Adaptability is a term that has become synonymous with COVID-19.
From lockdowns and virtual learning to working from home and face masks, the coronavirus has forced people to create new routines and a new normal for themselves over the last six unprecedented months.
But with more time at home comes maybe a little too much time spent in closer proximity to our loved ones.
"Never in my time of being a therapist have I ever seen so many people bringing up relational problems." -Acksanna Witherspoon
Acksanna Witherspoon is a licensed marriage and family therapist who works with individuals and couples at all stages in their relationships. She says COVID has resulted in an unprecedented amount of relational problems.
While COVID has produced a time with perhaps more opportunities to realize and experience difficulties in relationships, that doesn't mean those problems didn't exist before the pandemic.
Witherspoon, who offers both secular and faith-based counselling, says she often meets with couples after they've spent some time trying to address their problems with other people like friends, family, pastors, and other couples.
"I like to see people come in a little bit earlier, not when it's their last resort," Witherspoon says.
"The longer you wait the harder it is to undo even the learned behaviours that come from styles of arguing, fending for yourself, or even just having a short temper for each other."
But she understands why couples -- and people in general -- can be hesitant to try therapy.
"There's a lot of stigma behind seeing a therapist because especially with couples counselling," Witherspoon says.
The majority of relationship counselling Witherspoon conducts is done with only one member of a partnership. She says it's rare to have both partners present in a couples counselling session.
"The reason why one person is usually resistant is ... having to pay for someone to listen to our problems and try to help," Witherspoon explains. "Whether it's your pride or whether it's parts of your upbringing ... that can kind of get in the way."
Common reasons couples will come to see Witherspoon include reoccurring problems -- which Witherspoon calls the "hamster wheel" -- and emotional gridlock.
"It's very rarely an acute, recent problem," Witherspoon says. "It usually has some depth and reoccurrence to it.
The time Witherspoon says she most wants to see people walk through her door is when they realize a problem has begun to affect their mental wellbeing.
"We don't give advice," Witherspoon cautions. "We moreso help break up that gridlock and use psychology and third-person listening to help navigate working through (conflict)."
Witherspoon, who operates a private practice out of Fortify in Winnipeg, has noticed COVID and work-from-home measures lead to more tension in relationships.
"Outside of people really struggling with depression, couples, marriages, families, it has taken such a hit that never in my time of being a therapist have I ever seen so many people bringing up relational problems," Witherspoon says.
The therapist also says she has received a lot of emails from couples inquiring about counselling duirng the pandemic.
But in addition to more couples seeking help for their relationships since COVID-19 began, Witherspoon has also noticed another trend, one where couples who have started counselling sessions are not stopping.
"Since the pandemic has started, I have seen barely anyone fall off of therapy or want to stop doing therapy ... because they're needing that extra guidance," Witherspoon says.
Witherspoon notes the average client will have somewhere between eight and 12 sessions before ceasing therapy. Since the pandemic, however, Witherspoon has not seen a single couple stop their sessions with her and has even seen clients able to persuade their partners to join them in therapy for the first time.
The unique, "unprecedented" time of COVID-19 has led to some COVID-specific relationship problems.
Witherspoon says one of the most common problems she sees couples dealing with now is navigating "quality versus quantity time" time together.
"Not getting quality time together but getting a lot of quantity time together, so they are just bickering and arguing and don't feel any intimacy between them, they are just so familiar with each other," Witherspoon explains.
Another theme has been partners learning how to support each other while constantly being around each other.
"Whether it's you are very extroverted and you felt trapped inside your home or maybe you struggled with having control or feeling anxiety and now it's skyrocketed or being under more stress financially or having to homeschool kids ... every person is affected by this differently," Witherspoon says.
"When you look at a relationship, we don't want to overlook the fact that two people in a marriage are also two individuals separately and so learning how to support each other, even if they're being affected differently ... that has been a really big area."
When you and your spouse are both working from home together everyday, Witherspoon says it can be hard to have those moments together where couples still feel passionately about each other and still enjoy seeing their partner.
"Using this as the ability to ... find ways to still have dates and quality time together but also having good communication and being on the same page of how you're both doing" is not an easy balance to strike but a necessary one as the province continues under COVID-19 restrictions.
Mental health impacting marriages
"A lot of us do a really good job of masking how we're really doing," Witherspoon notes.
But with COVID meaning more time spent in the presence of your significant other, Witherspoon says those struggling with their mental health may be finding it harder to cope.
The therapist stays it can be as simple as extroverts struggling with being alone with their thoughts too much or introverts needing more space away from their family in a small home for mental health to take the front seat and lead to other tensions in a relationship.
COVID relationship tips
First and foremost, Witherspoon encourages couples to find time for quality time.
"15 to 20 minutes a day, maybe after the kids are asleep, work is done, you're all done cleaning up and focusing on getting that quality time in as doing just a check-in," she recommends.
Asking how your partner is doing and finding out what they need from you can help couples who are struggling with too much time together better redefine boundaries and supports they need from each other, Witherspoon says.
"Allowing (them) even just individually to express how they're doing and being able to rely on one another."
Witherspoon says quality time doesn't come with the distraction of the television but also doesn't mean a couple needs to plan a date night. "It doesn't have to be anything more than just having an intimate moment together and having good conversation," she says.
Witherspoon also recommends couples look at their relationship in terms of Sternberg's model of love, which breaks relationships down into three core components: passion, commitment, and intimacy.
"Passion is having fun and excitement and attraction and infatuation, whereas commitment is having trust and respect and repetition and reliability," she says. "Intimacy is basically being best friends and telling each other everything.
"I encourage clients to draw out that triangle, look at each corner and ask, 'Is there a corner that feels a little more watered-down or a little big neglected compared to the other ones?,' Witherspoon advises. "You likely feel it and that's probably leading to a sore spot in your communication, in your relationship, in your closeness."
Faith-based couples can also take this time to spend time in prayer, together or apart.
"Closeness is a form of intimacy and one of the most intimate, vulnerable things you can do as a couple is pray together ... or even asking your partner, 'How can I pray for you?'"
"I think we are all struggling in navigating finding new normals and trying to figure out how we're all going to get through this and there's no better person than your partner who you're committed to to have your back and for you to have their back as well," Witherspoon says.