The pandemic has challenged even the strongest romantic relationships. In fact, The New York Times reported in September that divorce filings are on the rise. Not only were many of us isolated and disconnected from our friends and co-workers during the height of the pandemic, but we also spent much more time at home with our immediate family. Restrictions have eased somewhat, but, as a therapist, I believe the struggles I see with couples are only beginning.
For many people, spending an intense amount of time with their partner or spouse daily – hour in, hour out – exposed unhealthy behavior and personality issues that were previously overlooked or minimized. As a result, we’re now seeing significant erosion in relationships.
At root: A crisis of identity and self-worth
One of the primary complaints we hear from couples is a loss of independence, identity, and purpose during the last couple of years. People lost the ability to travel, to engage, to be themselves outside of the family. Suddenly, they were no longer executives on the road four days out of seven, but simply parents, dealing with kids who were home from school indefinitely, with no childcare. Couples started to eat each other alive.
People's identities are often tied to their wealth, and so are a lot of relationships, which for many have become transactional. In transactional relationships, one partner might be expected to make a lot of money that funds the family’s affluent lifestyle. The spouse may derive his or her identity and self-worth from that specific role. If that shifts, it may rock the entire foundation of the relationship.
Financial stress makes for a volatile mix. The overall economy has seemingly weathered the pandemic, but some segments have been absolutely decimated. Many people lost businesses that had been in the family for generations, bringing not only financial insecurity but also a sense of guilt: The feeling that this upheaval will disappoint parents and grandparents who entrusted me with their wealth and change our lifestyle and trajectory in the future.
In fact, the whole family may be caught up in the dysfunction. Significant others may have grown accustomed to certain luxuries. Suddenly, they are forced to curb spending. The dream house must be put on the backburner and the private school tuition is in jeopardy.
For many, these lifestyle changes can be absolutely devastating, because their sense of self is tied directly to their bank accounts and possessions. Their perspective is often skewed to the point where they can experience a shift in wealth that may feel like a death. As a result, they may turn to unhealthy coping behaviors, such as substance use, as they grieve their lost lifestyle and identity. By the time they’ve reached out for help, these couples are directing anger towards each other, and their relationship is unraveling.
The added complexity of substance use
Grief and loss have been such a powerful factor during the pandemic. Millions lost businesses or jobs. People lost friends and loved ones and couldn't mourn properly because they were vulnerable as well. As a result of this inability to truly express themselves, people often turned to something that would bring a measure of relief and allow them to remove themselves from their circumstances and their emotions. Unfortunately, that often came in the form of a substance.
Substance use is a symptom. There are always underlying issues that drive the substance use and help perpetuate it. For someone who has experienced a strain on their lifestyle and sense of purpose – and all the unease and angst that go with that – it is easy to turn to alcohol or substances to help sooth themselves. Over time, it becomes progressively worse.
We've also seen a lot of relapses in people who were in a strong place in their recovery until the pandemic because of the isolation, loss of routine and inability to access supportive resources.
The time spent together at home has also sometimes revealed the full extent of someone’s active addiction. I remember a spouse telling me, “I never really saw him use. This was the first time. Before, he would come home after using, but now, to see him sitting for eight or nine hours and drink himself to nothing. There was nothing I could do, and I felt hopeless and scared.”
Relearning the basics during treatment
We never treat an alcohol or substance use disorder in isolation, instead working holistically as well on the underlying issues driving the use. We begin first and foremost by ensuring the person is emotionally and mentally stable.
Effective therapy happens in three phases: It's reflective, it's introspective, and it's projective. It’s important for us to understand our past experiences and how they shaped our world view, self-image, and how we relate to others. We also need to explore and address the current reality that the individual and their partners are experiencing, and we need to strategize and formulate effective and creative ways to address identified challenges.
In couples and family therapy we return to the fundamentals: The ability to identify feelings, needs and desires; to truly communicate their angst and unease; and identify the tools to rebuild or preserve their relationship. In fact, people often need to be reminded about what they have and what's worth salvaging:
My identity is not just my net worth. It's also my children, my wonderful spouse, who has been by my side through thick and thin, and my values of giving back to others and appreciating arts and culture.
For many people who confuse net worth with self-worth, they never learned how to resolve conflicts. They just threw money at their problems. If the spouse was upset, a trip with friends to Turks and Caicos solved the problem.
Right now, they're learning they must sit with someone and work through their conflicts and differences. They can no longer escape. They must revisit the basics within a relationship: How to socialize, how to share space, how to feel and communicate emotions, how to have differences of opinion and support each other in a loving and respectful way.
Out of the ashes
In treatment we teach people that to truly have healthy relationships they must like themselves and treat themselves with compassion and respect. They are much more than their net worth, their social circle or their position in society.
We also know that strong spousal relationships are about being present not only for your partner – but also for your children. We’ve worked with executives, for example, who prior to the pandemic never spent more than a few hours at a time with their kids, leaving most of the parenting to their spouse and caregivers. They’ve since learned there's more to a healthy parent-child relationship than throwing a ball once a week. One patient told me, “I've never really sat with my son long enough to get to know him. This is a silver lining of COVID.”
That patient isn’t alone. The pandemic has offered life lessons for many of us. We’ve discovered we need to rethink the way we've lived. My hope is that people consider the perspective they’ve gained and take the time to work through relationship challenges to cultivate a healthier and more compassionate love moving forward.
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