As a nation, America is facing one of its most uncertain times in recent decades. Coronavirus, also known as COVID-19, is sweeping across our nation at an alarming rate and shelter-in-place orders are bringing daily life as we know it to a halt. Americans are struggling with this uncertainty in many areas of their lives, including the potential impacts on their physical health, emotional health, mental health, and financial wellbeing. This level of uncertainty often breeds insecurity and vulnerability, which often leads to conflict.
Most Americans are now several weeks into social distancing and are staying at home full-time with their families. But, what happens to the couple who was on the brink of filing for a divorce and now are stuck living together? While ending the marriage, these couples are now in a tough predicament: they must cohabitate and possibly co-parent during a pandemic without harming each other or their children. The person they want to divorce, and all the marital baggage, now sit in the house like a familiar friend, and the home becomes a pressure cooker for conflict.
The mandate to stay at home due to COVID-19 is an impractical scenario for divorcing couples, who are now forced to shelter-in-place together, just as they were planning on separating permanently. While it is important to remember that this health crisis is not permanent, it is equally as important to learn how to effectively cope with this “new normal”.
Surviving Cohabitation During COVID-19
In collaboration with Dr. Marian Camden, an expert in the field of psychology and family therapy, we have developed a few strategies that you can implement to make cohabitation with a soon-to-be-ex-spouse more manageable:
Expect a Longer Divorce Process.
The backlog for the courts is still unknown and each county in Colorado is handling the timeline differently. Most counties are not setting evidentiary hearings unless they involve a threat to welfare and safety. This means that it will take longer to resolve temporary issues such as who will reside in the home, temporary maintenance, and temporary parenting time. However, the bright side is that many cases are settled in mediation without the need for a hearing. At this time, mediations are still moving forward by way of video conferences.
Please note: Courts are still holding emergency hearings for protection orders and parenting time restrictions. If you feel strongly that you or your children are not safe, then Court intervention is still possible and you should speak with an attorney.
Focus on Your Children.
If you have children with your spouse, make a decision that you are going to put your focus on your children first. Many children will not remember the details of this pandemic, but rather they will remember how their home felt during this time. They will remember if there were heated arguments, fighting, or physical confrontation between their parents. Children will remember more about how their parents reacted to the crisis and the atmosphere that their parents created than they will about the pandemic itself. Children are constantly observing and learning coping mechanisms from their parents, so focus on creating a positive impression, even during the darkest times.
Shift Your Mindset.
To survive in a crisis, you must shift your mindset. Living in the same home as someone you are either divorcing or planning to divorce is not an ideal situation for most. To survive in this scenario, it may be helpful to shift your perspective of your relationship with your spouse from an “intimate relationship” to a “business relationship.” Often the first step is to remove your most impassioned emotions from the picture. Rather, behave toward your co-parenting partner in a detached, professional manner, in a manner in which you would not be embarrassed for your co-workers or friends to see. Basic manners go a long way toward making the cohabitation and co-parenting process tolerable. Try going back to the basics mantras we learned as children: (1) say please and thank you and (2) if you don’t have anything nice to say, then don’t say anything at all.
The more conflict that you have with your soon-to-be-ex, the more you need to create a routine that provides you the best chance at peaceful cohabitation. This routine should provide as much “separation” as possible, even when you are sheltering in place. Try to create a rotation of when each of you is primarily responsible for caring for the children. If needed, you can create a routine that allows for separate mealtimes and physical separation in different areas of the home. Creating some physical space from your spouse will allow for more emotional space in your home. If you can’t get your partner to co-structure with you, then structure your day so that you don’t overlap very much. This may require sacrifice, but it will create a more peaceful home for you and your children.
Plan for Behavior Spikes
In difficult times, spikes in irritation and anger are often unavoidable. Having awareness around this concept will help you to create a response strategy for potential fallout, rather than simply reacting. When you feel the anger (or years of pent up rage) rising, have a calm response, such as: “I need to take a break”; “I’m going to walk the dog”; or (my personal favorite) “I need to think this over and get back to you.”
