In February 2020, Megan Gandolfi had a lot to look forward to, including a wedding and the meshing of two families under one roof.
In February 2021, she reflected on the year that was, including the melded family stuck inside together, her husband’s job loss and gain, positive COVID cases, anxiety, and, after a postponement, a wedding.
Gandolfi, a professional family counselor and PLLC who works with clients at The Relationship Center of Michigan in Brighton, says her family has been able to make the best of the pandemic, and grew closer because of it. Having time together created and strengthened bonds in a way that might not have happened without quarantine.
But not all families have been so lucky.
How has your family’s relationship changed since March 2020? Are you closer now or were you closer a year ago? Are your kids at each other’s throats or more understanding of each other’s personal space?
“Communication is the key. Communication and boundaries,” says Gandolfi, who adds that even 11 months later isn’t too late to start setting boundaries. “I think (boundaries) will become necessary, even more so. There’s a chance that the schools will go back to virtual, if they’re not already, and kids will be home and workplaces have transitioned, that if their workforce can work from home, they’ll do so. Yes, we’re almost a year here, now we’re looking at years and the future and it becoming the normal.”
Maintaining our relationships in quarantine – especially the roller coaster as quarantine has transitioned to more time with family and friends outside (even at a distance) during the summer to a return to isolation during the winter holiday season – has been difficult, even in the most well-adjusted families, therapists say.
Keeping the spark with your spouse
The stress of the last 11 months of schedule slicing and jockeying more for the remote control than the car keys has created a paradigm that therapists have sought for a long time.
“Something that in my field we’ve been talking about for years is to ask people to focus on what’s most important in your life, and that’s hard to do when you’re managing the details of a life,” says Margot Schulman, an activist, author, facilitator and love, sex & relationship coach as well as the author of Choose Love: A Simple Path to Healthy, Joyful Relationships. “In the beginning, the immediate stress of learning to adapt has changed as we’re managing through 11 months and in recognizing what is most important to me to sustain my joy and sanity for the rest of my life. Because this has become our lives and it’s not this quick thing that I have to survive and push through.”
What Schulman noted is that this has made people more honest about what they want in work and in relationships of all kinds (familial, occupational, friendships and marriage).
To maintain, or regain, that relationship with the other adult in your house, the best place to start is honesty and openness every day. Don’t let little problems turn into bigger problems.
What was once easy to ignore or forget because you may have seen a spouse only for a couple of hours a day between work, busing the kids to and from school and activities tends to grow when all are vying for the same space and attention.
“I think having respect and accepting them as they are is really important,” says Gandolfi as parents are bargaining for time and space to work. “There’s the meme ‘let’s circle around to this,’ and you’re looking at your spouse thinking ‘we hang out at the bar and listen to music, I didn’t know you were that guy.’ So, there’s some very new eye-opening circumstances that you may learn about your spouse. But that’s going to go both ways, so it’s about being accepting and supporting them.”
Repairing split ties
The politics surrounding the pandemic took its toll on relationships inside and outside of the nuclear family. Maybe you and your spouse fought about mask-wearing or how many people to attend a holiday party with. Maybe you and your spouse were in agreement but disagreed with other family members, or with your son’s best friend’s family.
Wherever the ties were severed, those that are important to be rescued can be, with a little work, the therapists explain.
When mistrust comes within the same home, set boundaries about what to talk about, then follow them. Don’t let one voice dominate the conversation so that only his or her side is heard.
When the disagreements occurred within extended family — adult siblings, grandparents or in-laws – remember the things you loved about that person first.
“The key is apologizing,” Gandolfi says. “Recognizing that fear drives a lot of the decision-making with how people conduct themselves within this pandemic.
“Nobody’s stance in these situations has all the information because we don’t know what’s going on and people make decisions based on their own family’s interest, what they feel like is important … and I think making those decisions and standing by them, and then talking about it, communicating is the most important part.”
Helping your kids
Schulman explains that as much as the five love languages help us understand the ways that people love and accept love, there are different ways that people express stress.
Kids are people, too, and while isolation or remote learning can stress out children as much as adults, some kids will throw more and louder temper tantrums while others will quietly find a retreat.
Tell your kids that their friends and siblings will react differently to the stress of the pandemic, so the best thing for a friend or brother to do is ask how to help.
“I feel like I need a T-shirt that says ‘you are two different people, it’s OK to like different things,’” Schulman says. “Your sister is not always going to do things the way you do them. You can say it to younger kids, but it’s more about demonstrating it and giving them their own space both physically and within what they like to do and how they choose to spend their time.”
Realizing that while adults are adjusting, kids are still understanding this pandemic, too, can help parents help their children cope. Gandolfi says that some of her clients are front-line workers whose children were realizing that they couldn’t immediately hug Mom or Dad at the front door, and with that came some fear.
Talk to kids on their own level to make sure they understand why procedures around the house are changing — even as they fluctuate almost a year into the pandemic — and then ask them how they would like to help.
If your kids are already — or still — arguing more and more, Gandolfi recommends boundaries similar to those that were set up for adults.
“Even if kids share a room, they don’t have to be in the same room all the time,” she says. “Because now you’re all of a sudden at home. I definitely advocate praising their ability to endure these changes, whether it’s going to online school or not seeing their friends, not having the social relationships, being with their siblings all the time, being with mom and dad all the time, that takes a lot.”
Give each kid his or her own “date night,” Gandolfi says, whether it’s once a week or once a month, for their own time just with you. Work with them in a different way or learn new skills together: art, baking, pottery, etc.
Families coping through loss
Loss during the pandemic has had many definitions. Loss of a loved one, a job, money, a favorite group activity or even family traditions.
Each loss takes a grieving process, no matter how big or small it might seem.
Give kids space and time to grieve the loss of a summer camp opportunity or a family member, and remember that kids and adults grieve in different ways.
“When I talk to clients, I talk about gratitude and highlighting the positive,” Gandolfi says. “Because there can be so many negatives, but there are those positives. Journaling, for instance, the experience of writing helps people process emotions and find meaning. If they are to put things down on paper, what are the good things that happened in the past month, year, etc., can help foster a positive attitude to move forward.”
Seeking the services of a professional for yourself and your family is a great start. On a smaller scale, when the losses are those like group activities that have already been overcome, redirect your energy.
Hope for the future
Schulman says she was in New York City shortly after Sept. 11, 2001. She says riding the subway system was an eye-opening experience as riders didn’t carry the “usual” New York chip on their shoulders.
“Everyone was a little nicer to each other,” she says. “I remember riding and thinking ‘maybe that person lost someone or maybe that person doesn’t know where their loved one is.’ But that’s true all the time. What if I could always remember that about the people around me on the subway?”
As life begins to reopen and a new normal emerges, there are still lessons to learn from how families grew closer together.
“I think it’s important for parents in particular to keep in mind the positives that they have gained for having a close relationship with their children during this time,” Gandolfi says. “Often that can be forgotten when there’s soccer practice, when there’s leagues, when there’s science fairs, all the things that go into everyday life. You can get very busy and I think just being purposeful in how you communicate with your children and how you interact with them is very important.”
Schulman reminds us that when public transportation and restaurants and concert venues are packed again to “assume that people are still suffering” and act with kindness, she says.
“That’s a pretty safe assumption to make all the time,” Schulman says.