Stressed About Coronavirus? Make These 4 Mental Shifts

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It seems like every few minutes there’s another alarming headline about coronavirus. Perhaps, worries about the virus have you constantly reaching for hand sanitizer and steering clear of anyone you hear coughing or sneezing in public.

While it makes sense to follow precautions recommended by the CDC and other trusted organizations, did you know that there are some other potent ways to stay healthy? I’m talking about taking steps to boost your mental health.

Normally, I discuss these steps in the context of improving your marriage. But the same strategies that benefit your relationship will also boost your physical health. And in stressful times like these, we could all use a boost! The mind-body connection is powerful. Here are four mental practices that will enhance your physical wellness.

1. Lower Your Stress

There’s really nothing in your life that reducing your stress levels won’t improve. Stress takes a toll on relationships. But it also damages your health in myriad ways, including weakening your immune system.

Chances are you were pretty stressed out even before this global crisis. If coronavirus has you even more anxious than usual, it might be time to put some limits on your news and social media consumption. When you do seek information, turn to sources that are reliably accurate and that take a calm and measured tone instead of a sensationalistic one.

You can also bolster your immune system by making sure you are getting enough sleep and eating healthful foods, especially those that feed the gut bacteria that protect your body. Meditation, yoga and qigong can help turn the volume down on your body’s stress response.

2. Make a Point to Connect

Just like stress, loneliness is bad for your immune system. And it’s an epidemic in its own right. Almost half of all Americans report feeling lonely and left out.

As coronavirus spreads, we hear a lot about keeping up our physical distance from others. Universities are canceling classes. Companies are telling employees to work at home. And members of vulnerable groups are being urged to self-isolate.

At the same time, though, we should be making an extra effort not to be emotionally distant. Get in touch with people you don’t see regularly. If virus precautions have changed your routines, don’t let important people fall off of your radar.

When you are stressed and sad, share your feelings with someone you trust instead of just soldiering on. Even spending time with your pet helps. We are all social beings who need a rich network of relationships.

 3. Keep a Positive Mindset

Decide right now that you are in good health and that you are going to stay that way. Constantly call to mind mental images of yourself as strong and healthy. Positive emotions and visualization improve physical wellbeing in a very real way.

Regularly remind yourself of everything that you are grateful for. Gratitude is a powerful weapon against the negativity bias in our brains. We do a good job of remembering dangers and threats, but we have to intentionally focus on and savor positive things in order for them to register.

4. Let Go of Negativity

Elsa from “Frozen” was really onto something. Letting go and forgiving improves our health. If you are carrying around grudges and resentment, you are making it harder to keep yourself healthy and to heal from any illness. If everyday annoyances are really setting you off lately, that can affect your heart rate, blood pressure and immune response.

These four tips will help you bolster your health amid the anxiety about coronavirus. And, as a bonus “side effect,” they will also improve your marriage and other relationships. Please care for yourself well, both during this challenging time and well beyond.

What Meghan and Harry Teach Us About Marriage

As Valentine’s Day gets closer, no love story has the world’s attention right now more than the one between Prince Harry and Meghan Markle.

Of course, the Sussexes have been a magnet for headlines ever since they were dating. But the fascination with them jumped up to a new level after the two announced they would “step back as ‘senior’ members of the Royal Family” and divide their time between England and North America.

Everyone seems to have an opinion about “Sussexit.” Some are critical; some are supportive. As a psychologist who’s worked with countless clients on their marriage issues, I see two people that are making choices to protect their relationship. Although it might not seem like Harry and Meghan have much in common with the rest of us, they’re actually experiencing the same things, in their own way, that many other couples do.

They’re Under Pressure — But So Are You

As Meghan and Harry know all too well, outside factors can have a huge effect on your marriage.

Those factors can include societal pressures. Meghan and Harry have broken tradition for how they are “supposed” to behave as royals. For that, they’ve faced a lot of criticism.

You and I don’t know what that’s like, of course. But I bet you and your husband have defied expectations in other ways and caught flak — in ways large or small — from others. For example, maybe you make more money than he does, and your friends and family make passive-aggressive remarks.

Some pressures that Harry and Meghan have faced will feel more familiar to other couples.  They’re still new parents: Baby Archie was born last May. They have had (or are rumored to have had) difficult times with both sides of their family. And talk about work pressures! How would you like media attention on every aspect of how you did your job?

There’s also a compelling case to be made that scrutiny of Meghan has a racist element. And, as anyone who’s experienced racism knows, it’s a profound source of stress that damages our physical and emotional health.