Focus on Self-Awareness.
The more you can be self-aware and have that moment to catch yourself, the more freedom and choice you have with your situation. What does that mean? Basically, NOW is the time to incorporate a daily mindfulness practice into your life or recommit to the one you used previously. According to Dr. Camden, “anything you can do to raise your self-awareness will result in more self-control and greater freedom over your choices. Self-awareness allows you the ability to respond, rather than react. If you start by taking care of yourself in a kind, gentle, and reasonably self-disciplined manner, you will enhance your ability to cope, co-exist, and co-parent during these challenging times.”
- Begin writing in a journal. This is an opportunity to channel your internal conflict over old grievances and the things you can’t stand about your partner. There is a vast amount of research that supports the benefits of journaling, such as reducing symptoms of depression, boosting mood, and enhancing your sense of well-being.
- Learn how to meditate. Meditation is not just for the “enlightened.” The reason it is so mainstream and popular right now is that it actually works. Whatever your living situation may be, try sitting quietly for a few minutes at a time and reflecting on your thoughts. You do not need a “meditation space”, in fact, if you are in a pinch, this can be done from the privacy of your bathroom. There is significant research indicating that mediation can have a positive effect on depression, anxiety, high blood pressure, ulcerative colitis, and more.
- Move your body and get outside every day for at least ten minutes. Try something you enjoy, such as going on a walk or run, doing yoga, riding a bike, or playing games with your children.
- Reduce unhealthy vices. Remember to eat well and reduce the consumption of sugar, alcohol, and recreational drugs. These vices stand in the way of healthier coping strategies and will not provide you with adequate energy to cope in this crisis.
- Create a consistent and healthy bedtime routine. A healthy bedtime routine, also known as “positive sleep hygiene” is a behavioral practice that includes establishing a regular sleep schedule and limiting exposure to stimulants (light, electronics, food, and alcohol) before bed. Having positive sleep hygiene will help ensure you are providing your body and mind with restful sleep. Sleep provides the body and mind time to relax and reset, which is especially crucial in times of stress.
Dr. Camden’s #1 Strategy for Successful Cohabitation
If there is one basic skill that’s going to keep everybody safe in their homes, it’s remembering to take a time out when you need it and then actually taking the time out. There’s no shame in it, just say, ‘I need a break.’ If there is a question that needs answering, then do the classy thing and say, ‘I’ll get back to you’ and then actually get back to them once you’ve had time to respond, instead of just reacting. Often, there isn’t even a decision to be made. Couples tend to quickly fall back into hard-wired ways of thinking about each other, talking to one another, and fighting battles that no one will win. This is where increased mindfulness will be helpful.
Remember, this uncertain time is temporary and the restrictions imposed by COVID-19 will not last forever. For this reason, it is crucial that divorcing couples do not take destructive actions that WILL permanently impact their lives. Domestic violence charges can impact individuals for years to come, not to mention the lasting emotional impact it has on children in the home. In remembering to be kind to others in your home during this time, remember to also be kind and patient with yourself. These are trying times and everyone is working to survive peacefully as possible.
No one should feel unsafe in their own home. Those suffering from domestic abuse are free to leave their homes and seek help if they feel unsafe. The National Domestic Violence Hotline is available 24/7: Call: 1-800-799-7233; Text: LOVEIS to 22522, or visit: thehotline.org.
Written in collaboration with:
Dr. Marian Camden is a licensed psychologist offering counseling, therapy, coaching, and consultation in Denver. For nearly two decades, Dr. Camden has helped adults, children, and teens work through difficult divorce situations, become better parents, heal from depression and anxiety, recover from trauma and emotional abuse, feel happier, more confident, and better about themselves: as parents, as partners, and as professionals.
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