How to not hate your household in the pandemic
Posted December 2, 2020 5:02 a.m. EST
CNN — Tensions in my household have skyrocketed since we've been home together going on nine months.
Tiny, mundane scenarios that would be no big deal in a pre-Covid world, like putting the milk back in a different spot in the fridge, is enough to start a spat between my wife and me.
The kid asking me for the 18th time to turn on the TV grates on my every last nerve and causes me to lose my patience in a way I never would have before.
Don't get me wrong -- I am incredibly grateful to get to see so much of my precious family. I'm even more grateful for the privilege to get to work from home and limit my exposure to Covid-19. But I also feel the tug and strain of the outside world weighing on our patience, and just the reality of being in small quarters with the same people all the time.
As winter draws near and the possibility of being stuck indoors -- more than spring, summer and fall -- looms, this can only get worse. How can we prepare to stay sane and get along?
"Covid-19 has put a strain on relationships, especially people who are in family, partner or roommate situations who aren't used to being indoors this much together," said Damon L. Jacobs, a New York-based licensed marriage and family therapist. "With winter coming and Covid rates surging, I advise people to implement some social survivor tips now."
Too much togetherness
Many of us went from feeling like we never had enough time to see our families because of long days in the office and commuting and errands and activities, to being on top of each other 24/7 and feeling like we see each other too much.
Despite how much we love each other and appreciate one another's company, it's possible that we are spending too much time with our housemates. Being in one another's company all the time has, at times, brought us to peak irritation with our cohabitants.
Jacobs' advice is let go of needing to be right and pick your battles; communicate your feelings using "I" statements rather than assuming you know how the other person is feeling; and take responsibility for your own feelings rather than blaming others.
Replacing "should" with "could" when thinking about how others in your household might act or react to something, Jacobs said, can help avoid setting yourself up for conflict.
Take a breather
It could also be time to take a time-out. When we're not negotiating our emotions and expectations with our household members, we might work on plotting out our escapes.
"We all need to get away from each other from time to time. To keep your sanity, reduce tensions and revive yourself, it's probably time to shore up your boundaries or put some in place in order to have some much-needed space between you and your family or roommates," said Susan Newman, a New York-area based social psychologist and author.
The saying "absence makes the heart grow fonder" isn't just a cliché. Time spent away from your loved ones can actually bring you closer, as documented in a 2016 Cornell University study.
I've found that tiny acts of separation can help, like closing my office door all the way rather than leaving it cracked open while I am working so I can't hear my family. Noise-canceling headphones with a nostalgic playlist transport me to another time and place. And if I feel like I just need a few minutes to myself after a 48-hour stretch of all family, all the time, I will excuse myself to go rearrange my clothing drawers or read the paper.
In those instances, I generally have roughly four minutes in solitude before my toddler busts in demanding my attention again, but even that short time alone helps me to regroup and find my center and my calm.
"Sometimes, the only way to get away is to leave the house. Designate a time to walk or jog and let family members know you will be gone. In bad weather, take yourself to a different part of the house if you have the room, but don't give in to requests during that time you carved out for yourself," Newman said.
Still, even while I may find myself yearning for that solitary commute that I always dreaded or feel my blood pressure rising as my family members talk over one another while I'm trying to watch my favorite show, I still choose them every time, tension and all.
It turns out, I'm not alone. Couples who spend time together are happier, according to a 2016 University of Minnesota study that followed thousands of couples over a period of seven years.
I don't know what factors winter will throw our way -- rising Covid-19 rates, political unrest. Hey, I got a tornado warning the other day -- maybe a unicorn stampede is forthcoming.
Whatever happens, I will be grateful to be facing it with my family, however much we might annoy one another, with the occasional break to tidy up my sock drawer or take out the trash.