When we said we wanted to spend our lives together - we didn’t mean to spend every moment together. Now, with us in each other’s spaces all the time, we are getting on each other’s nerves. We live in a studio in Dubai – trying to get space away is impossible. His voice which was once so dear to me has begun to grate on my ears; he often tells me that my once ‘endearing qualities’ have become annoying. How can we make it out of this situation together and happy?
A reader who wishes to stay anonymous
Dr Melanie C. Schlatter, PhD, Clinical Health Psychologist, HEALTH PSYCHOLOGY UAE, replies
Thank you so much for writing in at this difficult time. Traditionally, giving advice on how to live together in a small space meant that we would often talk about the literal setup of the studio in order to create a feeling of psychological balance and harmony—whether it be maximising storage space, finding the most energy efficient 2-in-1 appliances so you could still have all the luxuries, putting up stylish dividers to establish a little privacy, checking out calming wall paper colours and matching décor; or studying everything from pull-out furniture and noise-cancelling headphones, to oxygenating indoor plantations that give the impression of being directly in nature. However, in times gone by (I say this as it feels like so long ago!), there was the freedom and liberty to get away from the studio at any time–to go off to the gym, the beach, for a walk, to work, to travel, and to socialise … whenever you wanted or needed. It was more like a little lily-pad to jump off from–and that was the very reason people invested in the lifestyle, as such–not only because it was more financially viable, but often simply because they may not be living there for long periods of time.
Now that times have changed quite dramatically, many people, like yourself, have had to co-exist for several months on the lily-pad together–not only living with each other as before, but now working together … And everything else in between. The freedom to ‘dash out’ and do what you would normally do in the name of daily living, was taken away. Routines had to be modified quickly. The privacy and space you could get when your partner left the studio for work, or similar, just ceased … and you probably got to learn things about your partner that you probably never even knew (or wanted to know) … about how they talk to their colleagues at work, how distractible they are, or about what their toenail cutting regime really involves. This is tough, even for the most seasoned of studio dwelling inhabitants or the most romantically inclined couples.
Don't ignore the reason
I am sure you are aware that there was a reason for all of this too—a virus. And we had no control over this, other than we knew that ‘everyone is responsible’; and for likely the first time in our lives, we were told that staying home was the best option. So, added onto your daily worries prior to all of this, was likely a dose of fear, uncertainty and general pressure—the acute awareness that people are losing jobs, running out of money, leaving the country, getting sick, worrying about loved ones, mask wearing, sanitisation, and so forth—people’s nerves have been more easily frayed. There has been more to contend with than ever before. With all your own usual problems, plus the weight of the world on your shoulders, our brains have naturally become hyper-vigilant to everything around us, ironically to protect us from further ‘danger’ and to maximise the feeling of control. Our brains remind us to keep alert; to keep a look out for ‘danger’. So, we become sensitive, and our threshold for stress tolerance decreases. This is what you are describing now. A feeling of almost separation from your partner – there is less ‘we’. It’s him versus you. You, struggling to remain endearing and calm when you don’t have the emotional capacity, resources—or space—to do so. How frustrating! So, suddenly you find yourself tuned in to everything and noticing things you probably used to overlook – maybe the noisy neighbours, his small sniffs at the end of a sentence, his bathroom habits, the sound of each other’s’ voices, and general mannerisms. It can become overwhelming and makes you less and less tolerant…so it’s reassuring that you wish to know how to make it out of this “together and happy”.
How brain reacts under stress
Given that we know this is how the brain reacts under stressful and novel circumstances, in addition to the most important fact that we can’t control everything/everyone, please go back to basics.
Remember that as much as we are social, loving creatures, we still need a little alone time and down time – that is completely normal. Check in with your surroundings and what can be altered relatively quickly – do you actually have a literal space that is calming and workable? If not, can you change anything? Are there small spaces you can create for privacy so you can literally feel alone for a bit? Or things you can add to make your heart happy? (memorable photos or large pictures of natural scenery, funny quotes, a water feature or even the sound of waterfalls/the sea on the television etc). Spaces that you can allocate for ‘just work’, ‘just sleep’, ‘just calm’ and so forth?
