Staying Close while Being Together—How to Keep your Relationships Healthy while Hunkering Down
We’re being advised to stay away from everyone on the planet—everyone except those we live with. We have to spend time with them. We have to spend literally all of our time with them. How can we do this without driving each other nuts?
Living in close quarters in stressful situations is especially challenging. Many of us are faced with new and unfamiliar challenges, such as homeschooling children, working remotely, or making less money. While facing these challenges we are also deprived of many of the outlets for pressure that we have always been able to count on in the past—spending time with friends, going out on the town, or spending the afternoon at a ball game. Spending all of our time in what amounts to a bunker means figuring out how to get along. It means being extremely specific and intentional about what bothers us and how to resolve those irritations without impacting those around us. It means getting to know ourselves in this new reality.
We may think we know ourselves well, and in normal circumstances, maybe we do. But when the circumstances of our lives change drastically, there is an opportunity to improve our self-knowledge, and because we are having new experiences, there are parts of ourselves that we have to get to know all over again. We may experience emotional extremes that we’ve never experienced before, which provide a glimpse into unknown territory about ourselves. To explore this uncharted territory, we need time to ourselves.
Finding alone time
During this time of forced togetherness, it’s extremely important to regularly find time to yourself. Even if your family spent most, or all, of their time together, it’s different now. In normal times, most people have some time to themselves: during their commute, in their office, or at home while family members are engaged in their respective activities. Now, there are no activities, so people find themselves with their families all the time.
Why is alone time so important? The time we spend alone is the time we process what we’re going through—it’s the time we need to understand the changes we’re experiencing. It’s also time to allow our other family members to not be with us for a while, to allow irritations to subside and perceived grievances to resolve. Even the most genial people become irritating if we can never get away from them. It’s important to give your family a break from you (and you a break from them).
This may be a challenge, especially for families that are spending all their time at home together. We may feel like we’re sulking or ignoring our loved ones. But with a little communication and an acknowledgement of why this is so important, it’s possible to do this without too much consternation.
Then, there’s the logistical side to alone time. Especially if you live in a small house or apartment. In most places there’s some room—a guest room or utility room—where you can go to reflect, meditate, or write. And if there is absolutely no place in your house without people, go outside and take a thoughtful walk, or find a place where you can sit alone.
Identifying our pressure points
When we’re with other people for an extended period of time, we will eventually become irritable, angry, or frustrated. Those feelings don’t just pop up out of nowhere (although it may seem like they do). These emotions happen as a reaction to something, often something different than what we think. If we can crack that code—if we can determine what series of events or conditions lead to those feelings—we can work with those around us to avoid them.
However, sometimes our pressure points can’t be avoided. It’s possible that the things that get under our skin are related to someone’s personality quirks, or an activity that someone is passionate about, or some other condition that is just not going to go away. In these cases we can address them from our own perspective. We can find ways to cope, such as wearing headphones or going to a different part of the house. The bottom line is that we need to avoid these negative feelings as much as we can, as they can easily evolve into anger and bitterness and may eventually drive a wedge between us and the people we live with.
Having a routine and staying active
Our ability to get along with our housemates is heavily dependent on our own mental health and outlook. To sustain these we need to devote significant time to self-care. While there are many ways we can intentionally engage in self-care, in these circumstances, two are particularly relevant: having a routine and staying active. Even in the midst of this crisis, many of us are still going to work as we have always done. It may be more stressful due to the necessity of potentially exposing ourselves to the virus, or due to an increased workload. Others are finding themselves working from home. For those who don’t normally do this, it can be tempting to sleep a little later, work in our PJs, or otherwise engage in activities that we’ve never been able to before. But ultimately, it is important to develop a routine.
There are many benefits to having a routine, but in this context, I’m focusing on the mental health benefits.
- Having something we can count on. In a time of great upheaval, having activities that we do every day creates a sense of stability in an unsettled world. With so many aspects of our lives changing, having a routine can give us something that stays the same.
- Developing healthy habits. It can be very easy during times like these to fall into bad or unhealthy habits, such as binge-watching TV, compulsive eating, or drinking too much. But we can establish healthy habits, and they will provide us with the intended positive effects and occupy the space that might have been filled with unhealthy habits.
- Getting better sleep. Quality sleep is a necessary foundation for good mental health. More time at home might mean more time for sleeping, but if we’re going to bed at different times and still having to wake up early, or even if we can sleep longer, ours will not be quality sleep. Having a regular bedtime and a regular waking time are key components to good mental health.
Look for opportunities
Remaining close to the people you live with doesn’t just mean trying not to irritate them; it means finding creative options for meaningful interaction. One idea is to identify the skills and talents your housemates have that they might be able to teach or activities that they engage in that you might be able to join. Sharing activities in a meaningful way can lead to the discovery of pursuits you had never considered before. However, we do have to be sensitive to our housemates’ time for themselves. For example, it might be fun to go on a walk together, but if going for a walk is someone’s only time alone, it’s important to respect that (or to at least ask the question).
Spending more time in your house or apartment is also an opportunity to examine how you live. In a busy life, it’s natural to limit our living spaces to utilitarian sensibilities, but if we’re spending a lot of time there, we can use our imagination to make the space not only useful but also well organized, beautiful, and inspiring—a space that meets our needs and contributes to our spiritual growth.
A change in circumstances requires a change in perspective. It’s important to be intentional about how we live when the way we live changes. It’s an opportunity to become the new best you.