How to work at home on lockdown without ruining your relationship

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When lockdown was lifted in Xi’An on March 1, queues of people were photographed outside marriage registry offices. They weren’t so inspired by their recent togetherness that they wanted it to go on forever. They were married couples filing for divorce.

It’s not clear whether this sudden uptick in divorce requests is a genuine result of the isolation, or just a backlog from the few months when the offices were closed. But it’s not hard to imagine how being trapped in an enclosed space with someone for an extended period could lead to disdain – especially if you were having problems before it started.

“It does have the potential to increase divorce rates,” says Sarita Robinson, cognitive psychology lecturer at Central Lancashire University. “If there’s been any animosity in the past or if people are dragging a marriage on when it’s not working, it’ll bring it into very sharp focus.” You’re also more likely to notice if your partner is having an affair. “More close contact means you’re going to be able to observe your partner more,” she says, “so if they’re secretly messaging, you’re going to spot if more easily.”

Even without bringing cheating into the mix, isolation is going to be a stressful experience. Nathan Smith, psychology and security researcher at Manchester University, has worked with astronauts and others isolated in extreme environments, and psychologically, he says, we’re on a par. “The physical comparison between being isolated in Antarctica or space is obviously different from being in your home, but the psychological and social similarities are quite close,” he says. “The monotony and boredom, repetition, lack of variety, the feelings of anxiety and fear, the social proximity.” Sound familiar?

Tensions that high are bound to lead to some conflict. To put it in perspective: Russian cosmonaut Valentine Lebedev, who spent 211 days aboard the Mir Space Station in 1982, estimated (based on his experiences and those of other Russian cosmonauts) that 30 per cent of the time spent in space involved crew conflict. The Mir Space Station core module had 90 cubic metres of living and working space, the average UK home has 67.8.

We’re bunking up with our chosen partners, not random colleagues, but the astronauts still have one big advantage: training. “A lot of people we work with are going to very dangerous places, but they’ve been trained, so their relative fear is at a certain point,” says Smith. We, on the other hand, are totally unprepared – both mentally and in our supply of toilet paper. Not only does that mean we’re likely to feel a similar amount of fear as an astronaut going into space, we’ll also need to adapt much more quickly to deal with it. “It’s caught a lot of people off guard,” says Smith, “and preparedness is a big contributor to whether things like this are a success.”

The ideal thing, says Robinson, would be to carefully choose your perfect isolation partner. But now that we’re in lockdown, that’s not really an option. And realistically “it doesn’t matter who you’re with,” says Smith, “if you’re with them for a long enough time, things will eventually get too close”. Whoever you’re trapped with, it’s important to establish a new stay-at-home routine.

“It will probably take a few days to adjust,” says Robinson, “it’s not insurmountable, you just have to find a new normal.” Get up at a regular time, add an activity to your morning to replace your commute, schedule some afternoon exercise, divide up the space into individual ‘offices’. Co-working space Hubble suggests 30 square metres is the optimal office space per person —
so get your tape measures out.

“The first few days are going to be very hard,” says Smith. “When you’re adjusting to a new routine, you’re going to have ups and downs.” It’s an uncertain time for everyone; for some, who have lost their jobs or are running businesses in jeopardy, it’s even more traumatic. “It’s not traumatic in the sense that it’s an earthquake or a hurricane,” says Robinson, “but actually subjectively some people will take this quite hard.”

This is where we have one up on the astronauts. “If you look at things like the space missions, you’ve got people who don’t know each other very well,” says Robinson, “that’s much more difficult than if you’ve got people who are couples.

“You get social support from the people that you’re close to. They provide you with a social buffer and if you’re worried or anxious or upset, they help you deal with it.”

So, when you’re down, take advantage of the fact that your partner is with you, and lean on them for support (no more crying in the office toilets). But also be aware of how much you’re complaining – and, if you can help it, try and cut down.

Covid-19 isn’t the only thing that’s contagious. “One person’s mood can be infectious to someone else,” says Robinson, explaining that survival studies have found that if people pull together as a team and have structure, they do really well, but if someone becomes despondent then the whole group feels worse. “So it’s about both trying to be optimistic.”

Different people respond to partner support in different ways. In 1993, Clemens Kirschbaum invented the Trier Social Stress Test, a combination of different stress-inducing tasks, including preparing a presentation for a mock job interview and counting back from 1,022 in multiples of 13.

When the German biopsychologist used this test to stress out men, he found that if they were supported by their female partners, their cortisol levels were much lower. “The men really benefitted from that social support, but that was reversed when the women were doing the public speaking and counting backwards,” says Robinson. Women’s cortisol levels increased when their partner was with them.

The study was repeated and refined last year, and the results followed a similar pattern. Immediately after stress, both sexes benefited from their partner being there. But the anti-stress impacts wore off for the women after an hour, whereas the men saw a sustained drop in cortisol levels. “If these results are generalisable, we may find that men find being isolated with a partner quite nice, and the women go a little nuts,” says Robinson.

Stress is directly linked to conflict, especially in confined spaces. In one mock space mission, 85 per cent of conflicts involved the two crew members with the highest stress ratings. Astronauts have procedures for dealing with it: it’s part of their job. “There’s a lot of self restraint, biting your tongue, not saying things in the moment and revisiting it later when you’re calmer,” says Smith.

That’s a lot easier said than done when your partner is doing something annoying —so try pre-empting conflict instead. “One of the best ways of managing conflict is physically removing yourself from the presence of the person who’s annoying you,” says Robinson. If you can’t go outside for a jog (or if you’ve already used up your daily allocation), then designate a space in your flat where you can go for some personal space. Any size works, and a door helps; one quarantinee trapped on the Diamond Princess cruise liner recommends the closet.

Calming conflicts has more than just emotional benefits. An Ohio State University study found that couples who regularly argue have reduced immune function. “Wound healing has been found to be impaired in married couples who showed higher levels of conflict,” says Robinson. And not just a little. High-conflict couples’ healing abilities decreased by 40 per cent versus their low-conflict counterparts.

But it’s not all doom and gloom. Smith tells me that, in 2014, researchers did a preparatory study for a future Mars mission. “They confined a group of six people in a very small space for 520 days,” he says, “it was basically a garage with crew quarters.” Some were more scathed than others, but they all made it through.

One Covid couple, also stuck on the Diamond Princess, credited quarantine for improving their relationship. Greg and Rose Yerex, a Canadian couple in their sixties, tested positive for the virus. They were asymptomatic, but were still put in quarantine for 14 days. It was there they “learned to talk to each other again”. “We’ve been married thirty-four years, and we’d drifted into some pretty serious bad habits,” Greg told the New Yorker. “Being put together for twenty-four hours a day for two weeks, we wound up learning a lot about each other’s fears, hopes, and dreams.”

While we can all strive to be like the Yerex’s, it’s always good to have a backup plan. My partner and I have come up with a code phrase, so we can call a truce on little arguments without actually having to apologise or be nice to each other. Feel free to pick one of your own. Ours is “Cuban Missile Crisis”, which also doubles as a handy reminder that things could be a lot worse.

Digital Society is a digital magazine exploring how technology is changing society. It’s produced as a publishing partnership with Vontobel, but all content is editorially independent. Visit Vontobel Impact for more stories on how technology is shaping the future of society.

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