Hell Is Other People: How to Survive Your Family in Captivity

by Liz Covey, LMHC, Therapist & Parent Coach

No one ever promised that scrolling would bring satisfaction, much less relief, but here I am, doing more of it than ever. More than in life-before-this. I invariably come across dozens of articles with advice for treating this quarantine time like a retreat or a sabbatical, with suggestions for DIY spa days, esoteric crafts, or Kondo-ing the sock drawer while we are all shut-in.

My husband is nearby and hears me slam my laptop shut with a louder-than-usual Marge Simpson groan. “What is it?” he says, looking up from his phone, anticipating more up-to-the-minute news on the crisis, a combination of shock and apathy on his face.

“Nothing” I say, reaching for a fourth cup of coffee, “just more irrelevant advice from people without kids”. Then I take my turn in the wordless square dance that is our new parenting routine, checking in on the kids who are in the next room, and will be forever it seems, drunk on more screen time than could have ever been imagined in life-before-this. My husband gives me the “you ok?” look, hopeful I am not going to tip the balance too far in a direction that sets everything off (I don’t, but it’s a close call).

I know that one day we will be back to normal. But I can’t help but wonder, will we be able to get through this with our home relationships intact?

In The Picture of Dorian Gray, Oscar Wilde wrote that the charm of marriage was that “it makes a life of deception necessary for both parties”. Writer, Ted Talker, and psychotherapist Esther Perel would seem to agree. In her 2009 book Mating in Captivity, she proposes that it is precisely the loss of deception (or her more charitable word, mystery) that accounts for some marriages becoming arid and dull over the years, as opposed to naturally growing closer by the virtues of time and comfort.

Those things – time and comfort- she theorizes, can rob us of the necessary ingredient of the erotic in long-term coupling. What many of us want in a peaceful home life doesn’t always comport with what makes us feel alive or fulfilled. Perel suggests that the remedy for the tug toward the ho-hum in marriage is to keep some mystery alive. But is that possible during a pandemic, when all-day-PJs and the kids non-stop fighting while both parents try to work from home doesn’t exactly spark joy?

What I’m learning at home and in my therapy practice is that there really is no one way to do this well. In part because no one knows what is coming next, or when “next” will come, not to mention what on earth that will look like. This has personal and collective contours and unfolds day by day. We are experiencing a collective trauma, with the hope of averting a much greater one. We make choices and take actions in the present, moment by moment, because it’s all we’ve got in a world without future plans.

My better self, the one who does less scrolling, and who shows up for my clients, knows that what we need right now, and what we need in the middle of a trauma, is to wake up to some basic humanitarian principles, and be good to one another. As we all know, that is easy to say and much harder to do. So, what might that actually look like in our homes right now?

Sometimes that will look like walking away instead of having the fight. Or shrugging things off that could cause hurt feelings or be too controversial. It could look like choosing to face up to one’s own lesser qualities with a bit of humor when they emerge or are made known to you (and they will be made known to you, especially if you have teenagers).

It will probably look like having substandard standards for everyone right now, including yourself. Weight will be gained. Shows will be binged. Spouses will be snappy. As long as one person aims for that higher ground, the whole group has a shot.

We are trying to keep our heads above water, and maybe not much else. This may not be the time to pursue any grand new ventures, or challenges to the order of thing. Give a second thought to having that big talk on the state of your marriage. It will probably not go particularly well at this time.

Under stress, we do best with known and predictable patterns, and are less open to taking in new things. So keep it simple, familiar, and comfortable. It’s a good time to feel things. To slow down and check in. We will use distractions, sure, but it needn’t be an endless loop.

For parents, remember that kids under duress tend to act out, not mature on-the-spot because we need them to. Expect rude behavior, attitude problems, and laziness to the max. See it as your job to structure things, but don’t be that dad in Sound of Music. Be Maria (or at least be Maria for an hour or two a day).

As any parent from Generation X can tell you, childhood can withstand a lot of screen time, way less parental involvement, and much more boredom. Unlike some folks who practice “free-range parenting”, I do not recommend these things in normal times. But I do now.

Consider going easier on them than usual, and suspend harsh punishments altogether (they aren’t the most effective thing in any time, but especially not now). Do something fun together every day. Play games, and get down on the floor with little ones. Be silly. Practically none of us- and certainly no families with kids that I know- would willfully choose to be where we are today.

Family is a balancing act, not a dictatorship, much as some of us wish it was otherwise. But never will that be more true than now: there is no gym to burn off steam, no office or pub to act as counterpoint to the doldrums of home. Nope. We’re all in the same boat now, and it’s a canoe. And your family members are holding the other paddle.

So if all of this shutdown is making you feel the same, and if you are less desirous of your spouse or less enthralled with your kids lately, confirming Wilde’s and Perel’s theories, take comfort in knowing you aren’t alone. We’re all just doing the best we can (another thing I never say during normal times, but I do now).

Turning the other cheek, not saying that one thing, trying to have a little bit of fun and a lot of rest every day are revelatory steps in our current state of things. And they are necessary for our survival, which is all this is right now.

Liz Covey is a South Seattle based mental health counselor

Featured image by Thomas Hawk