Going stir crazy indoors? Kids getting on your nerves? Husband not pulling his weight? Wife complaining too much?
The Times of Israel asked Dr Irit Kleiner-Paz, a clinical psychologist and couples therapist from Tel Aviv, for tips on how to get through coronavirus-related quarantine with your family — and your marriage — intact.
Times of Israel: Dr. Kleiner-Paz, what tips do you have for couples with young children who are confined to their homes?
Kleiner-Paz: Being confined at home with small children seems to be the hardest thing. Young children need space, they need to go out.
In my profession, we start with a diagnosis. It’s very important to identify any problems that might arise. Coronvirus catches us all in very specific ways. Before we go out to the supermarket, we review what we need. It’s the same here. Be your own psychologist. Look inside yourself, think about your needs as a mom or dad and think what your children’s needs are. Maybe the house feels too small? Perhaps you have a three-year-old boy who needs action and a 12-year-old girl who needs privacy?
Look at the one-on-one quality time you’re giving, at how much you know about entertaining the kids without TV. It’s not easy for a mom or dad to suddenly become a kindergarten teacher. So go online and read about appropriate games for a three-year-old. The situation demands all of us parents to develop skills we don’t have, particularly if we have a babysitter and come back from work at 7 p.m.
Above all, be honest with yourselves. Understand that you’re used to one kind of life and may be meeting another reality which catches you with your pants down.
If you’ve been used to eating meals out, for example, make the most of being at home and learn how to cook! If the sink gets blocked, go online and learn how to repair it!
You can also take skills from your working life and bring them home. Maybe you know how to manage a business? Organize a meeting with the family!
Try to establish a routine. It helps to calm things down, especially with small children. At kindergarten, there are routines. You can decide, for example, that there will be an hour of learning each day. The smallest child can play with a stimulating game or practice numbers, while the older one does some school work. They’ll protest at first, but if both parents are united and insist, it can help the kids. Introduce something new to the routine each time.
I would recommend that couples have a kind of management meeting once a day. Thinking about what has worked and what not and planning for the following day is important for survival. It’s a bit like the army. During a war, the teams review each day, learn lessons, and plan for the next day.
The critical thing is to be focused and not to attack or criticize the other. Put any anger, disappointment, or unfulfilled expectations to one side. Stop, if possible, or if you can’t, go online for some couples therapy — and do it in the car away from the children! You cannot let your children see you criticizing or humiliating each other. If a wife, for example, feels that her husband is not pulling his weight, now is not the time to dive into it.
There’s a lot of fear and uncertainty surrounding the virus. How should families try to deal with this?
Together with your partner and your older kids, try to look not only at what each one expects or wants during this period, but what fears they have and talk about them. There are fears of poverty and of not having enough money. I hear that many women fear that they’re going to put on weight. Teenagers might worry about being cut off from friends and not finding love. Some people have dystopian fears when they see a police checkpoint outside their window [to ensure people are obeying virus instructions] or when they hear that the security services are monitoring our movements through our phones. Children worry about their parents getting infected. And particular phobias may become more extreme. People who fear germs and illnesses are now in a terrible situation that can paralyze them.
This is also a time to be resourceful, creative and to think outside of the box. But to be creative, you need to be free of anxiety. Loss of control and uncertainty make us anxious. My daughter went online to ask for jigsaw puzzles, for example. These are very soothing and appropriate for these empty days. Ideas come from need and having something concrete to do gives us the feeling that we’re not helpless. We can create, learn, and find solutions for the here and now.
What advice do you have for couples?
How we talk to one another is absolutely critical. What do I feel, what do I need? I think we’re in an economic crisis. I think there is or isn’t anything we can do about it. Don’t attack the other or look for how the other is not behaving OK.
Two of the most problematic areas for couples are money and sex. Both create a lot of stress and we find it very hard to talk about them.
So let’s start with money
The ideal situation is for a couple to communicate daily about money. To say, ‘OK, this month we have an overdraft, let’s try to buy less,’ or, ‘I’m earning less now, how should we adapt?’ But very few couples do this. There’s something very hard about managing the family budget. Maybe the husband earns more than the wife, and she has no idea how much goes into the account, she spends more because she does all the shopping, and then when he sees the bills at the end of the month, he explodes.
With so many families in economic trouble because of the pandemic, this kind of thing is likely to get worse. The man — if he’s the main breadwinner — who keeps everything to himself will feel pressured. He’s lost his job. Does the family expect him to keep providing like before?
Couples not used to talking about money should start, in a very general way. What was the situation up to now, how much did each of us earn, what did we do right or wrong with the money, is there a mortgage or loan? I see couples for whom this kind of discussion is a nightmare, where the wife is used to just depending on the husband and has no idea what’s in the bank. This is one of the things that leads to divorce.
Look at the situation with open eyes and look for the resources — should you take a loan, close a business? Go into it with great care. It brings lots of anxiety to the surface, even fears that one person might leave the other.
Reminisce about how you coped when you were young, when you were students, and lived in a small apartment, eating mainly rice and beans. The plenty we’ve gotten used to now is great, but we can do without it too. You don’t have to have two cars and a villa.
And sometimes you need to involve the children too. Maybe you can no longer buy takeout meals three times a week. It’s important to give the kids the message that life can be enjoyed so long as we’re healthy.
Moving on to sex?
Sex is a very vulnerable subject for many couples. For some, it’s hard to get aroused when there is anxiety. Others need sex to release the stress. One partner might say, ‘we’ve got so much time, let’s have some fun in bed,’ while the other says, ‘how can you think this way at such a time?’ There can be an imbalance.
Again there is no place for blaming the other. Whatever the other wants, or doesn’t want, is fine.
Don’t give up on sex — it’s comforting, relaxing, healing and helps to reduce stress, even if it’s not perfect. Take your time. You don’t need the whole package. Decide how often to have sex, whatever suits you both. If you’re stressed and you have a Viagra prescription, now may be the time to use it!
It’s important to touch, to feel hugged, to feel wanted, to feel together, far beyond the physical needs.
And you don’t need to go by the book! You can just kiss. Or you can try something kinky and experiment! It’s a place to get rid of anger and stress.
We tend to think of young couples sometimes losing their way in marriage, but what about older couples, whose children have left home, and who now find themselves alone together?
Older couples are often quite pleased to have time at home during this period. They’ve worked all their lives and now they have some downtime at home.
But it can also be a shock. My friends say it’s like preparing for retirement and makes us feel old.
It’s essential not to pile our expectations on our partner. Work gives us self-esteem. If we’re not busy or not working or not running around like crazy grandmothers, our self-esteem can suffer.
It’s critical not to expect your partner to provide for all of your needs — your spending, your entertainment, your self-image. To expect that he or she will always manage to calm you, pick you up when you’re feeling down. Couples of all ages tend to expect far too much from their partners and blame them when the expectations are not met and that can lead to huge frustration.
In our society, there’s a great fear of boredom. If a woman who is very active feels imprisoned at home, she’s likely to be angry at her partner. But he can’t, and doesn’t always need, to find a solution. Maybe she needs to find it, to find the strength inside. She is a person, and she can also turn to her children or her friends. And maybe there isn’t a solution.
Sometimes the man — it’s usually the men — are overly self-reliant. Here, there’s an opportunity to help, to be helped.
It’s all about finding the balance.