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Coronavirus and relationships

Dr Kate Cross, from the School of Psychology & Neuroscience, writes about the coronavirus lockdown and its impact on relationships for The Courier.

Dr Cross is a lecturer in comparative and evolutionary psychology. Her research focuses on sex differences in human social behaviour, with a particular focus on risky behaviour and aggression.

The article originally appeared in The Courier, 31 March 2020.

Woman, man and child cooking in a kitchen

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It’s one thing bickering over the TV remote or arguing over which takeaway to have but being forced to spend time with partners and children all day, every day for the foreseeable future is another matter altogether.

Dr Kate Cross from the School of Psychology at the University of St Andrews, explained some of the ways lockdown causes traumatic friction.

“The first reason is that lockdown is stressful – for everyone. Conflict in families tends to be more frequent under stressful situations,” she said.

“Secondly, we don’t have our usual means of ‘escape’ during lockdown: many of us will ‘de-escalate’ conflict situations by physically leaving the space, perhaps to talk it over with someone else,” she continued.

“While it’s still possible to talk things over with our friends while in lockdown, it might be harder to put physical space between ourselves and the person we’re having conflict with in order to calm down.”

Dr Cross believes lockdown will probably aggravate a lot of the common causes of family conflict. “Everyone is spending more time in the house, which means more housework to do and more scope for conflict over who is doing a fair share. If this sounds like a trivial matter to you, please consider carefully whether you’re doing your fair share of the housework!

“Because we’ve all had a major disruption to our routines, the agreements families have in place about how they spend their time have been disrupted too. This means lots of agreements – for example, which child gets the computer when, who has the kids on Thursdays, who cooks on weekdays – might need to be re-negotiated,” she suggested.

“It’s also very important to note that the coronavirus crisis has caused money worries for a lot of households: money is a frequent subject of family conflict and financial stress will make this worse.”

Dr Cross added: “Lockdown creates a lot of scope for conflict, but not all conflicts are unhealthy. They can be productive if both – or all – parties can understand each other: they tend to escalate when mutual understanding isn’t there.

“If conflict arises in an otherwise healthy relationship – and it will, eventually – it’s vital to communicate clearly: say what you need/want and why, and listen to the other person too.”

“Understanding will also help to prevent conflict. You might not need to go running every day to be content, but if your partner does need to than it’s important to understand that,” she continued.

“You might not share your teenager’s enthusiasm for computer games, but it’s important to understand if gaming is a source of community for them, and give them space to pursue it.”

“Social support from outwith the family is hugely important for wellbeing. The most important thing might not be how much time we spend at home – whether that’s with family or alone – but how well we maintain our social connections outside the home.”

In Scotland single parent households make up 29% of families and this unprecedented phase is an especially stressful and alarming time for many of them.

Satwat Rehman, director of One Parent Families Scotland (OPFS), said: “OPFS is being inundated with queries from single parents concerned and anxious about their children if they become ill, feeling further isolated as a result of the necessary measures being put in place to slow the spread of the virus, their employment, money, benefits, feeding their children, being able to get out to the shops etc.

“More than half of single parent families are living in poverty and this has a devastating impact on the lives and prospects of so many children.

“We need to ensure that authorities are considering the needs of single parents in their planning and prioritisation of services and to ensure our benefits system anchors us all from the rising tide of poverty.”

The coronavirus pandemic is also taking a troubling toll on children – Childline has experienced an unprecedented demand for its services.

Over half of young people who spoke to Childline last week about coronavirus were counselled for their mental and emotional health as they struggled to cope with issues like isolation, arguments at home and the removal of professional support from schools and the NHS.

Other issues raised have included school work and family relationships, as children sense the seriousness of the situation through their parent’s reactions.

One girl said to Childline: “My mum is being very distant with me and I am usually very close to her, it’s really upsetting me. My mum and I have a good relationship but she’s really obsessed with the news and she won’t hug me or get very close to me. It scares me to think this will go on for months. She constantly talks about the coronavirus and my anxiety is getting worse.”

The current lockdown is hard enough but having to worry about the safety of your partner or other family member is an additional stress.

Gayle Ritchie, a features writer on The Courier, is facing the possibility of months apart from her partner, as well as having to keep her distance from her mother, who has health issues.

Gayle explained: “I live in a cottage in the middle of the Angus countryside. Most of the time, it’s just me and the dog because my partner Robert works away from home.

“Since January, he’s been working on a long-term contract to drill geothermal boreholes in homes across Holland. His pattern is to work away for two weeks then come home, either for a week or just a weekend.

“Now, with the coronavirus pandemic escalating, things are up in the air.

“The drill rigs are still running and the work is in full swing, and because he is self-employed, he has wanted, understandably, to continue to work and earn.

“Robert flew back home on Sunday, although with flights being cancelled left, right and centre, it seemed incredible that he was allowed to do so at this stage of the game.”

But Gayle and Robert didn’t run to greet each other with open arms when he arrived at Edinburgh Airport.

“Harsh as it may sound, we have decided to stay away from each other for at least a fortnight – to keep each other, and others, safe,” said Gayle.

“I have been living at my mum’s for eight days and, prior to that, I hadn’t been in contact with any other human beings for nine days.

“My mum has a weakened immune system and I’m not going to put her at risk so we’ve lived in different parts of the house, used different bathrooms and have washed our hands about 100 times a day.

“I’m here to help her – that’s the priority – so my partner and I will just have to hang on a little bit longer until we are reunited.

“I can live with that because it’s the safest thing to do.

“Meantime, we’ll just have to make do with phone calls and Facebook messages. It’s tough but it’s the right thing to do.

“It’s just as well the dog is good at giving hugs.”

Top tips from PR company cherrydigital.co:

  • If you find yourselves having to work in close quarters, you can each use a pair of headphones to zone out and forget your significant other is in the room. This will allow you both to get through your to-do lists and organise your thoughts without having the other person distract you.
  • Learn a new hobby together. Now is the perfect time to maximise bonding through activities such as cooking (buy your ingredients online to minimise contact) or learn a new language.
  • Spend at least an hour per day on some sort of exercise routine. There are tons of at-home workout videos available online such as yoga, HIIT, dance routines and pilates.
  • Ease additional stress by keeping your home neat and tidy by splitting up the household chores.

Dr Kate Cross is available for media interviews. All requests should be made via the Press Office in the first instance.

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