This is the first of four articles on the topic of COVID-19 and individual, couple, family, and social issues viewed through a systemic marriage and family therapy lens. In this article, Dr. David Van Dyke, licensed Marriage and Family Therapist and director of the Wheaton College Marriage and Family Therapy Program, shares skills and resources for individual and relational care and growth in the crucible of COVID-19.
The tough news: our true selves are being exposed, and we don’t like what we see.
Funny thing about introductions, they are usually followed by some sort of relationship. I have had introductions that were funny, socially awkward, endearing, and ill-timed. The world was introduced to the COVID-19 in its most recent and novel form in early 2020, and our first impressions (which usually chart the course of a relationship) of COVID-19 are all negative. Our current relationship with COVID-19 is unpredictable, disoriented, and marked heavily by a sense of loss. The virus, its effects, and our fear of it has shifted daily routines, family rituals and interactions with others. As with most relationships, we respond with varying degrees of reactivity. These responses have been intensified because we are now relating both with and within the COVID-19 crucible.
What is a crucible? Here are two definitions of a crucible that I find valuable for understanding COVID-19:
1) A vessel of a very refractory material (e.g., porcelain) used to expose materials to intense heat.
2) A severe test, trial, or extremely challenging experience such as those seen in Arthur Miller’s 1953 play, The Crucible.
I think about the COVID-19 crucible as the current context container in which we experience social isolation, loss, and intense emotional pressure that drives a wedge into existing relational challenges. The changes due to COVID-19 are putting us under new pressures, removing previous coping strategies, and exposing our reactive tendencies.
John Proctor, the protagonist in Miller’s play, provides wisdom on what happens to us in a similar crucible. His wife has been arrested and he laments, “It is a providence, and no great change; we are only what we always were, but naked now. [Each person] walks as though toward a great horror, facing the open sky. Aye, naked! And the wind, God’s icy wind, will blow!” John’s exclamation shows his response to suffering that is beyond his control.
We all can relate to John Proctor’s cry as we navigate the abrupt loss of our normal rhythm of life. Among the long list of things that have been stripped away are:
- rituals (family gatherings, funerals, graduations, weddings),
- pre-COVID-19 relational interactions (handshakes, hugs, friendly passing on the sidewalks and in the grocery aisles),
- normal church meetings and operations (so much for “passing the peace”!)
- leaving home and establishing independent living, and
- financial security.
The pain and loss that we all are experiencing strips us to the core, and we respond from a deep place within us. The question is whether our response will be one of reactivity or one of intentional vulnerability and connection.
Marriage and Family Therapists (MFT) and researchers highlight the fact that during crucibles in our lives, we tend to perceive others as a threat. We can all see the effects of this in our society, relationships, and families. We are often most reactive towards our closest relationships. For families or couples sheltering in place, we are experiencing the very presence of others as intrusive. We attempt various ways to escape them. Despite not wanting isolation, distance can feel safer than risking interactions. However, we are relational beings, made in the image of the Triune God who values relationships so much that He pursues us even when we cannot or will not seek relationship with Him.
Many of us have learned to push down the fear of relationality or vulnerability (“Aye, naked!”) through our routines of work, socializing, church, and various activities. As these have been stripped away in the COVID-19 Crucible we are left chilled, and often isolated, under the icy presence of vulnerability and fear. The more we fear contact with another human being, the more we train ourselves to see others as a threat. Flooded by our feelings we turn to reactive ways to escape these threats:
- emotional outbursts,
- substance use,
- binging (technology, food),
- increase in feelings of depression and anxiety,
- abusive relational patterns, and
- fear of illness and death.
These default reactions emerge especially when we lack examples and habits of healthy relationships. The COVID-19 Crucible intensifies our fears, deepens our isolations, and can burn away all our effective coping mechanisms, leaving us feeling raw, numb, and reactive.
The good news: it’s time to discover who we always were
There remains a lot we don’t know, can’t control, and will struggle with. However, there is also hope! The hope is in how we can choose to respond. We can allow ‘who we always were’ to emerge and flourish within, and even through, the current crucible. The “who we always were” is who we were created to be: loved by God and made in His image. We have a God who is relational and seeks us out. We see His presence in the tabernacle, temple, Incarnation, Pentecost, and ultimately face to face. God intentionally takes on our pain to restore relationship with us, and he poses no threat. We see in the life of Jesus his intentional response to isolation and vulnerability. So during the COVID-19 crucible, where do we experience and practice love, relational pursuit, and image bearing?
Here are a few suggested practices for building healthy relationships with yourself and others during COVID-19.
Identify the ways you express your reactivity.
Most common reactive responses are:
- yelling and screaming,
- condescension and disdain,
- emotional withdrawal, and
- escaping (e.g., technology/phone/gaming, substance use, emotional/physical affairs, working all hours of the day).
Slow down and self-soothe. Relationship researcher John Gottman states that when we are emotionally flooded and reactive it takes about 20 minutes to deescalate. Twenty minutes is about the time needed for you to reset emotionally and neurologically from the intense reactivity and emotional flooding. Remember, re-engaging after resetting is necessary for relational repair—or the slowing down just becomes another form of escape.
Try these relaxation skills and practices that help reset your heart rate and breathing:
- Progressive muscle relaxation,
- Praying/meditating on scripture,
- Cup of tea,
- Mandala drawing or coloring,
- Listening to music, or
- Walking outside.
Try these skills designed with the goal of creating emotional safety in your relationships:
- Curiosity: Nurture your relationship through curiosity toward the other person’s thoughts and feelings
- Appreciation: Identify and share what you appreciate about the other
- Recognize the emotional bid: Identify when the other is making an emotional bid to connect
- Compromise: Accept influence from the other’s thoughts and suggestions
- Validate: Communicate a full understanding and confirmation of the others views and feelings
- Vulnerability: Be open and honest with your own thoughts and feelings
We will continue to have crucibles in our lives that reveal our true selves. Now is the time to address and practice ways of relating that will foster emotional and relational flourishing, even in times of social distancing, pandemic induced loss, and things out of our control.