Online Therapy with Couples 4/5: Anxiety and Crises
We all respond to crises in different ways. For couples, the Covid-19 pandemic may be causing rifts as each person resorts to contrasting coping mechanisms. Yet, observes psychologist and author Brad E. Sachs, partners often share more anxieties, and anxiety levels, than they think. In the penultimate part of his blog series, he explains how therapists can help couples to stabilise their anxiety and survive – or even thrive – in a crisis.
This post will focus on enabling partners to live with and grow through the inescapable anxiety that arises in a crisis – in this case, the global health crisis of Covid-19.
My experience treating couples has led me to conclude that, despite appearances to the contrary, partners match up pretty closely when it comes to their baseline level of anxiety. The reason it may not appear that way is because the concerns that make each of them anxious are different, and because each of them expresses anxiety in ways that are in contrast from each other.
A threat or an opportunity?
Crises irreversibly change the course of our lives. How we metabolise the anxiety triggered by a crisis determines whether a crisis strengthens us or diminishes us. When it comes to couples, a crisis can pose threats to their interaction or provide them with opportunities to redefine their interaction in positive ways, to learn to give and receive love more freely.
Sometimes, of course, a crisis hits one partner harder than the other – one of them loses a job, or suffers an illness or injury. In the case of far-reaching crises like Covid-19, however, the couple as a whole is affected, and the crisis is characterised more by its emotional impact – stirring feelings such as fear, loneliness, and dread – than by its physical impact (unless, of course, one partner is actually afflicted with Coronavirus).
On the other hand, an all-encompassing event like Covid-19 does tend to mitigate the finger-pointing that often results from a crisis – neither partner is likely to blame the other for the adversity that is assailing them.
Same crisis, different coping mechanisms
When I see couples who are buckling or breaking under the strain of a crisis, it is usually because they are not recognising their level of anxiety, and the impact it is exerting on their partner. A common reaction is for one partner to criticise or pathologise the other partner’s anxious behaviour, which tends to drive them apart rather than bring them together. This in turn makes each of them more anxious.
For example, one spouse might respond to the pandemic by becoming extremely attentive to disease prevention, which could feel like an overreaction to the other spouse:
“She’s driving me crazy with her constant spraying and cleaning the house. If money stays this tight, we may not even be able to afford to have a house much longer!”
Meanwhile, he is, in turn, driving her crazy by obsessing about the state of their family finances while the global economy enters a deep Recession:
“What a fool, staying up all night worrying about our retirement account and playing with numbers when we may not even be alive for our retirement!”
The therapist’s responsibility in these kinds of situations is to increase partners’ empathy for each other, and for the mechanisms that each instinctively resorts to in an effort to process their anxious feelings: “You are each struggling in legitimate but different ways to deal with the same overall problem, but remember that the facet that each of you is singularly focused on is of great importance to both of you.”
Other ways in which the therapist can be helpful in these situations can be as follows:
- Reminding each partner that there may be no ideal solutions to the problems on hand, and relieving them of the expectation that their partner should be able to instantly ‘make everything better’.
- Helping them to more objectively assess the level of threat that exists when it comes to the issue that is making each of them anxious.
- Preventing either of them from staking out a moral or emotional ‘high ground’ (such as playing the role of ‘saint’ or ‘martyr’, or acting unperturbed by the crisis).
- Assisting each of them in recognising, and revealing, the feelings of vulnerability that each of them is experiencing, albeit in divergent ways.
- Discovering (or re-discovering) pockets of pleasurable togetherness that keep them from feeling engulfed by anxiety.
This stabilising approach to regulating anxiety not only helps couples survive a crisis, but also lays the groundwork for a more resilient and responsive relational life after the crisis, and in preparation for the next one.