How Stress Hurts Your Marriage

Meghan and Harry move in a different world than we do. But stress is the great equalizer. It doesn’t matter how wealthy or famous you are. Constant, intense stress will take a toll on your relationship. That’s just how our brains are wired.

When you are under great stress, your brain goes into fight-or-flight mode. You are definitely not in “let me connect with my partner” mode! Under stress, you might …

  • Have trouble processing information.
  • Not really hear what your husband is saying.
  • Lack empathy.
  • Become defensive and have difficulty being open
  • Get “stuck in your story” and keep repeating your position.
  • Experience tunnel vision.
  • Have trouble solving problems.

When you and your husband are constantly stressed, you will regularly behave in these destructive ways. And that will alienate you from each other. Your relationship will get stuck in a negativity spiral.

What If You Stepped Back, Too?

Based on Harry and Meghan’s public statements, it’s clear that their stress has been building and that they felt their unprecedented move was necessary to protect themselves and their son.

I believe that we can all learn something from that. If outside pressures are causing extreme stress in your marriage, you have to make easing those pressures a top priority. Even if it’s uncomfortable. Even if it feels like you’re breaking a norm. Even if other people don’t like what you’re doing.

So what would create the space for less stress and more connection in your own marriage?

  • Can you take some things off of your jam-packed schedule so that you have more breathing room and time for each other?
  • What if you stopped trying to match your friends’ lavish lifestyles so that you could finally pay off that debt that’s been stressing you out?
  • Do you need to start limiting time around people who don’t support your marriage (even if they’re family) and find a new community that will validate and celebrate you?

Meghan and Harry show us that real love is very different from what we learned from fairy tales, even for a prince and a duchess. But they also show us we must take a stand for our own happily ever after.

If you’re ready to prioritize your relationship, I invite you to pick up a copy of my book Strong Women, Strong Love. It has lots of practical advice for busy couples who want to maintain their bond amid all of today’s stresses and outside pressures.

How to Cope When You Love Him But Hate His Politics

We live in politically divisive times. And those divisions even find their way into our marriages.

According to one study, 29 percent of Americans who were either married or in a relationship said today’s political climate causes tension with their partner.

If you and your husband disagree politically, you might feel like you’re trapped in one of those cable news shows where ideological rivals just keep shouting over each other. Or you might be simmering silently, aghast and puzzled at his opinions.

Either way, your diverging beliefs may be creating distance between you. And that can lead to deeper problems if you don’t find a way to manage your differences.

Argue the Right Way

You can still have a successful marriage if the two of you argue over politics sometimes. Political conflicts become a problem only if you handle them in ways that are detrimental to your marriage. It’s especially important to never show contempt for each other when you’re disagreeing over politics — or anything else, for that matter. Contempt is one of the biggest red flags that your relationship is in trouble.

Instead, handle political disagreements in your marriage the same way you would other types of conflict: with respect and love. That means:

  • Don’t bring up points of political disagreement when you are tired, irritated or feel like you can’t control yourself — or when you can tell that your husband is experiencing one of those states.
  • Pause, hold hands and make eye contact when you’re disagreeing. When you are in touch with the humanity of your partner, you’ll be less likely to say things you will regret later.
  • If things get too heated, take a timeout so you can both get to a calmer place.

Balance Conflict With Positivity

You can counteract some of the damage that political conflicts in your marriage cause by actively making an effort to remember all that is positive about your partner and your marriage. I’ve written before about how John Gottman discovered that spouses in successful marriages share more positive interactions than negative ones—a lot more. Happy, long-married couples have 20 positive interactions for every negative one. Even when they’re in conflict, their ratio is still five positives for every negative.

That’s something to keep in mind if politics are a source of negativity in your marriage. When the two of you are regularly kind, respectful and appreciative with each other, political conflicts will be easier to navigate.

Try Reducing Your Overall Stress

If political differences with your husband are pushing your buttons more than usual lately, remember that your marriage is being affected by outside forces. In other words, your problems aren’t solely caused by issues between the two of you.

First, it’s not your imagination that the overall political climate has grown more polarized and divisive. The society that we live in always has some influence on our relationships. And, in this case, that impact is turning up the heat around political differences we might have glossed over in the past.

Then there’s everyday stress. In a 2018 survey by the American Psychiatric Association, about 40 percent of Americans said they had grown more anxious in the past year. When we’re more stressed, we tend to magnify the negative traits we see in our partners. So, as an experiment, try focusing on reducing your stress and see if that affects how you feel about your political differences.

