We’ve all heard about the rise in divorce that is expected following the forced togetherness imposed on spouses, partners, and significant others by COVID-19.  Chandrama Anderson is a well-respected marriage and family therapist, author, and regular contributor to the Palo Alto Weekly.  Chandrama shared her thoughts on how to survive and improve your relationship while sheltering-in-place.  I hope you find her thoughts and advice as insightful as I did.

1. With the couples that you are working on-line with, what is your advice for handling issues/arguments?

Wait until you are calm to talk about the issue(s).  Be curious and ask questions.  If one of you is upset, ask to know more about why.   Use phrases like, “I felt like ___” and “I need ___.”  Give the other the benefit of the doubt.  You might talk it through by saying the intention seemed good, but the impact I felt wasn’t good.  Then you can ask, “Tell me about your intention.”

2. Are there things you shouldn’t do?

Don’t talk when you are upset.  Do not use “You” statements.  Don’t bring up the past, and definitely do not use words such as always, never and everything, as these can be “hot” buttons.  A really important skill to learn is how to soothe yourself and not be dependent.  Remember you are both playing on the same side of the net or rowing the same direction in a boat.

3. What other advice do you have for couples working on their marriage while sheltering in place?

Take it slow, create fun, discuss other topics and reminisce about great times together.  There is a great book called “808 Conversation Starters for Couples: Spark Curious Chats During Dinner Time, Date Night or Any Moment,” by Robin Westen.  Most of the time when there is lack of communication and connection, relationships start to fall apart.   Another idea is to practice retirement to get a glimpse of what it will be like and things you can do together.  Try new things together.  Decide you want to take lessons to be able to do an activity in retirement.  Talk about how much time you need together and the space you need for yourself and for your friends.

4. With the clients you work with, how do you know if they are serious about doing the work required?

First, they want to listen.  They take in the other person’s ideas, and they think about it.  They don’t expect a quick “fix.”  They mutually want to work together and do their homework.  They also keep track of their progress but don’t “keep score.”

5. Do you have any advice for how to not escalate issues?   Any other advice?

Don’t be defensive, and be quiet when the other is talking.  It really helps to be vulnerable too.  Understanding the difference between empathy and apology is essential.  Do not be dismissive or think something isn’t worth getting upset over.  It obviously is to the other person.  Practice active listening and let them know you heard them.  It is important to note that hearing them is not the same as agreeing with them.  It helps to say that something must have been painful or hurtful.  Then tell them how you feel about the issue.  Many times people are too quick to apologize, and that can come off as very hollow, not complete, lacking empathy or understanding. 

6. If money is an issue, how would you advise easing into and discussing this highly sensitive issue?

Start with making eye contact and propose that you would like to discuss money or some aspect of finances.  Ask when a good time for the discussion would be.  One of the best things you can do is be curious about the other’s family and their attitudes and experiences with regard to money.  Having a good understanding of someone’s feelings about money, whether rational or irrational, can go a long way towards understanding where they are coming from and any biases they may have.

7. Working in Silicon Valley, do you think that money issues in marriage are more prevalent than other issues?

I would say some of it is the same and boils down to communication and connection.  I see people here being very career-driven.  If they jump jobs often,  they may have to prove themselves over and over again, which can put stress on the individual and the relationship.  There is also a lot of trying to keep up with the Joneses, living beyond their means.

Clari’s comment: As financial advisors, we understand that Silicon Valley jobs can be very demanding and there can be quite a bit of imbalance between work, family, and other areas.  In working with clients, we emphasize shared goals and ask that couples meet together with us 1-2 times a year.  When both parties understand their goals and see progress toward their goals, it can bring them closer together and help reduce stress.  If it turns out goals are not being met, getting back on track together is very helpful too.  There can be big discrepancies in financial knowledge between the partners, and that is okay, but having some knowledge and shared goals is important for a relationship.

8. If sex and/or raising children are the big issues, how should they ease into discussions, and do you have any tips on discussing these issues effectively?

I would say the same answers in #6 apply here.  I see a big issue in this area due to “triangulation”. The couple’s top priority should be the couple, say #1. The children should be a close second. 1. Another contributing factor can be when one parent focuses on the children and the other is working too much.

9. How do you suggest handling disagreements about views on the virus and risks?

It is a general principle that whatever is important to you, it needs to be important to me.  You have to respect the person willing to take the least amount of risk.   It may not be how you feel, but you need to remember to respect the other’s point of view.  They should also consult informed sources such as W.H.O and the CDC and really question sources that aren’t recognized.

10. What are the most common warning signs that couples should consider therapy?

If one person is consistently giving in to the other.  If one or both feel like they are walking on eggshells.  If they are sleeping apart and are having lots of disagreements.  If they are leading parallel lives and/or lack communication or an emotional connection, this can be an indicator.  In addition, if there isn’t eye contact and there is lots of device time, then it could be another red flag.

Chandrama Anderson, MA. MFT also has a weekly blog Couple’s Net in the Palo Alto Weekly, where many of these topics are covered in more detail.

Clari Nolet, CFP®, CDFA® has a passion for assisting women in transition. Whether going through a divorce or losing a spouse, having a trusted partner can make all the difference. She works closely with clients’ advisors including, but not limited to family law attorneys, mediators, CPAs, and forensic CPAs. She assists women by providing a clear picture of their current situation and helps them organize and build their financial life by setting and supporting their goals as they reinvent themselves.

Clari Nolet 2020

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