Marriage Conflict Escalates in Times of Corona Virus Lock Down

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Marriage conflict exists in the best of times, but during the enforced ‘stay at home’ orders, couples are thrown into a place of uncertainty that neither can control, nor reassure one and other about. The threat of getting sick, passing it on to family if you go out shopping or taking the dog for a walk is massive – putting partners into  helpless and powerless roles. Marriage conflict escalates as a distraction from the helplessness over the health scare, AND as a way of feeling strong and purposeful.

Marriage conflict during the lock down keeps partners fighting a known enemy rather than an invisible, unknown and untouchable one like the corona virus. All the past wounds open up; resentment and anger build up, where both parties are itching for a fight – and the foe is a captive in the house.

Marriage Conflict Escalates When Work Travel Falls Through

Ariana a 43-year-old professor of biology was scheduled to take up a resident fellowship in the University in Milan for six months when travel bans came into effect. Her post had been put on hold and she was now stuck at home with 45-year-old Ross, a musician with a band about to go on tour. The festivals and gigs he and his band were looking forward to playing were all cancelled, and he too was entombed at home with Ariana.

At first it was nice to spend unhurried time together, go for walks and enjoy long meal times. But within a few days, marital conflict escalated from minor spats to full scale war, where Ross felt he had to stay vigilant against Ariana who was after him to be tidy and do chores – using his procrastination as a way of making him feel small, a slob, unworthy to be her husband. Ross got into the marital conflict by trying to defend himself, failing, and then giving up.

He reckoned that Ariana was upset that her Italy job fell through and he was the butt of her anger. But he was mad that Ariana didn’t see that he was also disappointed about losing his tour – she didn’t see him as human as herself with feelings, but rather as a circus animal to be whipped into shape – in order to restore her sense of control that was taken from her by the corona virus.

Ross’s attempts at making excuses for his wife didn’t dampen his rage when he escalated marital conflict, drinking to loosen his tongue and flogging her with his deep hurt about never being accepted for who he was and respecting him accordingly. The fear in her eyes would scare him, but it made him feel momentarily powerful – he wasn’t the lion in the circus ring when he was the aggressor in the marital conflict – he became the whip cracker with the power to maim and draw blood.

Marital conflict escalated and fired them up to throw everything at each other without fear of loss or consequence, because now there was a greater enemy out there – corona virus. The usual fears that Ross had of Ariana leaving him were gone – he knew she couldn’t go anywhere and that she needed him as a punching bag. Ariana’s fears that she might never make Ross into the person she envisaged ramped up, but at least she had someone that absorbed her protest about not being able to mold someone to her ideal. Ross put up with it, unlike her father whom she could never please nor rail against. Marital conflict escalated for this couple – but they discovered that they needed each other to still be left standing when all the rage of helplessness, exacerbated by the lock down during the pandemic spewed out.

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Marital Conflict Escalates When Partners Don’t Agree on Parenting Infants

Glenn, a 40-year-old script writer had always dreamed of the perfect family. He couldn’t understand why there was so much sustained marital conflict after achieving that dream. He had the perfect job, the home he wanted, a wife and two lively infants. Pryanka, his 42-year-old wife accused him of not helping out with the kids at night, while he insisted he did more than his fair share. Cooped up at home during the lock down during the pandemic, both were assaulted by screaming, demanding, insatiable young children who left them drained and wanting to be rescued. Glenn was terrified of bringing the virus home to his family when he went out to get groceries; Pryanka was anxious about the kids touching things that may be contaminated when they went out to the park. These fears were reasonable but beyond their control.

However Pryanka could feel powerful and in control when she bossed her husband about as if he were the epitome of her own lazy father; and Glenn could stand up and defy her as she became the stand in for his moody, needy mom who used him as her soothing toy when he was little. Marital conflict became the arena for unfinished business to be rehashed and sorted out. Marital conflict was the ideal foil for each of their longings (hers to be wrapped in cotton wool as her mother had done to her; his to be acknowledged as having a right to his own mind and needs) to be let out and fought over. Marital conflict escalated because Pryanka and Glenn were not experiencing each other as partners, let alone as separate adults who had to co-parent. Instead they retreated to their childlike parts, locked in a battle to get their young wishes validated and met.

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Marital Conflict Escalates When Outside Threats Force Them to Deal with Their Underlying Issues

Marital conflict ebbs and flows in all couples. But because there are so many things vying for attention and action, it’s rare that the conflict escalates to a place where issues are faced, planned for and executed. An external threat such as an affair, a death or a pandemic forces the partners to stop papering over the cracks. The fissures show up and don’t go away. The crisis out there in the world insinuates its way into the home and becomes a major threat to the foundation of the marriage that was rocky in the first place.

Marital Conflict during a Pandemic Offers a Chance to Become Real Partners

Marital conflict during a pandemic offers an opportunity to hunker down and engage with the wounds, lost hope, longings, rage and disappointments. There is no excuse that would prevent the communication when both parties are motivated enough to begin the process of identifying, acknowledging and taking responsibility for their relationship. Instead of being helpless, anxious and powerless against the virus, couples can view martial conflict escalating as a nudge to get noxious bumps out the relationship, and come together, feeling mutually supported in the face of the pandemic.

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Marital Conflicts Escalates and pushes the couple apart

Ross and Ariana tried to manage their escalating marital conflict by avoiding each other, going to bed at different times and not talking about anything except their dog. Their conflict burned and seethed, blew up and cooled down but was never addressed, because both were too afraid that they would realize they weren’t meant for each other. So their focus stayed on the virus outside and their scuppered plans for work. Life for them was like prison. Despite Ross having a supportive therapist who gave him space to be himself without judgment , he choose to keep things smoldering because he was so insecure. He feared that addressing the issues around the marital conflict would end up with him being alone and abandoned.

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Marital Conflicts Escalates and pulls the couple together

Glenn and Pryanka on the other hand chose to come together and own their wounded parts that failed to see one another as they really were. After the first two weeks of lock down when the couple’s conflict was at its peak, each was fighting for supremacy, determined to get the other to surrender. The stress of not being able to escape due to the ‘stay-at-home’ directive took its toll. They couldn’t plan a way out, and had no way to access previous successful ways of de-escalation because of their past histories – Pryanka having few conflicts in her family of origin; while Glenn had constant escalating unresolved and destructive conflicts.

A study reported in Current Biology, April 2020 found that stress prevented access to the memories of past successfully encountered conflicts. So it’s not easy to bring down the guard and see each other’s expectations, hurts and vulnerabilities. Fortunately Glenn had a long standing therapeutic relationship which helped illuminate, and facilitate expression for both parties. This couple felt less alone, less afraid of breaking up and more connected as co-parents. They could now face the corona virus as a solid team and thrive when it was all over.

Copyright, Jeanette Raymond, Ph.D. 2020


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