as the primary reason for their divorce—a failing business, the loss of a loved one, or a child that takes extra care.

Put COVID-19 into the mix, a massive disruption of daily life, a global shut down and huge economic loss, and you’ve got a tinderbox for conflict.

Preliminary reports of the results of being confined together for more than a month are not good. Once marriage registries re-opened, Chinese officials noted a sharp increase in divorce applications.

As one article puts it, when you’re in lockdown with your spouse “everything is exposed”.

Which motivates me to bring this question to the forefront: how do you fight for your marriage when crisis threatens to take it down?

I want to focus on some practical tactics you can start to apply today to get you and your partner through this crisis with your relationship not only intact but perhaps even stronger on the other side.

When you're in lockdown with your spouse, everything gets exposed. Click To Tweet

1. Create the Calm You Crave

Ever heard of “family voice”?

It’s the irritated, demanding, rushed and sometimes half-panicked voice you find yourself using at home and pretty much no where else.

Because you know that you wouldn’t make your way in the world using that tone. Maybe you don’t even use it at home most of the time. But when you’re under pressure, under-slept and depleted, your family voice comes out of nowhere.

Even the best of us risk losing civility under stress. But in your marriage, kindness and peace can take you much further.

There’s no better time than now to start creating the calm inside your relationship that everything about this crisis is working against.

Start here: when tensions mount in your relationship, make a pact to start simply walking away at the right time.

Agree to a signal between the two of you in advance that means this: it’s time to park a conversation where it is and come back to it later, when you’re both in better space.

By signal, I mean a simple word like “flag” or “park” or “time out”. Or even a hand signal – any sign you both agree to use so you can maintain your composure.

Your immediate goal is to avoid a heated exchange; to ensure your dispute doesn’t escalate into angry words and actions that make things worse.

Talking about getting heated, it’s helpful to be able to read the body signs that you or your spouse have been triggered. You might already know that being triggered means that your body’s ‘fight and flight’ reaction has been engaged.

When I start to feel anxious or fearful, and my hands and feet may become cold. As my anger rises, I may feel my heart start to race. I may start to perspire. My thinking becomes clouded. If I don’t pay attention to these signs when they first appear, then I more easily stumble into shouting matches or lashing out.

I like the way our physician friend explains this to his patients. He tells them to pay attention to whether their emotional status is in the green, the yellow, or the red zone. Green is calm and cool. Red is the emotionally triggered zone I described above, where heightened emotions take over. The yellow zone is somewhere in between.

The key is to pay attention.

You can probably tell when you’re in the yellow zone. If the green zone is still within your grasp, take a deep breath and proceed with caution.

If you’re heading toward the red zone, whatever exchange or argument you’re involved in needs to stop. Once you’re in the red zone, you’re at a much higher risk of saying or doing something you’ll later regret, since it’s no longer possible to think calmly and clearly.

Make it your goal to air your differences, at least the ones that provoke your emotions, only when you start in the green zone; calm and clear-headed.

Don’t expect others to create the calm you crave. Lead the way.

Don't expect others to create the calm you crave. Lead the way. Click To Tweet

2. Love Their Way, Not Yours

Carey and I have very different love languages.

In case you haven’t heard about love languages, your love language is the primary way love is communicated to or received by you as an individual. Dr. Gary Chapman has identified five of them: acts of service, words of affirmation, physical touch, gifts, and quality time. Chances are, your love language and your spouse’s are not the same.

Here’s how different they can be.

Carey, after emptying the dishwasher, might say something like, “look what I did – for you!” And while I would appreciate it, his act of helping with chores doesn’t send my heart into backflips.

And I might say, ‘hey, let’s clear an evening so we can talk – really talk’, or ‘let’s go for a long walk on my favorite trail.’ While Carey is usually obliging, these things don’t mean the same to him as they do to me.

Since our earlier years, we’ve learned that quality time and physical touch are the love languages that speak to me, while Carey’s primary languages are acts of service and words of affirmation. So, now we know.

But do we keep doing those things that we can predict will make each other happy? You probably know, it’s easy to become complacent.

What I’ve discovered is that loving Carey in his love language needs to be consistent. I will still tend toward quality time in my attempts to grow closer, and Carey may default toward acts of service.

So, I have to ask myself: who am I trying to show love to? Me or Carey?

For marriage newbies and veterans alike, becoming more loving is a marathon, not a sprint.

