Coronavirus: how to make sure our relationships survive
Psychotherapist Philippa Perry offers some essential advice to partners, parents and all people in isolation to help them through the stresses of social distancing with relationships intact
Produced by Juliet Riddell and Joe Sinclair
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Hi, I'm Phillipa Perry. I'm a psychotherapist, and I'm here to chat to you today about the situation we all find ourselves in which is new and strange. What are we supposed to think about it? What are we supposed to do about it?
Some people want to know why it's so weird, this isolation thing, and I can give you a little example about that. So my daughter came, tapped on the window, waved to me, and then walked away again. She did that to say hello, and yet I took it like a rejection. My head knew it as a hello, but my body thought it was like, why hasn't she come in?
We are all feeling this. It's mind-body dissonance. It's your head telling you something, your body feeling something else. We're in a new situation. It's all completely weird, and it will take some getting used to. Nobody knows how at the moment, because it's a new situation, but I've got a feeling we will get used to it, and we will muddle through, and we will find a way, and there's no way of getting it right. You're going to have feelings about it. It's OK to have those feelings. You don't have to be happy the whole time.
The most important thing at this time and every time, really, but we can forget about it... is our relationships and looking after them. How do I maintain my relationships when I can't see them? One little tip is when you're Skyping, look at the lens. It's far more intimate when we look at the camera.
Another thing is it's strange when we only have the exchange of words, because we're used to this thing of being with someone in the sort of body to body way. And one way we can stay with and be with people is to have these Skype machines switched on while you're watching the same TV programme, while you're cooking or something. It's incredibly intimate, really.
What if I get so stressed that I take it out on my kids? If you do snap at them, apologise. Don't think you have to blame them for you losing your temper. Go, oh, I'm so sorry. I shouldn't have snapped to you then. I'm stressed. It's not your fault.
It's kind of tricky if the kids are around you, and you can't be fully with them, because you've got to work. Because if mum and dad are there, but they're not playing with you, even though you've been told it's because they have to work, you will feel it as rejection as a child. The best thing to do in this situation is not to say to them, look, I'll play with you when I've done my work.
The best thing to do is to play with them first and try and get them on something I call autopilot. So if you're playing with, you know, they want you to talk dollies at the doll's house or make vroom vroom noises with the truck, they'll eventually take over from you because you won't be doing it right, but they feel secure that you're interested in them and you're engaged with them, so they won't need to keep checking. So you'll gradually be able to retreat until you're almost on the laptop and doing your spreadsheets.
But if you try and do your spreadsheets first, they'll keep going, have you done it yet? Have you done it yet? Have you done it yet? Just worry about the quality of time you have when you're with them, because that's the most important thing. It doesn't really matter if they've finished that school project or not, what matters is that you enjoy being together.
What is society collectively feeling? I don't think we've been this united for a long time. At least now we've got a common enemy instead of fighting each other over Brexit. Remember Brexit? We will probably all make up our own narrative about it. So if you are a healer, like a yoga teacher, you'll say the earth is healing, because we've got no pollution at the moment from aeroplanes.
If you're a meditative sort of person, you'll go, I'm exploring my inner landscape. If you're a pessimist, you'll go, the end of the world is nigh! And these are the ways we soothe ourselves, and it's fine. We can make up whatever story helps us get through. I quite like the healing the world one. The world will keep spinning for another few billion years.
Why is it so hard for teenagers? When you're a teenager, you're all about finding a new tribe and leaving the family behind. You're ready to separate. You're ready to make your way in the world, and you're ready to start mating as well, and you so want to get on with that. You know, to us, six months is nothing. To them, it's like another lifetime. And so they will be angry, and they will be frustrated that they've had to put the brakes on this new exploration, this new time of life, and we must be sympathetic that, you know, this is the only generation not going to pop festivals this year and setting fire to their tent like they were looking forward to doing.
Another thing is if you think about the teenage brain, their emotions are at their peak height. They can feel in colour, and our feeling is like black and white in comparison. But their frontal lobes, their cerebral cortex, this bit here where you do your thinking and your reasoning, that isn't completely wired up yet, so they've got all the impulses but not the mechanism to hold those impulses back necessarily.
Those are still developing, and we can't fix it for them. We want to. We want them to have that great time. We can't fix it, but we can be alongside them. If they know we understand, it won't cure it, it won't fix it, but it might make it a little bit better.
How the hell am I going to maintain my relationship with my partner in this intensive lockdown situation? Now, not only will our relationship with our child be under stress, but maybe being cooped up with your partner the whole time, or your sister, or whoever it is you normally live with, is going to be tricky too. My first problem is that my husband used to go out about twice a week on his own, and I could catch up with my cookery programmes that I record.
And I used to go out once or twice a week, and he would watch his war films then, but now we have no time to be separate individual activities, because we do insist on sitting on the sofa together and not having separate TVs. And I think the best thing to do is not sweat the small stuff, and if you get told off for stacking the dishwasher wrong, just go, oh, you're so right, rather than make it into a win-lose situation. You can carry on stacking the dishwasher how you always do it, but listen and go, oh, it must be hard for you that I stack it wrong. You know, just be nice if you can be.
If there is any trouble in any relationship, this will put a magnifying glass on it, and maybe that's a good thing, because then you'd know you've got an issue, you have to sort out. After people have spent Christmas together, divorce rates go up in January, so I'm expecting maybe this enforced period of isolation will have the same effect, and nothing I can say now will make any difference.
How do I deal with the uncertainty? This is all so new, this isolation stuff, that you might wake up in the morning and think, what's different? Something's different, and then remember. It's almost like you wake up from one dream and into another that doesn't feel real. So we feel a bit weird, and a bit odd, and a bit ungrounded, which isn't helped by not being in contact with people that we're normally in contact with.
Now, you might think, but I live on my own, and I love living on my own, and it's great. The thing is, when you live on your own, you're choosing to live on your own. And you go out into the world, you maybe go to an office, and then you come back and be on your own, and there's a rhythm to it. And you can self-regulate by being on your own, and you love your alone time.
But if you have to be alone, and it's not a choice, it will feel weird. Give it time. It's early days. You're not supposed to have this thing worked out by now. You will work it out in your own way like you always work things out in your own way. It's just that we haven't done it yet.
You might think, when will this be over and how can I cope with not knowing what the future holds? You never did know what the future held. We just kid ourselves there's such a thing as certainty. The only thing that is certain is that everything keeps changing all the time. And the difference sometimes between sane and insane is being able to accept change or be in denial about it. Here's a time for us all to practise accepting change.