Set Some Boundaries

It’s perfectly fine if the two of you just decide to agree to disagree about politics and not discuss the issues that get you heated.

That’s what’s working for one of the couples in a New York Times article about partners with opposing political beliefs:

The next morning (after the 2016 election), with tears in my eyes, I told Nisim we were going to have to get divorced because I could not live with him for the next four years. He said, “Honey, we’re not going to get divorced. We’re just not going to talk about politics for the next four years.”

Get Curious and Listen

For other couples, though, it can be beneficial to try to better understand each other’s beliefs. We tend to assume an awful lot about other people, even our spouses, based on how they vote. But just because someone supports a political party or official on one stance, doesn’t mean that they wholeheartedly embrace everything in that party or official’s agenda. Having the courage to get curious and to listen deeply can help you get past any assumptions you are holding about each other’s political opinions. It can also help you decide whether your spouse’s beliefs are ones you simply dislike or whether they violate your deep values (in which case the issues with your marriage probably go beyond the scope of this article).

Remember That Facts Don’t Change Minds

Right now, you might be thinking, “That’s great and all. But it would be even greater if he could just change his mind and agree with me politically!”

Well, that might be wishful thinking. But if you do think there’s some potential for your husband to move closer to you politically, I recommend reading law professor Ozan Varol’s essay “Facts Don’t Change People’s Minds. Here’s What Does.”

Varol writes that facts don’t sway our opinions because “we tend to undervalue evidence that contradicts our beliefs and overvalue evidence that confirms them. We filter out inconvenient truths and arguments on the opposing side.”

The article also explores how no one likes to admit they were wrong. And sometimes people just dig in harder when we try to convince them of the error of their political ways.

It’s more effective, Varol says, to give the other person an out that lets them save face.

Finally, I want to leave you with a quote from the minister Joseph Fort Newton: “People are lonely because they build walls, instead of bridges.” I hope this article inspires you to build a bridge over the political differences between you, rather than a wall, especially if other parts of your marriage are going well.

Divorce Is Contagious — But You Can Inoculate Your Marriage Against It

You might be worried about the flu and other physical ailments that start circulating this time of year. But a contagion of a very different kind was the subject of a recent story in the Chicago Tribune.

The Tribune took a look at how divorce can spread through social circles. It cites a study that found you’re 75 percent more likely to get a divorce yourself if a friend has divorced. Even a friend of a friend getting a divorce raises your own chance of divorcing by 33 percent.

Why does this happen? In the article, relationship expert Helen Fisher says friends’ divorces prompt us to reassess the condition of our own marriages.

Just as physically ill people are hit harder by sicknesses like the flu, your marriage can also suffer from a weakened “immune system.” When your marriage is compromised, you may find yourself fantasizing about leaving, especially if a close friend has already taken that step.

Here are a few tips so you won’t unintentionally fall victim to the divorce contagion. It’s all about strengthening the health of the emotional connection between you and your spouse.

Take Care of Yourself

It’s hard to emotionally connect with anyone when you are running yourself ragged. Sleeping enough, eating well and managing stress make it more likely you will have the bandwidth to connect with your partner. Don’t forget to also make space for the people and activities you deeply enjoy. If you’ve been neglecting hobbies and interests, take some time to renew your passions. Have you lost touch with a dear friend? Reach out today. This can keep you from feeling that you’ve “lost yourself” — and that you need to leave your marriage to find yourself again.

Get Deliberate About Being Positive

Research shows that marriages stay strong when spouses share far more positive interactions than negative ones. But when we’re busy and stressed (which, for most of us, is always!), it’s easier to notice all the negatives. This week, try to intentionally look for and tell your husband how much you appreciate his good qualities. Be affectionate, playful, and compassionate to increase the positive even more. Keeping your  “emotional bank account” full with positives prevents it from being overdrawn in difficult times.

Seize Every Moment

Juggling the responsibilities of adulthood can make it hard for you and your husband to even “se” each other. When we focus exclusively on what we need to get done, and not on our partners, that intimate connection frays, little by little. You don’t need a two-week romantic vacation to rekindle your intimacy. (Although I’m very much in favor of taking one if you can!) Instead, take advantage of the small moments in your day — like when you both come home after work — to connect.  Investing even a little bit of time each day strengthens your relationship. Check out the Gottman Institute blog for a great resource on this topic:  “6 Hours a Week to a Better Relationship.”

