Honey, I’m (always) home! If you live with a partner or a roommate, coronavirus quarantine isn’t just about managing your own needs and anxieties. It’s about finding a way to coexist with someone and all of their needs and anxieties every minute of every day in a confined space for an undisclosed amount of time. If you think that should be easy because you already live together and love one another, you’re wrong and you know it.
There would be no escape from the squabbles, for one thing, whether they’re about toothpaste or President Trump. The experience would be stressful and taxing and maybe even traumatic. If you do end up quarantined due to the spread of Covid-19, the extended period of isolated-yet-never-alone confinement you’d be facing has more in common with shipping out to an Antarctic research station, a submarine, or the International Space Station than it does with your domestic daily grind. If you want to come out of it with your relationships and sanity intact, it’s time to start preparing for your mission.
While the experience will be easier for some (sorry, extroverts), quarantine will mess with everyone’s heads. Research shows you’ll be bored, frustrated, lonely, angry, and stressed. Humans don’t like to be thrown out of their routines, particularly when the changes leave them feeling trapped. According to Samantha Brooks, who has studied the psychological impact of quarantine at King’s College London, people in a lockdown become extremely afraid of catching the disease and catastrophize any minor ailment that even resembles a symptom. “If you’re with someone else and you hear them cough, you’d start to panic about their health and your own too,” she says. “More worryingly, there is some evidence that people in quarantine are more likely to report symptoms of depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress.”
If you’re isolated long enough—months on end—an adverse quarantine experience could even alter your brainwaves. “Under conditions of confinement, the brain and one’s behavior begins to exhibit something similar to the hibernation of animals during winter months,” says Lawrence Palinkas, who researches psychosocial adaptation to extreme environments at the University of Southern California. “When exposed to restricted light and limited environmental stimuli, the brain slows down to conserve energy.” According to Palinkas, it’s something that happens to researchers in the Antarctic during the harsh, dark winter. “You may find people essentially dropping out of conversations,” he says. “They refer to it as ‘the Antarctic stare.’” You don’t want this to happen to your partner; your partner doesn’t want this to happen to you. Fortunately, you can work together to improve your situations and stave off frustrations or creepy, Antarctic withdrawal.
The first step is to look inward. “Perfect harmony is not the goal. It’s really about self-awareness,” says Elaine Yarborough, a conflict resolution consultant who has been managing interpersonal and business conflicts in 30 countries for the last 40 years. “If people have not cultivated it, or even partially considered it, they could be in trouble.” When you do come into conflict with your roommates or family members, Yarborough recommends thinking carefully about what you actually want and feel, and then say that rather than whatever snarky remark your cranky brain wants to put out into the world. If a minor argument concerns old baggage or you’re really upset because you’re grieving the loss of your social life, say so. “Differentiate between a surface and real interest,” Yarborough says. “For example, you may get angry that another has not taken out the trash. The real issue is that you feel ignored and unimportant. Express the latter.” In other words, this is your time to hurry up and start acting like a well-adjusted adult.