Maintaining relationships during COVID-19

June 24, 2020 | 21:53 minutes | Episode 4

This podcast is for educational purposes only – and is NOT a substitute for help from a licensed therapist or health professional. Talk to one if you’re struggling with a mental health or family issue.

Struggling with the additional challenges that COVID-19 has placed on your relationships? You’re not alone.

This is an interview with Dr. Georgia Pomaki, leader of mental health specialists at Manulife. She’s a clinical psychologist by training and has a PhD in occupational mental health.

Dr. Georgia Pomaki discusses:

  • (1:02) Impacts of COVID-19 on relationships
  • (5:15) Tips for better communication
  • (9:30) Strategies to effectively deal with conflict
  • (13:22) Conflict in the presence of children
  • (15:13) Isolation and domestic violence
  • (18:00) New ways to connect

Important links:

Manulife is not responsible for the availability or content of external websites.

Meet our guest

Portrait of Dr. Georgia Pomaki

Dr. Georgia Pomaki is the leader of our mental health specialists at Manulife and an Instructor at Pacific Coast University for Workplace Health Sciences. She’s a clinical psychologist by training and has a PhD in occupational mental health. She is a Certified Disability Management Professional (CDMP) and at Manulife she leads the development, testing and implementation of best practices for the management of mental health disability claims. Georgia also focuses on mental health prevention and helping employees and organizations become stronger.

Prior to Manulife, she worked at the Occupational Health and Safety Agency for Healthcare in BC and the University of British Columbia as a researcher in workplace mental health. She’s a lead author of the Best Practices for Return-to-Work/Stay-at-Work Interventions for Workers with Mental Health Conditions.

Transcript

GREG:

Hello everyone and welcome to Sharing Humanity – a podcast produced by Manulife to help Canadians stay mentally, physically and financially healthy during the COVID-19 pandemic.

My name is Greg Bisch and I’m from Manulife – and today we’re focused relationships and the challenges that COVID-19 has created while couped up at home.

This podcast is intended for educational purposes only – and is NOT a substitute for help from a licensed therapist or health professional. Talk to one if you’re struggling with a mental health or family issue.

Joining me today is Dr. Georgia Pomaki, leader of mental health specialists in Manulife Group Benefits and an instructor at Pacific Coast University for Workplace Health Sciences. She’s a clinical psychologist by training and has a PhD in occupational mental health. 

Welcome Georgia. It’s really nice to have you back again on sharing your humanity. How have you been?

GEORGIA:

I’ve been doing really well. Thank you, it’s great to be here

GREG:

So we’ve been isolated for a while now and today we want to focus on relationships because during the pandemic people who are living with others are spending a lot more time with them. And for some people that’s been a really positive thing and for others who aren’t used to spending that much time together are struggling a bit because it’s a really new dynamic.  What are some of your initial thoughts on that?

GEORGIA:

I absolutely agree with you. I was thinking about it the other day. The situation we are living through right now is really challenging for us as individuals. I don’t really think that we are our best self to begin with.

It’s not surprising that it spills over to our relationships at times. We used to live with each other and take each other in smaller dosages. I think that’s changed quite a bit and dosage really matters and we are discovering that now.

Now at the same time we need to think about essential worker that are not really going through the same thing. I’m thinking of essential workers because they might be going through different challenges when it comes to returning to home and what they deal with when they come back and the stressors they face.

GREG:

If you’re living with a significant other or living with friends what are some of the biggest impacts do you think people are having right about now?

GEORGIA:

I’ve heard of a few scenarios that are playing out, and of course they are not the only ones.

Of course, different households where the partners are working versus households where there is perhaps a loss of employment and they’re dealing with a lot of different stressors there.

Financial stressors and the uncertainty of having lost your job and what’s going to happen. I think it’s really important.

Of course, there are households of essential works that we just discussed and there are also co-parenting challenges as well.

Co-parenting is a challenge at the best of times. If you have two different households, separated parents, isolation brings that to a whole new level.

How are you going to deal with the back and forth. How is that going to work out. It’s not something that we ever gave a lot of thought to because we’ve never had to deal with these things.

Dealing with the rules of relationship that are starting to change. How do we really co-exist when we are isolated? We’re looking in because there’s not a lot of outside options to go to.

Sometimes looking in really magnifies a lot of the issues that were pre-existing or perhaps gives rise to things that we never noticed before and now we are noticing for the first time.

My husband was noticing after being 20 years together something that has always been there, but he never noticed before because there wasn’t very much of it.

Now it’s more noticeable. He was very surprised to hear that.

GREG:

I think we’re all learning new things about each other. For me, one complaint my wife always has had is that when she texts me at work it would take me so long to get back to her. Now being in the same house she realizes that I’m probably in a meeting or I’m really, really busy.

That’s why you’re not getting back to me.

Now when I’m not busy she can come into the room where I’ve been working, and we can chat during the day.

