Q. Questioning and Questionnaire: Mostly, couples assume they know each other well. Intimacy is based on this, and it offers security and predictability. But assumptions can become out-of-date as circumstances change and as we grow older; some of our views and values may in fact diverge from our partner’s. It can be a shock to discover this – even humiliating, eg “But I always thought you liked X…[as h/she unwraps expensive gift X]…” or “So for how many years have you resented coming with me to visit my cousin?” Finding out new things can also, of course, bring novelty into the relationship.
How well DO we know each other when it comes to little things and more serious things? It takes courage to question our own and others’ beliefs about ourselves, and also to answer honestly, so if at the moment your relationship is fragile, then now is not the time. If however you are finding that these abnormal times make it more possible to challenge what you think you know, you may want to try this ‘questionnaire’ with your partner
Take turns to ask each other each question – and/or make up your own:
-On our first date, what did we talk about? Did we agree on everything?
-If I was to have a holiday on my own, where do you think I would go, and what would I do? What, if anything, might frighten me about it?
-Of all your criticisms of me: which do you think I regard as most unfair?
You get the idea; ‘circular questioning’ is about “What do you think I think about…?”) It can be as serious as you like (a ‘Repair’ exercise), or fun (a ‘Maintenance’ exercise)!
R. Rhythms and rituals/routines and schedules: Rhythms (night and day, the seasons, phases of the moon) are one of the most natural things in the universe – literally. Throughout history, in most cultures, they have guided our lives, as have rituals, which are usually associated with growth, death, celebration and continuity. These are no longer at the heart of our lives. Modern urban society has created routines and schedules instead to provide structure. When these markers of time (natural and artificial) disappear or change radically, as in world-wide ‘lockdown’, we become unsettled. In addition, we have little clarity about what our future will look like, and what changes will occur when, so this also disrupts our experience of time. We are all having to re-calibrate.
We can and do adjust: as couples, it’s important to pay attention to how we structure our time so we can create rhythms and possibly rituals that help us to feel more secure. Simple rituals could be a regular time daily for a walk together, or candle-lit meals on Saturday nights. Whether or not you’re working at home, if you have been very reliant on routines in the past, check whether you have created useful new ones? If you haven’t bothered to have many routines previously, do you perhaps need to discuss with your partner whether to introduce some now? And most importantly, can you ensure that your daily and weekly rhythms allow a good balance of time for being together and time for being apart?
S. Self-care: It has been pointed out to me by a reader (thank you!) that many couples are not able to have the kind of discussions that I often recommend in these Notes. Maybe it’s too unfamiliar, frightening, or that conversations touching on emotions will trigger feelings that are difficult to cope with. This section is about what you can do when you are not working on ‘repair’ or ‘maintenance’ as a couple, and may need to be looking after yourself emotionally ‘in your own space’ instead.
‘Self-care’ covers a wide range of approaches and activities. It could for example include spiritual and religious comfort, counselling, therapy, printed or online self-help resources, confiding in a friend, writing stuff down, hobbies, yoga, exercise, or punching a pillow….. So (at the risk of over-simplifying), instead of making a list of suggestions I will list 6 points to think about when you consider the ways that you can help yourself:
- Choose the self-care approach that suits you – don’t be seduced by what is trending or what others insist is right for you. Try out ideas that suit your unique preferences, circumstances and resources, and find out what works for you.
- There may be barriers to “allowing” yourself self-care, and resentment that you’re not being cared for by someone else. You might feel undeserving, overwhelmed, confused. You could try scribbling some thoughts and feelings on paper, or doing some quick vigorous exercise to get your heart-rate up, to avoid ‘over-thinking’. If you’re female, phone and chat to a friend (- isn’t this, after all, what you would want your best friend to do?). Many men find this uncomfortable, but I hope they might try….
- Indulging in short-term comfort activities (snacking, drinking, tv binges) have their place, but of course may have downsides too, including possible guilt and reducing your self-esteem. If you can, try delaying your indulgence – even for 10 minutes or so, as this has the benefit of adding the pleasure of anticipation!
- Be separate: it is vital for all of us to have time to ourselves, as would naturally happen when we’re not in ‘lockdown’. If possible, create opportunities when you are physically apart, able to focus on your own thoughts, feelings and activities. Try setting this up with your partner, as it will benefit both of you, and make it part of your daily routine.
- Distractions and ‘act as if’: day-to-day self-care may happen simply by going out to the shop and saying hello to someone, or reading/watching something uplifting or funny. Try ‘forcing’ a smile or wearing smart clothes or other external symbols of a good mood. Remind yourself that feelings come and go – say over and over ‘this too will pass…’
- If you have for a long time struggled with low mood and find it ongoingly difficult to attend to your emotional needs, or your relationship is stuck or getting worse, think seriously about getting professional help.