Pandemic Relationships

Living Together, Separating, Divorcing: Surviving During a Pandemic

Author: Peter Nicholson

Sheltering together and navigating apart – Fridge magnet philosophy

This is the article from the “Trapped together when you want to separate” section of the book. Thanks to Mary-Anne Popescu from Canada for the contribution.


In uncertain times, I find myself drawn to the simple wisdom that fridge magnets promote. Magnet “philosophies” like “Keep Calm and Carry On” are exactly what we need right now, but how do families do that when the stress of separation creates additional burden?  

Magnet 1: “To Build a Bridge, You Have to Start on Both Shores” 

What do you know for sure about the conflict? Can you see your partner’s shore?  Does your partner intend to irritate you as, for example, you notice them only selectively listening to you?  What impact does that have on you?  Feeling unheard could be the first response; what else is going on for you?  What if you were able to ask a curious question about their behaviour? What if the assumption you tied to their behaviour is incorrect, and the explanation less antagonistic than you thought?

Insight Mediation is a model used very successfully in family mediation; it takes us past the “certainty-of-knowing” and helps us listen for new information. 

Imagine meeting an old friend at the grocery store, without it being a strategic operation with gloves, masks, and steady supplies of disinfectant. What would you hope to tell them about your relationship with your ex-partner? Is it possible that in these challenging times spent together sheltering-in-place you have come to understand each other better, to have built a bridge that you walked across together, to celebrate your co-parenting relationship? 

Magnet 2: “Conflict is Inevitable, Combat is Optional” 

Many families have the added stress of sheltering-in-place after a decision to separate has been made.  The option to be outside the house and give each other room has been erased. You already know what irritates you about your partner’s behaviour, you’ve thought about that a lot along the way, and it is part of the reason for separation.  You are an expert in predicting what will cause tense situations, and what you can now become is an expert in deciding how you will handle it. The conflict is inevitable, the combat is optional. 

What if you didn’t react in the way you normally would when faced with a behaviour that bothered you? What if you could identify the “attack” as a threat to something you care about, and instead of using your usual “defend” strategies, you were able to work on protecting what you value.  So far, nothing about your past conflicts has made any impact toward changing the patterns of interaction, so why not try something else? What about the situation you can control?  The answer is that you can only manage your own response.  It can be jarring for your partner to see you disengage from a conflict. Our patterns of behaviour, even when dysfunctional, are familiar to us, and we tend to like the familiar.  Watch out for your partner trying to bring you back to the combat.  This change in patterns need not be a “sneak attack,” let them in on your experiment, maybe they would be open of the change of “rules of engagement” too. 

Mary-Anne Popescu


Finding a pathway out of a challenging situation

Here is the first article from our new book. We hope you find it useful. Thank you Margaret and Greg.

You find yourself suffering emotional and financial stress because of the pandemic lockdown. What do you do? How do you find a way out? 

The first answer to these questions is that there is no answer. Well, no one answer.

There are a lot of pathways out, but which one do you take? Again, there is no answer to this question? Well, no one answer.

You can start by trying a different way of thinking – Let the answer find you. 

So how do you let the answer find you?

Well, try starting with a non-specific broad goal such as: I want to find the best way of helping discipline my children; I want to find the best way of divorcing my partner while living in the same house or I want to find the best way of co-parenting with my separated partner during the lockdown.

These are called oblique goals. The moment you focus on a specific goal you immediately cut out the many other potential opportunities. Being efficient and focused kills diversity. At the moment you desperately need a diversity of options to find your way out.

So how do I start the journey out? 

Again, start with a different way of thinking. It’s the non-thinking option. Accept that the past is dead, and the future hasn’t happened yet. All you have is the moment you are in. So, be totally present in the moment and be totally observant of what is happening. Observe rather than analyse. You cannot use reason or logic to think yourself out of your current problem.

What do I do next? 

Make a small offer of generosity, a gift or concession without comment. Harness the power of silence and let the offer hang in the air. It is a very powerful position and invokes a sense of reciprocity from the receiver. Something will emerge out of this selfless act on your part. You will receive something in return.

Then what do I do? 

Observe what happens out of the interaction and use your intuition to choose your next move. What is adjacent possible to where you are now that moves you in the direction of your broad aim of finding the best path forward? Small steps are more important than big leaps. As you take each step a whole new world opens of adjacent possibilities. Each step opens fresh diversity. You are now on the path out even though it might wind around in all directions.

If you strike resistance or aggression reflect on how it makes you feel. Try responding by saying “I feel sad (scared, puzzled, anxious, etc)”. Again, use silence to let your comment hang in the air. It’s the opposite of saying “you make me feel sad, etc. it is a non-accusatory approach. By speaking about your feelings, you are holding a mirror up to the person.

Again, observe the interaction and use your intuition to select what is adjacent possible to where I am now that moves me forward in the general direction of my goal.

Margaret Ross and Greg Rooney


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