For us, I don’t want to say there hasn’t been challenges, there has definitely been challenges but it’s all equaled out to a fairly positive thing.

I know that hasn’t been the case for everyone.

Before we dig too much deeper. I want to talk about what are some things people can keep in mind about communication, like you said you have to start new with the relationship and set new boundaries. How can you approach each other in a constructive way?

GEORGIA:

We have all been a little bit surprised by the situation. One day we were told we to be home and stay home. I think it’s a shock to everyone that this is happening.

I think acknowledging that we’re living through a very stressful time and we’re all in the same shock is important.

It is not just us that is in shock but our partners are in the same situation.

Knowing that some of the issues we’ve noticed in the past will become bigger is important. We are in a more stressful environment and we acknowledging is very important

I know a lot of people think of magic solutions, but I always find that acknowledging that we’re all in this together. Maybe I can cut my partner some slack one day.

It won’t be too long before that favour is returned. We are all struggling to adjust.

It might be more difficult for some people than others. It is important to acknowledge that isolation is very difficult for maybe a little bit less difficult for others.

Support each other and be understand sensitivity to things

Think about the issue of complaints. Complaints are difficult in relationships.

Complaining is not great for relationship.

We all complain about our partners but in this environment, we may notice more things perhaps in our partners. Or maybe we are more sensitive to things that may have already been there.

It is important to say “okay maybe I can hold back, maybe it’s not really the best time to complain right now about this”

Take the perspective of ‘how important is this in the grand scheme things in the grand scheme of our relationship?’

How big of a deal is this?

For example, if my partner is messy, they will always be messy. Is there a point in complaining?

If my partner is supportive, is really meeting a lot of my needs, will creating conflict or creating a problem about complaining about this specific characteristic really make a difference in a positive or in a negative way. Does it really matter?

GREG:

Sounds like to me you are encouraging people to be empathetic with each other. And there’s a similar theme to when we talked about parenting in this situation. If we are looking for perfection we are going to get upset.

Sometimes we have to figure out what is good enough.

GEORGIA:

Yes, it is about dealing with situations together as a team. We are stronger as a team than we are as individuals.

If we are thinking about a problem we must solve at home, I have an opinion, and my partner has an opinion. We still have a problem, but it belongs to both of us.

How are we going to solve this together instead of saying you want this this and I want that.

We might end up not solving the problem if we have that kind of attitude and approach. It’s more about, okay, this is the problem that we both have to live with and or maybe have solve it.

Approaching it from that perspective, sometimes even physically arranging yourselves next to your partner versus facing them help, little tricks can change your perspective.

GREG:

As you mentioned before, there is a lot going on for people and there are cases where people have lost their jobs and are dealing with a lot of stressors.

Conflicts are going to happen. When you are in a conflict what are some best ways to deal with that conflict? Is it better to sometimes walk away and come back when everyone’s calmed down?

GEORGIA:

Yeah, when the couple has reached the conflict phase then we know it’s going to take some time to really untangle the situation.

When one starts climbing the ladder of conflict and associated emotions it is going to take a while. It is not something that you can change in a switch.

Walking away could be necessary. Something temporary, especially if children are around.

It may help as a way to deescalate the situation.

You need time to cool off. It works best if the couple has agreed that walking away is the best step for them.

Like I said, when we start to climb the ladder of conflict and emotions surround us, it’s probably best if we both take time off.

We can have signs to tell each other that when that moment comes in either one of the two people, both people can walk away.

It’s a temporary thing to just deescalate. It doesn’t resolve the conflict. The problem is still there.

In terms of resolving the problem try to find a win-win solution. Sometimes it’s compromise.

Sometimes nobody gets the full deal of what they want. But by compromising they both get some of it.

Sometimes it is about taking turns. Whose needs will be met.

I think it is important when there is conflict to be able to ask questions to understand.

What are the other person’s concerns and ask ourselves if there is anything that I can compromise on.

Can I compromise on something so that we can resolve this? It is important to do that.

Maybe ask, can I forgive this? Can I let it go?

Can we agree to disagree? These are all good questions to keep in mind.

If you do have conflict have a few questions that you can ask yourself so that you don’t have to let it escalate.

For some couples humour works. It can be effective.

It has to be done in a way that works for the couple. Sometimes seeing things from the perspective of humour can be good.

GREG:

You have to know your partners open to humour.

GEORGIA:

Yeah if they are not it is like you are minimizing the situation.

Sometimes you can see the funny in very escalated situations. It’s disarming.

At the end of the day we have to acknowledge that conflict is going to happen. It always happens in couples.

I think it [conflict] is a bigger problem in our current living situation and it’s natural. It is expected to happen. It’s more about resolving it in a way that people don’t come out of it feeling hurt.

And feeling that their relationship cannot be repaired.

That is the important piece of it.

GREG:

Now they there are times where couples will get into a disagreement and the kids are around what advice do you have when you are butting heads and you can feel it escalating but the children are in the room?