People have bad habits and faults, no one is perfect
Know that people are not perfect. They have bad habits and faults. But everyone is on a path and everyone is learning. Adjust your expectations. It can be uncomfortable, but your partner is hopefully trying as much as you are. Whatever you see in your partner that now makes you annoyed or repulsed, step back and ask yourself how relevant it is in the scheme of things. Broaden your perception of what is truly important. Are you investing too much time festering about his faults when you could be doing something else?
Rituals, routines and habits to help focus
Establish small rituals, routines and habits to help you focus on what is important in the moment, and mentally isolate yourself in your times of need. Can you get up a little earlier or go to bed later than him and do journaling, grounding, meditation or prayer? Maybe putting on noise cancelling headphones, sipping a camomile tea, and burning a lavender essential oil before work could help to widen that psychological space? Spending an extra few minutes in the bathroom grounding yourself before you come out? (maybe as simple as slowly putting on hand cream after washing your hands and smelling the scent, or brushing your teeth mindfully). Perhaps putting on some calm music while you have a shower? Using your senses to focus on the view outside the studio or to concentrate on each meal as you prepare it? This way, you are buying yourself more psychological space and thus perspective – with practice, you’ll be more inclined to shift focus off his annoying traits and broaden your perception.
Creating a calm space
Practice calming yourself in general – perhaps using breathing, mindfulness or even meditation apps / reminders throughout the day. Creating a calm space needs to be the new platform you work from. Teach your brain that you are safe and well, no matter what might be going on in the outside world. And when you are together, try to keep it more light-hearted, in whatever way is realistic.
Frustration and anger
Notice any self-sabotage that could be contributing to you projecting all your frustration and anger on your partner. Maybe you have fallen into wearing old attire each day; maybe you don’t do as much that made you feel good or look good before? Perhaps you are eating more and regularly disappointing yourself? Notice how literally ‘looking good’ can help you to ‘feel good’ too. So, don’t forget about re-establishing any good habits you may have let slip. Notice who you have become also. Are you sticking to your values regarding partnerships, love, tolerance and so forth? Think about how you ideally want to live your life, and the person you aspire to be. Are you aligned with that, or do you feel off track? Try to get yourself on track again, step-by-step.
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Rules to drop
Notice how your expectations may clash, and again, try to adapt and compromise – are you expecting him to worry about things, or to be up and about by 6am each day, lest your mind views him as lazy? Notice what rules you need to drop for the time being in order to maintain peace and harmony.
A look back
Think about a time several years from now too – how would you like to look back and think about this time? Was it a time where you practiced patience, tolerance, learning, adaptability and forgiveness, or a time that was anxiety-ridden, argument prone, and resentment filled?
Look at the brighter side
Look at what you ‘do’ have with your partner. What are his good points? Be able to notice when your mind wants to drag you to that hypervigilant, anxious and frustrated place (remember that ironically your brain is trying to help you; but it’s not always a reflection of ‘you’). Choose to focus on what IS working (and tolerable). Write it down if it makes it easier, to help remind you in difficult times.
Use time wisely
Take advantage of any restrictions lifted by the authorities when you can … do go out for that walk; go the car and sit in it; meet a friend; do a little shopping; chat online with your friends rather than in person so you feel you have a modicum of privacy and freedom.
Most importantly, become a team again. Don’t be afraid to talk to your partner directly – be cautious of mind reading. What does he need? Talk about what you need and what you would like help with also. Explain the WHY you may need these things. Help him to understand you. Find ways to adapt and compromise. You need to communicate as openly as you can, not to hold in all your emotion and frustration. You don’t need to point out his faults or blame him (and vice versa), rather, continue to find ways to adapt and respect each other’s’ boundaries. This is not forever! Remember this!
If you have questions that you would like answered by a mental health professional in the UAE, please write in to firstname.lastname@example.org. Also, please let us know if you'd rather stay anonymous.
Disclaimer: This blog is a conversation and is not an alternative for treatment. The recommendations and suggestions offered by our panel of doctors are their own and Gulf News will not take any responsibility for the advice they provide.