Strengthening relationships under pressure

We’ve all been through a lot this year. Families have been called upon to go to whole new levels of support for one another as changing alert levels have compromised our ability to get out and socialise. We’ve relied on our bubble mates, which has been beautiful in lots of ways, but testing in others!

Many of us are feeling that our relationships with our nearest and dearest have been strained and drained. Tolerance may be out the window and patience at an all-time low. Fear not, this is a perfectly understandable outcome given the circumstances. It is a good indicator, however, that some focus on strengthening our tired and tested relationships could be hugely beneficial right now. For partnerships, for parents and for siblings.

Lower expectations

We can put some pretty high expectations on ourselves to be an awesome partner, parent, person or all of the above. Now is the time to try what psychologists call ‘radical self-acceptance’, ie accepting everything about ourselves without question, blame or pushback. No one gets a medal for winning at 2020, we are all truly doing the best we can through some very tricky situations. Seriously, you’re doing great and good is good enough!

It helps to then also lower expectations on our partner and kids. They’re dealing with some tough stuff too, so lowered expectations and gentle responses go a long way to strengthen our relationships.

That said, lowering expectations doesn’t mean we let our kids get away with poor behaviour. We need to try and understand what’s going on for our kids when they misbehave, rather than simply letting them off the hook. Likewise, aiming to empathise with what they’re feeling when they have a tantrum is the ideal here, instead of just accepting a tantrum as par for the course. We can still be consistent with our limits and boundaries, while seeking ‘connection before correction’.

Time together

Time together spent simply playing is so powerful, especially for younger children who find it difficult to communicate how they are feeling. Play is cathartic and can help children process their experiences. Plus, play alongside a parent or caregiver is gold in terms of connection. Getting down on a child’s level and following their lead in play – even if you only have ten minutes to do so – speaks volumes. Your presence is so reassuring for your child and helps top up their emotional tank. (Play is helpful for adult relationships too, but that is a topic for another article…)

Time apart

Remember that expression ‘absence makes the heart grow fonder’? Yeah, well lockdown certainly flipped that on its head. We were together. All. The. Time.

It’s pretty normal for all that time together to result in some tested nerves. A bit of absence could very well help hearts grow fonder right now. You don’t have to go far, but grab some space if you can. Talk to your partner about ways you can both get a break and some time-out alone to do whatever it is that fills your cup. Best case scenario, you might even miss each other!

It also helps to remember that while connection and togetherness are lovely, so is allowing each other space at home too. Kids might like your help to create a cosy nook where they can have some quiet time by themselves, and the grown-ups – well, let’s just say man caves, she sheds, garages, gardens and home offices all serve a very useful function when it comes to harmonious relationships!

Extend grace

Stress brings out the worst in us. We’re all going to have moments when we’re not at our best. Whenever you can, communicate empathy and offer your loved ones the benefit of the doubt – and a wide berth when they need it. All things being equal, they’ll do the same for you.

We don’t have to engage in every argument, and it definitely doesn’t do us any good to hold onto grudges or continue disagreements. Extend grace and let its beauty permeate your home and enhance your relationships.

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Keep the problem the problem

When things get tense, it’s really important to remember that our partner and/or our child is not the problem. This takes a few deep breaths and some dedication, but if you can work together to fight the problem, instead of fighting each other, the problem will be more easily resolved. The Pause, Hold, Engage tool comes in really handy in this context. Identify the problem, then look for win-win solutions. It’s about compromise – think about what is important for each person and ask how you can find a solution that meets the needs of both parties.

Communicate well 

It may sound like we’re really going back to basics now, but the basics are actually important and very helpful! Here are six key ideas to keep in mind in the pursuit of healthy and constructive communication:

  1. Choose an appropriate time to discuss conflict.
  2. Let each person speak without interruption.
  3. Use active listening skills to check you understand what the other person has said.
  4. Avoid labelling (‘You always…’ or ‘You never…’).
  5. Use ‘I’ statements to talk about how you feel and what you would like.
  6. Speak with a calm voice and use manners.

Be the change

At times we might feel dissatisfied with our relationships, and wish the other person/people would change. However, changing other people is very difficult – if not impossible. What is in our power to change? Our own responses. If we ourselves can make simple changes in the way we act or respond, like picking up some of the ideas suggested in this article for example, we may very well see things change for the better in our relationships.

So there you go. No rocket science here, just some simple reminders to extend kindness – towards yourself and your family members. Lower the expectations, prioritise connection and dedicate some time to the serious business of play.

Feeling strain in your relationships during a global pandemic and off the back of weeks of lockdown (plus weeks and more weeks, if you’re an Aucklander) does not mean your relationships are damaged beyond repair, nor does it make you a failure. It makes you human. And us humans are a resilient bunch. So take a deep breath, look after yourself and pat yourself on the back for doing such a great job looking after your family – in sickness and in health, you’ve totally got this!


Looking for more personalised strategies and solutions for your family? 

Our Family Coaches bring their extensive training and experience to help uncover new insights, ideas and practical solutions to parenting and relationship challenges. Through one-on-one support (in person, via Skype or email), you’ll be provided with take-home strategies to bring about the positive changes you desire for your whānau.

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About Author

Katherine Tarr

Katherine is a Child and Family Psychologist with experience working in both the early intervention and education settings. She is part of our Programme Development team where she is responsible for researching and developing training programmes that will equip facilitators to deliver our courses to a high standard. Prior to training as a psychologist, Katherine was a high school teacher and an outdoor instructor. She has four primary school aged children and in their spare time the family enjoys having adventures in the outdoors.

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