For marriage newbies and veterans alike, becoming more loving is a marathon, not a sprint. Click To Tweet

Why not make this period of more togetherness a time to experiment with ways to make your bond stronger? Allow these COVID-19 measures to bend your routines.

For many years, Carey and I have had outside help with housework, but in the name of being part of the solution and not part of the problem for our community, we’ve minimized the traffic in and out of our home to the absolute minimum.

I recently set aside an entire day to clean – deep clean – our house, and sent Carey practically over the moon! He’s checking to see if it’s actually me doing the work.

To be fair, I didn’t start off that day feeling particularly happy about a day of cleaning, but I ended up being pleasantly surprised.

Speak your partner's love language, not yours. Click To Tweet

3. Pay Attention to Your Partner’s Emotions but Manage Yours

Relationship expert and researcher Dr. John Gottman writes about the differences in how people perceive and process emotions, and how those differences impact the bond between two people.

He explains that parents and cultural background in general impact the ways children are taught to respond to their emotions.

In general, he describes two categories of parenting styles when it comes to emotions: emotion-coaching and emotion-dismissing. Although there are times for each style, and no one style is “bad”, the emotion- coaching style is more likely to create an awareness of emotion and an ability to respond to emotions in others. “Emotional attunement” is the term he uses to describe this ability.

Dr. Gottman’s research was based on these elements of emotional attunement:

Awareness of the emotion
Turning toward the emotion
Tolerance of the emotional experience
Understanding the emotion
Non-defensive Listening to the emotion
Empathy toward the emotion.

In short, his research shows that your ability to attune to your partner’s emotions, whether sadness or anger or joy, answers the deep-down question in marriage: “will you be there for me?” Being present in the sad moments as well as the enjoyable ones builds trust. If your partner is attuned to your emotions, you’re more likely to believe that your partner has your best interests in mind. And, you are more likely to dwell on the positive and forget the negative aspects of your relationship.

What does this teach us? Especially if we’ve been raised by parents who were dismissive of, or who ignored, or who rewarded us for outward displays of emotions that were faked? Gottman says this:

“Although attunement is not a complex skill, it is difficult to do unless one decides to do it. For emotion-dismissing people, that requires a shift in emotion philosophy from dismissing or disapproving to attunement. It means giving up responsibility for changing someone else’s emotion and shifting to genuinely trying to understand one’s partner’s emotions. Once a person decides to attune, it is possible to get better and better at this skill.”

So, creating an atmosphere between you of being real about your emotions, and accepting of each other’s raw (not faked) emotions, is key to developing a stronger bond. Gottman is careful to point out that although all emotions are acceptable, all behaviours are not.

Children and partners alike need to acquire the skills of managing how they respond to strong emotions such as anger so that the individual and everyone around them stays safe and well.

Overkill emotional reactions may indicate that something else is going on, in which case medical, psychiatric or other professional care is needed.

Being present in the sad moments as well as the enjoyable ones builds trust. Click To Tweet

4. Don’t Just Pay Lip Service to Counselling

Carey and I learned that sometimes we needed help beyond what friends could provide. We needed professional help to sort out the complexity of the conflict between us. Having an experienced professional to work with meant we were able to move past impasses and to start taking baby steps in a better direction.

Our relationship wasn’t transformed quickly. But over the years we’ve left our unhappiness, not each other, behind. Needless to say, we’re thrilled.

In my family law office, most of my clients said they tried marriage counseling. When I probed, I found out they went once or twice. Then, someone got offended or frustrated or afraid of the cost, and quit.

Going to counseling once or twice to resolve a complex relational problem doesn’t cut it.

Working through the issues in your marriage will help you leave your unhappiness behind, not each other. Click To Tweet

And paying for marriage counseling will cost less than a divorce.

The advice we received in counseling was invaluable to the process of transforming our relationship. Our counselors helped us see how much our hurts from before our marriage drove the conflict we were mired down in. Do your best to find professionals with a proven track record of helping unhappy couples.

Invest time reviewing the qualifications, experience, and feedback from other couples before you choose the professional to approach. After we got started with marriage counseling, making progress on one issue encouraged us to tackle other areas.

In the end, we didn’t regret a single minute, effort, or dollar we invested in getting professional advice to save our marriage.

By the way, many counselors are now doing Zoom counseling. So no excuses.

Paying for marriage counseling will cost less than a divorce. Click To Tweet

A Few Final Words…

With the radical uncertainty we’re facing, we need each other, and we need hope more than ever.

I’m not assuming you have any particular faith persuasion, but see whether this message Jesus spoke stirs hope in you: “In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.”

