Online Therapy with Couples 3/5: Distribution of Labour
Couples working from home during the Covid-19 crisis have a unique chance to witness the pressures each partner experiences in daily domestic and vocational life. How can couples therapists maximise these opportunities? In the third part of his blog series, psychologist and author Brad E. Sachs explores the concept of relational justice, and suggests ways in which partners in lockdown can be helped to pay closer attention to each other.
This post will focus on enabling couples to effectively address one of the most common conflicts arising when two people forge a live-in partnership with each other, a conflict that is inescapably exacerbated when they are following stay-at-home orders: distribution of labour.
All individuals within relationships have responsibilities, and carry an internal sense of relational justice that depends on the perception of how fairly or unfairly those responsibilities are handled. When we encounter unfairness, certain emotions are likely to emerge. I often start with a very simple paradigm that frames this dynamic for couples, particularly when one or both are complaining of an imbalance in accountability:
- When a partner feels like s/he is giving more than s/he is getting, s/he will feel resentful.
- When a partner feels like s/he is getting more than s/he is giving, s/he will feel guilty.
Of course, there are two realities that make this parsimonious paradigm quite complicated:
- Partners are not always in agreement with each other when it comes to whether or not there is an imbalance, or when it comes to defining where a perceived imbalance lies.
- Partners are not always aware of their emotions and, even when they are, they often manage their emotions in quite different ways, such that they wind up feeling more polarised than understood.
Developing panoramic awareness
One of the most interesting aspects of the Covid-19 based requirement that couples work from home, in my estimation, is that it heightens their reciprocal respect for the responsibilities that each of them have been shouldering – but often invisibly. Here are some of the comments that I have recently heard:
“Now I understand why my wife is always in such a bad mood when our son refuses his nap.”
“I knew that my wife’s law partner was a jerk, but until I could actually hear him on the speaker-phone with her, I didn’t realise exactly how much of a jerk.”
“My husband would come home from work wound tight as a spring, and I just didn’t get it. But now he’s working from home and I can see the dozens of complaints he has to deal with every day from his clients, I can understand why he isn’t particularly cheerful when he walks in the door.”
Love may be most concretely expressed by the simple act of paying attention. Therapists treating couples can build on the more panoramic awareness that partners are now privy to by attempting to augment their understanding of each other, and their appreciation for each other – in other words, helping them to pay closer attention to each other.
Here are some questions to consider asking couples that might promote that process:
- Since stay-at-home orders were implemented, what have you learned about the responsibilities your partner manages?
- Knowing your partner, what is the most constructive way for you to share your belief when you sense an unequal distribution of responsibility?
- What feelings arise when you believe there is an unequal distribution of responsibility, and, knowing your partner, what is the most constructive way for you to express those feelings?
- Based on what you have seen since you both have been home, what specific and sustainable behavioral change could you make that would result in a more equitable distribution of responsibility in your partnership?
- In what ways, and how often, do you express your appreciation for what your partner does?
Every relationship depends upon an allocation of responsibilities, one that bends and shifts in response to forces that exist within and outside of the relationship. Exploring the impact of the pandemic-based force on that allocation doesn’t just help couples to develop a more fair and functional parity while getting through the challenge of a quarantine. It also gives them a chance to deepen their gratitude for each other, which will empower them to more collaboratively tackle whatever new challenges await them on the other side of it.