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How to Show Up in Relationship While Hitting the Pandemic Wall

By: Joanna (Jo) Nowak, LCSW

couple sitting in their bed with their pets

March 1, 2021

By now, I imagine that most of us have heard about the concept of “hitting the pandemic wall” – a term popularized by Taniza Vega, a host from New York Public Radio. In addition to having heard this term, I imagine each of us can also identify exactly how this feeling of emotional and physical exhaustion manifests in our respective brains and bodies. For me, hitting the pandemic wall has meant dealing with a lot of opposites simultaneously, which can be a really odd and uncomfortable experience. For example, I am perpetually exhausted – with heavy eyes and limited energy – and yet somehow, I am also often unable to sleep. I notice almost constant brain fog, while my mind is somehow also jittery and my thoughts race haphazardly from one topic to the next. One minute, I am overwhelmed and saddened by the state of this country and this world, and the next, I am entirely numb and apathetic.

Lately, the uncomfortable opposite that has been feeling the heaviest for me is balancing an overwhelming feeling of loneliness mixed with a pervasive inability to interact with others. Whether I become cranky or tired or otherwise overwhelmed, direct interaction with my partner, my family, friends, or other loved ones sometimes has a way of becoming incredibly cumbersome – and yet, (oh yes! It’s another contradiction!) I crave interaction and compassionate attention almost constantly.

Based on what I have heard from clients, colleagues, and loved ones, I am very much not alone in struggling with effective social and relational engagement. For many of us, it has become really challenging to navigate how to show up for ourselves while juggling all of these opposing forces. Though we all have had our own pandemic experiences, the last year has not been kind to many of us. This is a large-scale form of collective trauma, and our brains and bodies are in overdrive trying both to find some form of balance and to minimize our stress responses. Whether we want to be or not, our brains and bodies are in survival mode, which is not necessarily conducive for socialization – let alone for relationship repair or maintenance.

So how can we best navigate conflict or tolerate tension at home or within our bubbles? How can we show up for others when we may have limited energy or resources to show up for ourselves? As some of us might have come to experience often throughout the pandemic, there is no one-size-fits-all solution to these questions. That being said, there are some ways to practice filling your own cup, while still placing an emphasis on your relationships.

Normalize arguing or conflict

Regardless of the type of relationship, conflict is perfectly normal. At the same time, conflict is something that can be incredibly challenging to navigate – particularly since this type of interaction can often lead to an elevated stress response.

Remember how we talked about our bodies already being in a chronic state of stress and overwhelm due to the pandemic? Conflict can become increasingly challenging or painful to process right now, since our bodies are already fighting so hard to keep us in balance. It can be powerful to allow yourself the space and the grace to acknowledge that some amount of tension is truly unavoidable while you are stuck inside with your partner, your family, or your roommate constantly. Remember to be kind and compassionate toward yourself when you find yourself in arguments, because none of us are used to being with our loved ones this often.

Set boundaries

Setting and maintaining boundaries can be a core component of any healthy and balanced relationship. Boundaries give us the opportunity to teach others how to treat us and to create space and safety for ourselves. Boundaries can exist in a variety of domains – including physical, emotional, or time boundaries. Our boundaries and needs will naturally shift over time, and right now could be a time where it is helpful to revisit your needs and expectations at home.

For example, do you live in a small apartment or have limited alone time or space? Then perhaps it could be helpful to expressly establish a certain room or period of time where you get to be alone to decompress and to practice self-care. Alternatively, maybe you set a routine of going for a walk (weather permitting, of course) at the same time daily, and let your loved ones know that you will not be available for texts or calls during this time.

Setting and maintaining boundaries can be helpful for the people around you too! The more you practice advocating for these needs and expectations, the easier it may feel for your loved ones to do the same for themselves.

Practice vulnerability

One of my clients calls Brené Brown, “the social work lady from Texas that you would like to swap bodies with for a little while,” and let me tell you…. This client is not wrong. Brené Brown’s research with shame and vulnerability has been a formative components of my life – both personally and professionally.

Somewhere along the way, a lot of us started to think of vulnerability as something weak or wrong. While it definitely can be scary to allow someone in authentically and fully, this is not weakness; this is absolute courage. Bringing vulnerability into conversation and into conflict can be a powerful antidote to shame, anger, guilt, or any of the other incredibly activating and icky emotions that tend to surface during arguments. When some of these icky emotions come up, it is common for us to blame others, to become defensive, or to shut down entirely, which does not allow for effective conflict or communication.

Practicing vulnerability with your loved ones in smaller and more easily accessible ways is a great way to begin strengthening that muscle. As you become more comfortable showing up with others in a space of vulnerability, you might feel more safe and secure to bring vulnerability into your arguments – hopefully allowing for a more compassionate and constructive version of conflict.

I highly recommend watching Brené Brown’s TED talks on vulnerability, shame, and guilt as starting points for further exploration of these topics. Alternatively (or additionally), her podcast “Unlocking Us” has been a core component of my pandemic self-care.

Prioritize quality time

I joke sometimes that my life has become three screens – the medium screen is for work, the small screen is what keeps me distracted throughout the day, and the large screen allows me to stare into the void for several hours after a long day. It can be easy to get lost in the screens lately – or maybe to get lost in feelings of apathy or stress. Prioritizing quality time with my partner is important both to create joy and to ensure that we continue to have positive regard and excitement toward one another.

Whether it is scheduling an at-home pandemic date night, game night with your family (virtually or in-person – depending on your context), or another enjoyable activity with your bubble, prioritizing quality time is a critical aspect of ensuring that your relationships remain healthy, happy, and balanced. Entering an argument with positive regard and respect toward the person can help to promote a much kinder version of conflict.


Pandemic Wall

Pandemic as Collective Trauma

Brené Brown videos:

The Power of Vulnerability

Listening to Shame

Pandemic Date Night Ideas:

21 Quarantine Virtual First Date Ideas

14 Fun and Creative Quarantine Date Night Ideas