What began as a fight over laundry escalated quickly to a screaming match. Michael and Tony have been quarantined together since Amazon sent them to work from home in early March, and challenges have been building in their relationship. In our video session, Tony describes yesterday’s massive fight, and as I help them unpack it, the pattern emerges.
Each of them avoids sharing small frustrations and hurts in their attempts to keep the peace in quarantine, and that has led to trouble. As days turned into weeks, tiptoeing around the small stuff created bigger injuries. Now, in the crucible of quarantine, these hurts are flung about as accusations and hyperbole. “You never help me around the house!” “It’s always all about you!”
This struggle is all too common for couples, but why?
Many couples are living this dynamic. The desire for harmony in the chaos of the pandemic has exposed a common and harmful habit: holding back honesty—which builds resentment—instead of sharing problems as they pop up—which builds strength and trust. This is what I hear:
“I don’t want to say anything, because we are so cooped up!”
“She has so much going on, I don’t want to add to it.”
“We are having a good day and I don’t want to ruin it.”
Tiptoeing around each other is having a renaissance in quarantine, but I’ve seen it long before COVID-19 forced everyone into such close quarters. Couples pretend they’re okay to avoid conflict, and there’s a million reasons why. Yet tiptoeing around benign irritation builds to avoidance of bigger discussions. Couples grow increasingly disconnected as they pretend everything is fine and miss opportunities for authentic connection. Our brains do not forget the little hurts, and these spill out later in larger fights.
As time in quarantine has moved from weeks to months, and working from home becomes the new normal, the need for healthy long-term habits is ever more important. We all want harmony right now, but harmony should be authentic and not compromise long-term health and connection. This is a critical time in our relationships and becoming more direct can be learned with some easy steps.
The Path to Honest Connection
Sharing negative feedback with a partner is a critical part of building resilience and connection in a secure functioning relationship. We all have fears about doing this the right way, so first think of your own preferences and those of your partner. Taking an honest look at how you give and receive feedback is the important first step:
Do you want your partner’s honest opinion, or is having their unwavering support more important?
Do you want to know that you’ve hurt your partner, even if their upset requires soothing?
How kindly do you share and receive negative feedback?
Michael and Tony were both able to see that while they thought they wanted honesty, they have both been discouraging it in different ways. When given feedback, Michael asks for reassurance insistently, making it hard for Tony to share when he isn’t happy. Tony goes to anger quickly and his loud voice discourages Michael from sharing. They both have avoided these negative interactions and acknowledge making it difficult for each other to be honest.
Most of us struggle with sharing and receiving feedback. But learning to give and take with care builds intimacy as each of you learns what is real. It builds strength as you learn that your relationship has the capacity to work through differences. Learning how to make it safe for your partner to be honest with you creates a stronger relationship and resolves conflict with less effort.
Deliberate practice to help
Developing a system to support each other will help couples build better habits. Starting with small truths, and practicing give and take will increase your confidence with this process. Making a game and practicing with things you already know about can help iron out the word choice and process. Once a couple learns to give and take safely, it becomes easier and healthier than tiptoeing around conflict, and it’ll help you head off the big fights.
Daily Tiptoe Check-ins
Michael and Tony created a process to work on this at home. They implemented time to “clear the air” with each other every day. Each morning, they checked to ask what they could do to support each other that day. They developed chosen words for how to give and take this feedback based on each other’s preferences.
Michael likes a little sugar with the negative feedback, and he wants to feel appreciated. Tony is a little anxious, wants to get the negative stuff over with, and know how to fix whatever went wrong. Based on these needs, they each know how to give negative feedback so that it lands well. They practiced with me and learned to watch each other closely to notice if the other was pretending to be ok.
Watch for Cues
Watching your partner for physical tells about the authenticity of their reaction is key. While our words can be dishonest, our facial reactions will never lie. Noticing whether your partner’s smile is genuine—all the way to their eyes—will tell you if they actually like something or are worried about upsetting you. Their face flushing tells you if they are becoming upset, even if they deny it. If you see signs of upset, reassure your partner that you want them to tell you the truth, even if you may not like it. Doing so creates a foundation that says you care deeply about your partner and want to know what they think and feel.
A five-minute conversation provides clarity, gives guidance, and starts the day on a positive note for Michael and Tony. At the end of the day they do it again and ask each other how they did. This simple, short routine of give and take helps them practice being honest and forces them to clear the air. While they were initially hesitant to do this much checking in, they found it created so much ease around the house they looked forward to it.
Radical Honesty Challenge
Building on this, Michael and Tony added what I call the “radical honesty challenge.” Once a week, they each share something difficult and are only allowed to say “thank you” in response until both have had time to think on it. The process rewards sharing and avoids the bite of a painful immediate reply, which could escalate into a fight. Starting with small irritations like, “I hate how you load the dishwasher,” they worked up to more challenging feelings like, “It hurts my feelings that you don’t ask me about my work.” This practice cleared out many of their long-held struggles, and they both learned that their fear of these conversations was greater than the thing itself.
Now, Michael and Tony laugh through disagreements, and they’re able to anticipate and avoid the small hurts that have started many struggles. They seek each other out and enjoy more of their time together since they aren’t avoiding conflict and are better at clearing out the small stuff.
Being In This Together:
We’re all doing our best to get by right now, and the collective stress and trauma of the pandemic is wearing on everyone. It’s only natural to try to shield your partner from further stress, but the long term benefit of learning to talk honestly about the struggles you face is much greater than the comfort of the temporary avoidance. Honesty creates both the closeness and the resilience couples seek and need to get through these stressful times and build the relationship which lasts through any challenge.
CAROLYN SHARP | Secure Connections Retreats
Carolyn Sharp is a Seattle-based relationship therapist who is on a mission to create a better world by helping couples build stronger relationships. Carolyn's work is based on Psychobiological Approach to Couple Therapy (PACT), developed by Dr. Stan Tatkin.