GEORGIA:

It is recommended not to have conflict or resolutions happening when the kids are around.

We know that they can be emotionally impacted by conflict.

We’re not talking about minor disagreements; we are talking about conflicts here.

GREG:

Like shouting

GEORGIA:

Yes, like shouting.

GREG:

So when peoples fight or flight emotions are engaged.

GEORGIA:

Exactly. I think it is important to talk about these issues when the kids are in bed, or maybe step outside the home to discuss.

I think it’s important to agree in advance what you’re going to do.

If something like this happens when the kids are around, you need to know what you are going to do rather than waiting for it to happen.

One person ends up going one way the other person goes the other way.

This is maybe where it’s important to walk away because you can’t resolve a conflict when the kids are around and it at least prevents them from experiencing the full effect of it.

GREG:

And walking away is only good of course if you come back to it later

GEORGIA:

Exactly, perhaps when the kids are not around.

GREG:

The next question we actually talked a bit about before recording today because we weren’t sure whether we wanted to broach this topic or not. We are going to explore it.

For some people it’s not only a challenge but it can be a safety risk because they’re stuck in a bad relationship or abusive situation and now they are isolated.

Canada’s department for women in gender equality for example said there’s been a 20 to 30 percent increase in the rates of gender-based violence or domestic violence during this time of isolation.

If people happen to be listening to this podcast are going through a situation like that what are some of the things they need to keep in mind?

GEORGIA:

This is a very serious issue and I think it doesn’t get discussed enough. I was relieved to hear to hear that the federal government has announced an emergency fund for women shelters and other services for those who experience gender-based violence.

I think that’s a really good step in the right direction. More resources are needed, and people do need to have resources available to call for help or know where the nearest shelter is. That’s the first thing.

It’s very important to know there is information online about this resource and that is specific to where the lives. The information is also specific to their needs and whether they have children or not.

Also, we have to keep in mind that in many cases where there is domestic violence there is also violence towards the children.

Sometimes mothers have to make choices about how they need to respond to a situation. This is very difficult.

Every situation is different. It is very important to reach out to the right resources to get advice about your particular situation. What’s the safest way to approach it? There is free legal support provided at the provincial level that individuals can reach out to.

It’s important to remind every person that were not alone. There are resources that can help us get out of the situation that is a safety risk for ourselves and for other family members.

The resources will understand us, listen to us and help keep us safe.

It’s important to give a message of hope and the message that there is a solution out of what they are experiencing right now. Towards a better safer future.

GREG:

Yeah I think that is well said. They’re not alone in the sense that it is all too common and certainly on the rise right now.

So maybe ending on a little bit of a more positive note, there is an opportunity with this isolation in spending more time with your loved ones or with your roommates or what have you.

You are spending more time together than you ever have. Is there an opportunity here to connect in new ways and make the relationship richer?

GEORGIA:

Yeah it’s interesting because sometimes couples have trouble connecting because they say they don’t have time, right?

They don’t have time together. There is never time together. There is never enough time to really get to know each other.

We definitely have that [time] now

GREG:

Whether we like it or not

GEORIGA:

That’s right! Having extra time could be very beneficial to reconnecting.

Maybe it’s a good time to tackle some of the unfinished business that we sometimes have.

Whether it’s fixing things around the house or getting a will online. There are some interesting thing that you can do.

Some couples might want to create a budget together on the computer. All the things we intend to do, that we feel will make our relationship stronger because we feel more safety around us, but we never get around to it.

Some of things might be good to do.

Maybe there are some chores.

Some of the things we had on our to do list with our partner but we never really had the time to sit down together and do it right. So that is kind of nice.

I think it might be a nice opportunity to explore each other’s interests.

My husband for example has been joining me in my online Pilates class.

GREG:

Really?

GEORGIA:

The first time I suggested it a few years ago his answer was ‘never’ and now he is really liking it.

Equally I am joining him more in his cycling. The more I explore it the more I enjoy it too.

We’re just enjoying each other’s interest more out of necessity really because I don’t think we would have ever done it.

I would say most relationships benefit from having some breaks. Whether it’s spending time home in a different space or take some time for yourself and give you partner some space as well.

GREG:

Sounds like you need some time alone but approach it with a sense of adventure. An experience you can live through together and remember. Look back at fondly.

Well Georgia, thank you very much for agreeing to be a guest on sharing humanity podcast for a second time.

I got a lot of great information out of this. I’m going to play it for my family as well to see what they think of it.

I really appreciate your time and thank you very much.

GEORGIA:

You’re welcome. It’s a pleasure, take care.

GREG:

Thank you for listening to the Sharing Humanity podcast. Please, if you’re struggling with a mental health or family issue - make sure you talk to a licensed therapist or health professional.

Also, for more important and useful information during this time, check out our coronavirus page at Manulife.ca.