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Even relationship experts struggle with isolation

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Like a lot of people, Elisabeth Shaw, Chief Executive of Relationships Australia New South Wales, is still trying to figure out how to work effectively while stuck at home.

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Even for someone who works in the field of relationship counselling, it’s no easy task.

“This is the problem with being home with the whole family is that I’m trying to find a place where they’re not,” she says.

The last few months have been just as tough for many other people.

“Those nearest and dearest to us need to survive this with us,” Ms Shaw says.

“We don’t want people’s negative situations to escalate at these times… And so we have to be very careful with each other getting through this.

“We want to all be left standing and still be in connection when we get to go back to our normal lives.”

As a clinical and counselling psychologist who works to enhance relationships within families and their communities, Ms Shaw believes quality relationships are going to be more important now than ever.

And she has some suggestions on how we can all continue living and working at home when things get tense.

Talking with each other
With people suddenly forced to spend days or weeks cooped up at home together, it can seem like a challenge to even go the distance without an argument.

When conflict creeps in, Ms Shaw says one of the most important ways to combat the tension is to talk about it.

A starting point is to work with your strengths, and to acknowledge that coronavirus has disrupted how the household normally works.

“If you and your housemates or your partner or your kids don’t really talk on an emotional level, absolutely declare it upfront,” she says.

“If you say, ‘Look, I know this feels a bit clunky, but I really want to talk about how I’m feeling.’ Then usually everyone relaxes. They could laugh with you, and it’s a warm way to be able to talk about some new things in new ways.”

To get the ball rolling, Ms Shaw says it can help to identify and talk about your own flaws first.

“Own your own stuff. Be accountable for what’s happening to you. Don’t get fixated on why other people are annoying,” she says.

“Start to look at why you’re annoyed and how you might be able to defuse that bomb without waiting for others to change first.

“And when you speak about it, say ‘Look, I’ve been irritable this week and I don’t think I’ve handled myself that well at times and I’ve been reflecting on that.’

“That can be a good way to lead by example. If you own your stuff other people might say ‘Well look, now you mentioned it I didn’t handle it well either.’”

The best time to talk

In her own life, Ms Shaw finds the end of the day can be the best time to talk, usually on the nightly dog walk. But it’s best to pick a time that’s not too late, or when everyone is not tired.

A woman with brown hair and glasses sitting in front of a grey background.

Elisabeth Shaw, Chief Executive of Relationships Australia New South Wales.(Supplied)

“I have to find the sweet spot between family members being a bit chilled, and not yet tipped over into exhaustion,” she says.

“As a mum, I know from a lot of experience that I have a lot of influence (more than I’d like) on the family’s mood and resilience.

“Many women I speak to agree that they play this role. It can be quite stressful, as it’s not always easy to keep it together.

“However when I am acting out, and I see the effect on others, I realise I need to pull my head in first, and even agree out loud that I probably started the waterfall of trouble.”

But it is also worth remembering we can’t assume that we’ll just remain emotionally even throughout this crisis, Ms Shaw says.

“We’ve got to be tolerant of our own mood changes. It may be from moment to moment, day to day, week to week,” she says.

“But equally, we have to be aware that everyone we live with is also having those mood changes.”

A household plan

As a way to spark a productive group conversation, Ms Shaw recommends that people develop a household continuity plan to help discuss any problems.

“Be proactive,” she says.

“Call a family meeting or a household meeting and say ‘Look let’s just draw a line in the sand and review how we’ve been trapped and what’s worked, what’s gone a bit pear-shaped.’”

The meeting, Ms Shaw says, is an opportunity to name the problems and brainstorm some options. And it should be something that happens once a week or so, to refine the approach.

“If you’re not proactive now about some of the repeating themes that are already happening, they’re only going to keep repeating until they’re addressed.

At the end of the day, Ms Shaw says it’s about being able to work through problems and talk them out.

“But the message in all of this is that silence rarely works.”

– ABC / Michael Dulaney

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