How coronavirus lockdown is helping couples in counseling thrive: 'They're listening'

·Senior Editor
Here’s why now might be the best time to start couples’ therapy — or to make an even deeper commitment to already-in-progress counseling. (Photo: Getty Images)
Here’s why now might be the best time to start couples’ therapy — or to make an even deeper commitment to already-in-progress counseling. (Photo: Getty Images)

If you’re among those stuck at home round-the-clock with your partner or spouse during the coronavirus shutdown, and it has left you feeling like all the deep flaws of your relationship are snowballing, you’re not alone.

“It’s a relationship accelerator,” Esther Perel, psychotherapist and author of Mating in Captivity, told Ira Glass on a recent episode of This American Life regarding the confinement that so many couples are experiencing right now. That’s particularly true because of the new pressure of having to turn to one’s partner for everything — from comfort to a sense of identity — in the absence of friends or family or others who typically make up one’s whole community.

But while that can cause stress, experts note, the irony is that couples counseling — between an anecdotal boon for business and a slowed-down pace that can be ideal for working on one’s relationship — is in the midst of having a very good moment.

A crisis such as this “rearranges the priorities and throws the superfluous overboard in a very clarifying way for many of us,” Perel continued, adding that the fact that life has slowed down for many clients has afforded them the space to really work on their relationships, going deeper than ever before. “It’s very moving,” she said.

Here’s why now might be the best time to start couples’ therapy — or to make an even deeper commitment to already-in-progress counseling.

If not now, when?

Research has found that couples tend to wait an average of six years before seeking help with marital issues. But now, depending on their work and financial situation, some couples may find they have more time together than ever, pushing them to start rather than wait.

“We live really busy lives and we’re very distracted by them — we work, exercise, may have kids — and so all of this new together time becomes pretty intense,” Shelly Hanson, a licensed marriage and family therapist (LMFT) in Portland, Ore., tells Yahoo Life, noting that she has already seen an uptick in new clients. “Couples are not accustomed to being so relationally saturated, and it will really show the areas in which the strain has already been occurring. For some, that’s what brings them in. For others, it’s realizing, hey we’ve got this lovely time together.”

One of the real perks of starting now, Hanson says (if you are in the category of being home more) is having more together time than normal. “I’ve been suggesting they block some independent time for themselves” she says, “because when they create their own structure… and more purposefully come back to being together, they find it has really helped them recognize the systemic nature of a relationship — honoring the self and also the us, together.”

For some people, finding they have less reason to run around and be busy outside of the home has made them quieter, in general. “They’re listening,” Hanson says. “Life has slowed down for some a bit, and that allows them to attune to themselves and their relationship in ways our lives don’t always allow for.”

Dr. Sheila Addison, an LMFT in Oakland, Calif., who has also noticed an influx of new clients since the pandemic hit, stresses that waiting makes it more difficult to heal down the line. “Building up more and more hurts, and a predictable pattern of events that often precipitate separation or divorce, leave [a couple] farther down that cascade by the time they come in,” she tells Yahoo Life. “I’m always grateful when couples come in earlier, because the work will likely be shorter and less dramatic; when there’s a lot of baggage built up, it’s harder to restore that trust in each other.”

We have the technology

“If this pandemic had hit two years ago,” says Hanson, couples’ therapy would have found itself in a much different place, as “teletherapy was not set up enough to meet the need.” Now, she says, the structure is there, and people are finding that remote, telehealth sessions work well for couples.

“What I’m really noticing now in switching is everybody has been pleasantly surprised,” she adds. “They say, ‘It’s nice to not have to drive, I can wear my sweats,’ there’s that comfort aspect. And I think for couples, to be able to sit down in the privacy of their own home is providing them a way to do the work they’ve really wanted and needed. So the beauty of that is it really opens the options for people, no matter where they’re located.” It also allows couples to do the work, close their laptops, and be there, together, already at home, rather than maybe getting in separate cars and continuing on with their distracting days.

“This is opening more time for reflection, and putting more legs to the work.”

Addison notes, “I have had a stigma about doing online couples’ therapy — I would always say that I prefer to work with couples in my office. But I had to get over that real quick, and it has worked out better than I expected.”

A large crisis such as the pandemic could bring you closer together

“Any increase in stress amplifies whatever tensions may already exist [in a relationship],” points out Harville Hendrix, a renowned couples’ therapist, speaker and co-author of relationship guides, such as Getting the Love You Want, with his therapist wife, Helen Hendrix. It also tends to amplify strengths. And in some cases, amplified stress can bring couples together who are not usually supportive of each other, as, for some, higher values trump their personal tensions.”

Sometimes couples experience the challenge, he says, “requiring them to suspend their personal issues and deal with something more important.”

And that’s leading some couples to practice more kindness, which is a useful relationship tool.

“Some of my stressed couples are working quite hard to try and be more compassionate and more patient with one another,” notes Addison, “to sort of adopt an us-against-the-problem sort of viewpoint — rather than against-each-other-as-the-problem kind of view.” She notices they are just practicing an acceptance and friendliness towards one another, which are “exactly the qualities that research shows are part of relationships that survive. It’s the kind of culture I’m helping the couple to create between themselves — to have them talk about, ‘how could you make this the new normal?’”

On the other hand, Addison says, it’s certainly not all rainbows and unicorns. “I’ve seen couples go the other direction, finding this very stressful, and who are more challenged than ever before — having kids at home, stresses about health and family, folks that are essentially turning against one another.” In those cases, couples are fighting over immediate issues such as the way to correctly shelter in place or how to best wash your hands or clean the kitchen.  

Relationship support helps when you have different coping mechanisms

“Just like with any other big event, they’re each having their own individual emotional reaction to the situation, and so having to navigate what that feels like for each of them,” explains Hanson. “There is a different felt experience, so really understanding how this news impacts us all a little bit differently — where we put our trust, such as in the media or in health officials — how that plays out for each person depends on what their anxiety level looks like, as well.”

Ads Hendrix, “Any engagement with another person with skills can be useful, and is encouraged.”

Still, for those who have no access to couples’ therapy, either because of a lack of time or resources, Hendrix has DIY suggestions for couples. “They can practice what we call ‘safe conversations,’ which essentially means both pledge to keep the relationship safe by refraining from all criticism of each other, and instead look for and express appreciation for strengths,” he explains.

Specifically, he suggests the following: “When they want to talk, make an appointment, ask ‘Is now a good time to talk about…?’” rather than just diving in, without knowing what sort of headspace the partner is in. If one’s spouse is talking, “mirror rather than react, which starts like this: ‘If I got it right, you are saying that…’ Check for accuracy: ‘Did I get that?’ Then show curiosity: ‘Is there more about that?’ Mirror that back.”

And be sure to take turns, Hendrix says. “When both have spoken and both have been mirrored, give each other an appreciation: ‘Thanks for listening. Thanks for sharing.’”

Going through this process, he notes, is more than going through motions. “This process triggers the neurochemistry of endorphins, which relaxes and replaces cortisol, which triggers fear. It also integrates the brain, because it uses the upper brain to mirror the feelings of the lower brain.”

The best part of following the advice of practicing safe conversations — whether with a couples’ therapist or without — is that “releasing all these neurochemicals strengthens the immune system,” Hendrix says. And we could all use that sort of strength right now.   

For the latest coronavirus news and updates, follow along at https://news.yahoo.com/coronavirus. According to experts, people over 60 and those who are immunocompromised continue to be the most at risk. If you have questions, please reference the CDC’s and WHO’s resource guides.