Lockdown need not equal breakdown.
Marriages and relationships are under stress from the vastly ramped-up pressures of the COVID-19 crisis, but help is at hand.
People feeling the pinch are certainly not alone.
Specialists in Australia and around the world report sharp spikes in the number of people experiencing relationship and mental health problems as mums, dads and kids try to cope with living, sleeping and working under the one roof.
Tough times, however, can also bring out the best in people. Focusing on relationship strengths is the key element of a free online program offered by CatholicCare Western Sydney.
The six-week program, called Keeping It Together, is set to expand after a successful trial involving couples whose challenges are typified by Tony and Ann (not their real names).
They have been married for four years and have two children, a three-year-old boy and a one-year-old girl.
Ann is on maternity leave from her job as a registered nurse and is considering returning to work part time.
Tony, an electrician, has had to defer his plans to start his own business.
They bought a house just after their youngest was born and have been forced to postpone their mortgage repayments as Tony is now on JobKeeper payments.
They no longer have Ann’s parents helping out minding the kids.
They decided to seek counseling because they have been arguing a lot lately over “small stuff”.
The tipping point came a week ago when Ann asked Tony to put the kids to bed while she talked with her mum on Zoom.
Tony snapped at Ann, calling her “entitled” and a “princess”.
He was shocked when Ann slept with the kids that night and hasn’t come back to the bedroom since.
They were nervous about seeing a counsellor but have since learned that the program is not designed to work out who is right and wrong, with the mediator acting as some sort of “referee”.
“Nothing could be further from the truth,” said Natalie Vlies, CatholicCare’s manager of family relationship services.
“A counsellor is an advocate for the relationship. They ask questions like, ‘What does the relationship need right now?’ and ‘What strengths are being overlooked?’
“The work in counselling is about rediscovering strengths, showing appreciation of each other and creating a safe place where each can express their worries and feelings without fear, guilt or shame.”
Tony has learned that what he thought of as an “off the cuff” taunt was deeply hurtful to Ann. It brought up long-held fears that she was “not strong enough or good enough as a mum or partner”.
Ann has learned that Tony was stressed about her going back to work, and when she asked him to put the kids to bed he was feeling anxious about this and fearful that she was doing too much.
“Avoidance is often at the heart of conflict,” said Ms Vlies.
“Tony and Ann had been avoiding talking about her plans to return to work and what this would mean for their home life.
“They had been too busy just ‘getting on with things’.
“One of their strengths was teamwork and sharing the load but they worked out that their arguments were leaving the other feeling vulnerable.
“The cause was avoiding the big issues for fear of rejection, criticism or not being seen to be be supportive of each other.”
Keeping It Together is part of CatholicCare’s rapid response to the COVID-19 pandemic, using technology to deliver services that used to be face to face. It takes place online and is designed not for “high conflict situations” but for those who want to improve their understanding and communication with each other.
It starts with a comprehensive assessment of a relationship, its strengths and an agreement on priority areas to focus on.
“Couples come to understand what triggers repeated patterns of behaviour. How do we better understand each other? You can turn things around in a couple of sessions,” said Ms Vlies.
She said CatholicCare’s counselling service had experienced an increase in calls due to the COVID-19 crisis.
“Lockdown is not a normal situation. There is no physical separation between work life and home life, and managing kids is particularly hard when they are not at school.
“People need to have a break from each other.”
Money worries are not the only problem, as millions of Australians are left unemployed or seeking JobKeeper payments.
“Financial pressures can disrupt every aspect of family life,” she said.
“People are anxious and stressed, so they are a lot more primed for conflict.
“But these circumstances can also bring out people’s strengths.
“For anyone feeling the pressure of these uncertain and difficult times, maybe having an advocate for your relationship can help.
“Ask yourself, what have you got to lose?”
CatholicCare Western Sydney and the Blue Mountains services remain open and operational during the current COVID-19 outbreak. Individual offices have been closed to clients, but the service continues to operate with care and support offered via phone, video conferencing/telehealth and online. Some programs are continuing to run groups via video conference.