This year has been unprecedented in so many ways. For me, not being old enough to have lived through the Spanish flu, this is my very first pandemic experience. About a year ago, when I first heard of Covid-19, I, like most of us, thought that we would hunker down for a month or two and quickly get back to normal.
I felt that my husband and I could do anything for a short time. I thought we were courageous and resilient when the first Shelter at Home orders came down from our governor. We would stay home to do our part, wash our hands and not hoard toilet paper!
Obviously, that was wishful thinking because we are still threatened by this deadly virus many months later. In addition to watching my marriage go through the stages of letting go of life as we knew it, in my work as a Marriage Therapist, I have met with many couples on Zoom since last April. I started wondering why some of them have been negatively impacted by changes in their lives while others have found a way to thrive.
In many ways, these past months of 2020 have paralleled Elisabeth Kübler-Ross' stages of grief. Those of you not familiar with her work posits that people suffering loss go through five distinct stages of grieving: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance.
Clearly, there was denial at the beginning. This is illustrated by the way that none of us (except maybe the most knowledgeable epidemiologists) thought that we'd still be here watching as the death toll climbs a year later.
We have reached over 495,000 Americans who have died from this virus, and the nation grieves. People thought they could storm Costco and buy enough toilet paper and supplies to get them through the Pandemic length. We were told that it was just the flu and that it was mild.
As for anger, we have just lived through a banner year. People have raged against State and Local governments whose policies have dictated mask-wearing and shut down businesses in some places. At times, we have also raged against the Federal government for not having done enough to protect us. For couples, impatience and frustration have increased as we struggle to live together without many of our usual distractions or freedoms. Simply put, some couples are exhausted from spending time together 24/7.
A few couples that I see in therapy have opted to sleep in separate bedrooms during these past few months, if only to create a little bit of distance and alone time. It seems that the Pandemic, with its inherent restrictions, has caused some people to have more anxiety and irritability. Large numbers of us are overwhelmed—working from home, monitoring video schooling for children, worrying about our aging parents, our health, and what's safe or not according to the current information available. Many have lost their jobs or are suffering from reduced income and increased uncertainty. Spouses are the natural place to take out our negative emotions.
While trying to process these various losses, we have at times entered the bargaining phase of grief. It's characterized by our attempts to squeeze one more drop of normal out of our circumstances.
"What if we only have six people over tonight?"
"What if we eat indoors but only take our masks off when we're eating?"
"What if I hang out with these young friends? They can't get it, can they?"
And so it goes. The bargaining phase is the last stand as we resist acceptance.
As our bargains fail to restore normalcy, the emotional surrender that follows may appear similar to depression. According to the CDC, symptoms of both Anxiety Disorder and Depressive Disorder increased considerably in the United States during April–June of 2020, compared with the same period in 2019. Suicide and suicidal thoughts, especially among young people, have also shown increases since the Pandemic began.
The answer to whether or not we, and our marriages, will return to normal after the Pandemic is influenced by our ability to get to the final stage, acceptance.
It's not so much about saying, "it's okay that we're experiencing the largest public health crisis in modern history," but rather, "we're experiencing the largest public health crisis in modern history, and we're okay."
Some couples came to acceptance very early in the process. They rearranged their houses, installed good internet, implemented game night, baked bread, and bought seeds for the garden. Others have had less privilege and have genuinely suffered through health and financial challenges.
For those of us with mild loss, our ability to get back to normal requires an acceptance that there is a new normal. Some businesses are gone, offices are closed, and your spouse might be working from home from now on. Perhaps the way we function is forever changed, as in the ways that we socialize, travel, and educate our children.
I believe we have an opportunity to take some of the lessons of the past year to create even better marriages than before. I like that people are spending more time together as families and thinking of new ways to make the time count. Couples have had to learn and practice better communication while locked down just to get through the ever-changing circumstances of this Pandemic. In accepting the new normal parameters, we can find the past year's silver-lining and thrive.
Will Your Relationship Get Back to Normal?
Instead of getting back to normal, is the key to a conscious creation merely accepting your new normal?
If you, or anyone you know, need help navigating your relationship, please reach out. If you're struggling with the COVID-19 pandemic, or in general, we are here to help. Check out our Imago Relationship Workshops and Relationship Therapy. We also have Online Couples Therapy and Online Couples Workshops right now!
This blog was written by Mary Kay Cocharo, LMFT.
I am a licensed Marriage and Family Therapist in private practice in West Los Angeles, California. I have 30 years of experience working with individuals, couples, and families. I have two advanced certifications in working with couples: Imago Relationship Therapy and Encounter-centered Couples Therapy.
I work with spouses and parents to deepen communication, resolve conflict and rediscover the joy of being together. In addition to private sessions in my Los Angeles office, I am also passionate about leading workshops for Engaged Couples. With years of experience in premarital counseling, I am happy to offer an Imago based workshop entitled, Start Right, Stay Connected. I also facilitate a Weekend Couples Retreat, Over the Bridge, for couples wanting profound transformation. For couples who desire deep, intensive, quick resolution in a private setting, I also offer one and two-day Private Intensives.
I have also been active throughout my career in educating and training students and interns to become practicing therapists. I have taught and supervised at various universities and training sites around Los Angeles. Prior to coming to California, I served as a team therapist and supervisor at Houston Child Guidance Center working with children and troubled adolescents. I have given numerous workshops and presentations, taught graduate courses, and supervised many interns on their way to becoming licensed.
I am an active member of the California Association for Marriage and Family Therapists, Los Angeles Association for Marriage and Family Therapists, IMAGO Relationship Institute, and the Southern California IMAGO Institute. I am a Master Encounter-centered Couples Therapist. I am active in various spiritual settings and community endeavors. I love my profession and truly enjoy helping others to heal, grow, develop a heightened state of well-being and create more love and peace in their lives.
Several years ago, I co-founded The Conversation Group, an organization of like-minded licensed and pre-licensed therapists. We work with you in a very safe and collaborative way to create conversations that open up paths to clarity, insight, and healing which can motivate movement toward the life you desire. Join our Facebook page for daily meditations and healing quotations.