The reality of contagious divorce is alarming, but it also serves as a powerful reminder to take care of your relationship. If you’d like a total “wellness guide” for your marriage, I invite you to check out my book Strong Women, Strong Love.

Are Your Phones Hurting Your Marriage?

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I don’t know you, but I’m willing to bet that both you and your husband have an extramarital involvement that’s affecting your relationship.

I’m not talking about other people (or at least I hope that’s not happening!). I’m talking about your phones.

There’s even a name now for ignoring your partner so you can pay attention to your phone: Pphubbing (partner phone snubbing).

And researchers are starting to look at the effect of pphubbing on relationships. Two marketing professors from Baylor University published a study on the phenomenon last fall.

“What we discovered was that when someone perceived that their partner phubbed them, this created conflict and led to lower levels of reported relationship satisfaction,” James A. Roberts, one of the researchers, explained in a news release about the study. “These lower levels of relationship satisfaction, in turn, led to lower levels of life satisfaction and, ultimately, higher levels of depression.”

As Sherry Turkle, a professor at MIT and the author of Alone Together put it in a 2012 TED Talk, we’re prone to using technology to hide from each other or keep each other at arm’s length.

So how can you keep your phone from coming between you and your spouse?

First, pay attention to whether you’re engaging in any of the behaviors that participants in the Baylor study identified as pphubbing:

  • Placing your cell phone where you can see it or keeping it in your hand when you’re with your partner.
  • Glancing at your cell phone when you’re talking with your partner.
  • Checking your cell phone during lulls in conversation with your partner.

See what happens when you commit to avoiding those behaviors and being more present with your partner.

To keep your phone use from affecting your relationship, you may also have to look beyond your personal habits. It’s not your imagination that demands on our time are greater than ever before — and our employers’ constant access to us via our phones is part of the reason why. If it’s possible in your work situation, try to set some stronger boundaries. For example, let colleagues know that they should call you instead of texting or emailing if something urgent comes up so that you won’t feel compelled to keep checking your messages. You could even work together with your colleagues to try to change your office’s communication culture so that all of you can get more restorative time away from work.

Finally, remember that your phone isn’t inherently good or bad for your relationship. It all comes down to how you use it. So as you look for ways to curb your pphubbing behaviors, also look for ways to use technology to enhance communication with your partner. In our busy lives, it’s easy for couples to put deeper communication on the back burner as your conversations become limited to what needs to get done that day (“I have a late meeting, so you’ll need to pick up the kids after soccer — oh, and did you call the bank like we talked about?”). Using technology to add some moments of connection — for example, sending a sweet (or sexy!) text message or sharing an article you know your husband will like with him on Facebook — doesn’t take much time but has big payoffs on the overall health of your relationship.

We get the most from our relationships we give our full attention to each other. Don’t let the siren’s call of your phone imperil that. You’ll find more ideas on staying connected in our busy lives in my book Strong Women, Strong Love. You can even read it on your phone — just not while your partner is talking with you

 

It’s Time to Stop the Shaming  

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Shame is having a moment right now.

You’ve probably seen posts in your social media feeds about parents shaming their misbehaving kids or cheating spouses being publicly shamed. Even dogs are getting shamed for their misdeeds!

I admit it: Those dog-shaming posts do crack me up. But otherwise this trend toward shaming is a cruel one that’s dangerous to our relationships.

It doesn’t take a viral social media post to hurt someone with shame, either. Have you ever criticized your husband while the two of you were with your kids, with friends and family or out in public?

Why Shame Hurts

Shame erodes the very things that are essential to the health of your marriage. Relationships need respect to thrive. Dr. John Gottman has done extensive research on what leads marriages to fail. He identified what he calls “the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse” in marriage. Shaming summons two of the Horsemen: criticism and contempt. Contempt, which is at the heart of shaming, is Gottman’s No. 1 predictor of divorce.

When you shame your spouse, you are robbing him of his dignity and taking away his sense of safety in the marriage. A shamed person feels rejected, which is profoundly painful to us as humans ­— it even activates the same parts of our brains that get triggered when we feel physical pain.

Make it a priority to preserve dignity and respect in your relationship. Distinguish private conversations from public ones. As you keep shaming out of your marriage, I also want to encourage you not to share or like social media posts that shame others. If you haven’t already, watch the powerful TED Talk by Monica Lewinsky (someone who knows firsthand the pain of shaming) about our “culture of humiliation.” Is that really the kind of culture we want to participate in creating? Take a stand against it by communicating with empathy and respect, both in your marriage and online.