'Self-isolation is bringing out the worst in some. How do we avoid conflict?'

Things are tough right now, writes advice columnist Eleanor Gordon-Smith, but we must try to keep contempt at bay

These days of self-isolation are bringing out the worst in some people. With very little warning that can go off like a bomb. I fear that as these weeks of lockdown drag on, this sort of surprise misbehaving and mistreatment of others will only get worse. Not only by those loved ones who we are in quarantine with, but neighbours, colleagues and other acquaintances that we happen to cross paths with through email, Zoom, etc. How do we avoid conflict with people at this time?

The first thing dozens of spouses did when they got out of isolation in Wuhan was file for divorce. Children moved out of parental homes and swore not to speak to family again. I think a lot of us are afraid that isolation might cause this kind of collapse in our closest relationships. Not through fights or conscious decisions, but through the “everything and nothing” cataclysms that wait for us when we just handle each day a little badly and let the days add up.

You don’t need me to tell you that things are tough right now. The problem is that while “things are tough right now” is usually a reason to go a little easy and ask a little less of each other, this “right now” might be several months long.

Usually we can put off emotional things until we feel better – until we’ve slept, eaten and exercised – but this foul mood won’t be so easily lifted. So we need to find a way to do two things at once: honestly feel and acknowledge the ways this pandemic is fraying our mental edges, and find more to say in response than “it’s only for now”.

One place to start is with vigilant attention to what we allow as normal. Do not permit small expressions of contempt. Anger, frustration, sadness, blame – yes, but never contempt. Keep contempt out of your home and you’ll have a difference in the kind – not just degree – of your fights and the curdled sprawls that ruin families. Don’t just take it in your stride when people speak to you in ways you don’t like – act surprised. Surprise marks clear edges around what we expect of our relationships, and communicating that “this isn’t normal” is often an effective way of communicating “it shouldn’t be”.

Another place to start is something that can sound naff but I promise works: focus on the ways differences can be strengths. We’re not very good at understanding other people’s reactions to crises, and we don’t feel understood when they don’t share ours. But there’s strength in the fact that we react differently. Maybe you can’t stand your mother’s over-stocking of the fridge. Maybe your husband’s insistence on routine seems too stiff-upper-lip. But if we focus on being grateful to her for keeping us fed, and to him for keeping us moving, then maybe they can learn to be grateful for whatever your reaction gives them that they wouldn’t have alone. A pandemic is a good time to stand back-to-back with people who have skills you don’t.

And talk. We have to talk. If people can’t ask directly for what they need they’ll either manipulate it out of other people or silently resent that they’re not getting it. Practice honestly asking, and honestly telling: do each other the service of hoping those conversations can be productive.

We are all going to find ourselves and the people we love behaving in some profoundly unlikable ways. But the mission isn’t to like each other, it’s to love each other, which is much harder – and much more likely to get us through. Hold on.


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Eleanor Gordon-Smith

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