As New Zealand goes into lockdown again, not everyone is happy about who they are sharing their bubble with, particularly those whose bubble includes their ex spouse!
Perhaps you were intending to speak with your spouse about separation but didn't get to do so before lockdown was announced. You now find yourself in the uncomfortable position of having to delay initiating a separation while your spouse may be none the wiser. Perhaps you are living in a tense situation, having raised the issue of separation with your spouse only to then be suddenly thrust into lockdown together.
Maybe you have been separated and living under the same roof together for a while. However, you never imagined this pragmatic arrangement would end up as you both sharing space 24/7 and not being able to get away from the home (and each other) for reasonable periods of time!
Cohabiting with an ex can make a lot of sense while you sort out your financial and housing arrangements. However, being in lockdown together can add an additional layer of stress and tension to already tenuous relationships. Differences between you can come sharply into focus when you can’t get any reasonable breaks from one another. It needn't all deteriorate into a war zone though! During previous lockdowns, some of our clients were able to navigate the situation well. Here are some of the strategies and tips I’ve been sharing with my clients to help them successfully manage cohabiting through lockdown with their ex:
Put Clear Guidelines in Place – it is likely neither of you really want to be in this situation and you will both want to make it as angst-free as possible. Take some time to discuss this fact and affirm you are both united in at least that much. Then consider how you can both work together to ensure the situation is, at least, tolerable.
Establish guidelines together around the sharing of your home. Akin to flatmates, consider how you will manage the day to day household routines (eg will you share meals? how will household chores be divided? Will you take set times to use the kitchen?). Are there topics of discussion that are to be 'off the table' during lockdown in case they become too acrimonious or emotionally fraught? How will you respect one another's need for space? If issues do arise, how will you attend to them in a way that minimises the risk of wholesale conflict arising?
Create Your own Zones – everyone needs a bolthole at this time – an area in the home for each of you where you won’t be disturbed by the other and can have the space to just be. Wherever this space is, ensure it is truly yours. Respectfully arrange for items belonging to, or used by, the other person to be removed from your space and vice versa. You don’t want to have to keep asking to go into your ex’s space to retrieve items of yours that are stored there.
If you are sharing a small space, such as an apartment, that doesn’t allow you to have your own zones, agree on regular times each day where one of you will head out for a short walk, to do the laundry or a food shop in order to give the other some space.
Respect Each Other’s Different Tolerances for Interaction – one of you may feel quite comfortable about continuing to share meals together, watch tv together and engage in regular conversation while the other may want to have very little interaction. Can you reach some understandings about your minimum interaction levels and not expect more than that? For example, I have one client who has an arrangement that she and her ex share a coffee each morning to check in on each other and watch the evening news together while they eat some dinner but outside of that, its just each to themselves. If you seem to be the one wanting more interaction, consider easing off a little rather than forcing interaction and risking irritation developing.
Divide Responsibilities & Time with Children – if you are able to carry on with your usual routine in the home with your children, great. If not, consider splitting up responsibilities for the children’s care and times spent by each of you with the children. For example, perhaps one of you is responsible for the children every afternoon while the other attends to some work from home and then you swap later. Some co-parents will take turns having meals with the children.
Differences in parenting styles can be highlighted when in lockdown so, as much as possible, try to get family agreements in place about issues such as children sharing responsibility for chores, the amount of time spent on devices, expectations around time spent all together as a family and behaviour consequences. If co-parenting is really feeling too difficult, reach out for some support online. Parenting coaches and mediators are available online and can help you reach understandings about your co-parenting under the same roof.
Give Yourself a Sense of Making Progress – One of the biggest challenges of being separated and living under the same roof during lockdown is feeling you have come to a standstill and that your separation or divorce is essentially on hold. Feeling a lack of control over the trajectory of your future is a surefire road to feeling miserable. However, as I set out in my last blog, there are impactful actions you can take to make progress.
If you choose to take steps, choose those steps carefully. It’s important to ensure that having a “to-do” list of actions in your separation during lockdown is not going to put you under more unnecessary pressure and stress. For example, now could be a great opportunity for you to pull together your thoughts about how to ask your spouse for a separation so that you are all ready to do this after lockdown ends. However, if you are going to find that process too emotionally draining without having the close support of a friend, you are likely better off choosing to take the smaller action of scheduling some time with that friend for after lockdown to work on this together. Similarly, lockdown may seem the perfect time to attend to jobs to ready the home for future sale but you may be better to cut that to-do list down if its likely to lead to you feeling resentful about the amount you are doing or arguing together about the correct way to clear the gutters.
Self Care – now, more than ever, we need to be attending to caring for ourselves well. Doing so will boost your physical immunity against illness. It will also boost your mental immunity – your ability to be immune to the annoyances posed by being in lockdown with your ex! Fuelling yourself well will mean you can simply cope better.
When thinking about what you need in order to fare well in lockdown, consider what your personality type means you need to attend to in your self care regime. If you are an extrovert, it will be important to your wellbeing to seek out social opportunities by phone or Zoom with friends and family. Similarly, if you are an introvert and in a crowded house, what do you need to do to ensure you have the alone time you will crave?
Time Out – a key component of self care will be getting the time you need away from your ex outside the four walls of your home. Getting time outside the home, within acceptable limits, will be important to getting space from one another and avoiding cabin fever. Get in regular walks, volunteer to be the person who collects groceries for the household, go sit in your garden and talk to the neighbour over the fence.
Say What You Need - communicate clearly what you need at this time. Now is not the time to assume your ex and others in your bubble will know, like some sixth sense, what you need or want. "Do you think the dog needs a walk?" is no substitute for "I think the dog needs a walk and I'd appreciate you taking her in the next couple of hours because I need some time here alone". When we fail to clearly express our needs, we run the risk of sliding into passive aggression, resentment and conflict. Your needs are important so speak up. Be clear. Be direct. Be specific. Be respectful.
Seek Help – you can’t control the fact you are sharing a home with the person you no longer wish to be in a relationship with. You can’t control how that person behaves while you are cohabiting. You can’t control if they carry their share of the parenting or domestic duties. What you CAN control is your own thinking about these things.
Get clear about what you can control and let go of everything that you can't control. Does this mean things won't be done the way you like? Sure. Does it mean the kids may spend more time on device and eat more chicken nuggets than you'd like? Sure. Does it mean your ex may leave a mess in the kitchen every evening? Sure. But, compared to what others in our Covid-ridden world are facing at the moment, does it really, really matter? Really? Asking this will inevitably lead to a lighter attitude about things that ordinarily would annoy you immensely!
Whether it is the emotional turmoil of a separation, the frustrations of cohabiting or the sadness and challenge of lockdown, a key step to having a good headspace is to remember this too shall pass. This too shall pass. This too shall pass. This too shall pass. Repeat after me... (And imagine how freaking awesomely resilient and adaptive we will all be when it does!).
If you are struggling with this or things are getting too challenging, do reach out to the various supports available. Perhaps it is a friend, colleague or family members. If you already have a counsellor or mental health professional, contact them. Other support services can be found here.