When you sign up for a long-term relationship like marriage or parenting, like it or not, you signed up for some trouble! But you also signed up for love, more life and more joy.

And that’s exactly what I hope for, for you.

Lead Well Through This Crisis. Here’s How (Free Course) 

I get it. You’re scared. These are deeply uncertain times.

As hard as it is to admit, it’s just really hard to know how to lead in times like these.

While no one has all the answers, there is help and a strategy that can guide you, and I’d love to come alongside you.

To that end, I’ve got a brand new online, on-demand course, called How To Lead Through Crisisthat can help you lead your team, your church and yourself through the massive disruption.

The course is the gift from me and my team to you and leaders everywhere. In light of everything that’s going on, we decided to make it available 100% free.

Inside How To Lead Through Crisis, you’ll learn how to:

  • Cultivate a non-anxious presence that inspires confidence and trust.
  • Care for yourself so the crisis doesn’t break you.
  • Master the art of fast-paced, clear decision making.
  • Gather and interpret the most reliable data that will advance your mission
  • Advance digitally to scale past physical barriers and grow your outreach.
  • Lead your team and congregation remotely

While no one has all the answers in a crisis this big, in the course, I share the mindsets, habits, tools and strategies that I believe will help you lead through crisis to get you and the people you lead to a new (and better) future.

Join the 6000 leaders who have claimed their place in the course for free.

You can enroll and get instant access for you and your team here.

How are you handling social distancing? 

What are you and your family doing to get through this season?

I’d love to hear in the comments below!

You Didn’t Sign Up For This – 4 Ways To Battle Back When Quarantine Makes Your Marriage Worse

11 Comments

  1. willaronan on April 18, 2020 at 4:30 pm

    Hi there friends, good paragraph and nice urging commented at this place, I am truly enjoying by these.

  2. Augustine Ndasi on April 17, 2020 at 12:58 pm

    Hello Toni.
    I am glad to know about your very educative online program to help people like me navigate through trying and unprecedented times like these. As an elder in my local church, I have been helping out to share ideas of still growing the congregation. Lessons learned from history how in the 1930’s , Chinese minister of the Gospel, Watchman Nee called on his compatriots to present the gospel while respecting their cultural ways. This, he believed, would make greater impact; that is, they needed to be relational.
    Communist takeover in the 50’s that churches all went underground– is what happened and the church grew much more to this day.

  3. Rié Collett on April 17, 2020 at 11:27 am

    Hi Toni!
    We met briefly when you and Carey came down to Monterey to speak at our Menlo Church Staff Retreat.
    This is such a great and timely article. We are hoping to start a much-needed marriage ministry in the Fall, assuming we are past the social distancing requirement by then. But this is a great post for people to consider in the meantime.
    Thank you and blessings to you both,
    Rié

  4. Joe on April 17, 2020 at 10:35 am

    Thanks Toni…I Pastor a church and normally I teach books of the Bible verse by verse and have been using that format for a long time. With that format, I already know what I’m teaching ever Sunday. Once in a while, I will teach a topical study. Well, since the coronavirus each Monday morning I’m seeking the Lord what to teach the following Sunday as I want to be teaching a message in real time in how we are all facing this crisis together. After reading this article, I know I need to teach a message on relationships in a home during this crisis and how to get along (including my home with 2 teenagers). So, thanks Toni..

    • Joe on April 17, 2020 at 10:43 am

      *every*

  5. Jesse on April 17, 2020 at 10:27 am

    Social distancing is killing me. Our marriage is ok, but I can’t handle the distancing thing. I hate talking on the phone or using Zoom and Skype. The isolation is driving me insane, and I’m introverted. I can’t imagine how hard this must be for extroverts.

  6. Monica on April 17, 2020 at 10:01 am

    Great points you did. Thanks

  7. Tommy Sweeley on April 17, 2020 at 10:00 am

    Great practical and timely advice. Thank you so much for sharing your personal experience and professional wisdom.

  8. Fitz Conner on April 17, 2020 at 8:52 am

    Toni,

    Awesome stuff! My wife and I have used Gottman’s assessment with a counselor.
    All of your points are so very clear, helpful and accessible.

    Thank you!!!

    • Toni on April 17, 2020 at 10:04 am

      Thanks for your feedback, Fitz! John Gottman has such a wealth of research-based resources. Glad to hear they helped, too!

  9. Chuck Congram on April 17, 2020 at 8:13 am

    Toni- Love your wisdom and practical advice and love you too!!

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