Preventing Household Conflict When You’re Stuck at Home Together

Published on: 24 Mar 2020
Clinically Reviewed by Reshawna Chapple, PhD, LCSW

Time alone can make all the difference — even if it’s just a few minutes.

Most of us are so busy with jobs, school, and caretaking responsibilities that extended time at home with our loved ones once seemed like an unattainable dream. Self-isolation, resulting from the coronavirus crisis and government orders to shelter in place, however, can bring with it the silver lining of getting to reconnect with those we live with.

But social distancing, as Dr. Asaf Bitton writes, is not a snow day. While staying at home with loved ones comes with a silver lining for some, it is understandably fraught with the anxieties of a massively disruptive global crisis. Most of us are grappling with fears of illness, worries about income, exhaustion from caretaking, and uncertainty of what the next day — let alone the next year — could bring.

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These fears, plus good ol’ fashioned stir-craziness, are enough to strain even the healthiest of family or roommate dynamics, often leading to conflict. Bread-and-butter fears about having material resources while sheltering in place, and the strains of juggling caretaking responsibilities with paid work, can further strain even the healthiest of home dynamics.

Home Isn’t Always Safe

For many folks, home isn’t friendly or safe to begin with. Self-isolation can heighten what may already have been volatile or unstable living situations.

An estimated 10 million Americans, or 3% of the U.S. population, experiences violence in the home every year — leading to a much higher lifetime incident for the entire population. This risk is greater for low-income families, who often lack childcare and healthcare support, and thus lack means of addressing abusive behaviors.

Low-income families are also the most likely to be experiencing material instability right now. Eleven percent of American families are food insecure even during normal times. Those numbers are sure to increase, as in the week ending March 14, the Department of Labor reported a 33% rise in the number of unemployment claims.

You Can Build Stronger Relationships

While this is a stressful time for everyone, tension doesn’t have to translate into household conflict.

Cognitive flexibility — that is, the ability to recognize that there are many potential solutions to conflict — and open, respectful communication have been shown to reduce family conflict and anxiety.

At the same time, practicing self-reassurance and self-efficacy — the ability to calm negative thoughts and maintain confidence in your own capabilities — has been shown to lessen the psychological weight on caregivers, which many of us have become, or may become, during the coronavirus crisis.

We can put these findings into practice by taking a proactive approach to preventing and managing household conflict. We can focus on being loving and generous with ourselves, keep lines of communication open among household members, and empathize with each other.

When You’re Stuck with A Roommate You Can’t Stand

In large cities like New York, the epicenter of the U.S. outbreak, high rents mean that 40% of renters live with roommates.

From snippy texts accusing you of eating the last pickle, to that roommate who never puts down the toilet seat, the simmering passive aggression of a bad roommate situation is trying even in the best of circumstances. In the context of a global pandemic, tricky roommate dynamics can risk becoming unbearable. But you can take steps now to help defuse potential conflict.

Establish respectful communication about your health

Coronavirus spreads most easily within households, with up to 15% of people who live with a COVID-19 sufferer eventually contracting the illness themselves. That means that whether you like your roommates or not, you’ll need to collaborate to keep each other safe and healthy.

Reach out and have a serious conversation with your roommate about your health and theirs, and what steps you’ll each take should you start showing symptoms of COVID-19. Even if you haven’t shared household chores before now, this may be the time to start. Address questions like: If one person gets sick and has to be isolated in their room, who will cook for them? What bathroom will they use, and how will they sanitize the bathroom after use?

Set a schedule for shared living space

Sharing space in a small apartment can become cramped, fast. If you and your roommates have trouble peacefully coexisting, or even if you like each other but would like a little quiet time alone, creating a schedule for shared spaces like the living room, kitchen, and bathroom, can help avoid conflict.

When You’re Caring for Children

It’s lovely to spend quality time with children — but after a few days, let alone weeks, of nonstop caregiving, any parent will rightfully feel overwhelmed.

You don’t have to do the most

Now is not the time to pressure yourself to fit an image of the “perfect” mom or dad. With many parents now playing the role of full-time earner, caregiver, and teacher, expectations can be punishingly high.

But it’s not fair to criticize yourself in the midst of a global crisis. You don’t have to have it all figured out and you don’t have to be “perfect.” Instead, many child psychology experts suggest that simply creating some structure for children, such as a set of tasks to do each day or establishing differing routines for weekdays versus weekends, will help maintain a semblance of normalcy, without making you feel that you suddenly have to produce a master’s in education.

Take time for yourself — even if it’s just a few minutes

My mother didn’t believe in giving us time outs when we were children. Instead, whenever she felt angry or overwhelmed, she gave herself a time out. If she was having a hard time dealing with a toddler creating general mayhem and acting like, well, a toddler, she thought she was the one who deserved the luxury of a little alone time.

While it may not be possible to be entirely alone during self-isolation — especially if you have small children, live in a small house or apartment with other, or are a single parent — you can still aim to take a few minutes for yourself every day. Take a slightly longer shower than usual. Give yourself time to unwind after the kids have gone to bed. Turn on a movie and let Disney be the babysitter — it’s really okay. After all, this is an unprecedented global crisis.

Connect with other caregivers

While being stuck home with kids can be a strain, and while the lack of IRL contact with other parents can definitely be stressful, you don’t have to go it alone. Arrange virtual “playdates” with other families in your community; have evening wine time with other parents via videochat; or ask Grandma to read your kids their nighttime story over the phone so you, and she, can get a welcome dose of camaraderie.

When You’re At Risk of Domestic Violence

Abuse is not a form of conflict. Conflict is mutual; abuse is a repeated pattern of behavior in which one person controls another. Abuse is never your fault, and it is not your responsibility, nor is it possible, to practice mutual “conflict resolution” with an abuser.

That being said, domestic violence organizations have seen a rise in partner and family abuse during COVID-19 related lockdowns. So if you are self-isolated in an unsafe situation, it’s a good idea to come up with a plan to manage your risk.

Make a safety plan

If you don’t already have a safety plan, now is a good time to make one. If you do have one, now is a good time to reconsider or amend the plan for how you will protect yourself and your children, if you have them, if the violence escalates during a shelter-in-place scenario.

You can contact the National Domestic Violence Hotline via call or chat for help creating a plan to keep yourself safe. You can also consider reaching out to trusted family and friends to let them know your situation, and to discuss potential risks and resources, should you need to leave a household where you are sheltered in place with a harmful person.

Trust your gut

If you feel that the violence you are experiencing is escalating, or you simply have a feeling you may be in danger, trust your gut. People who experience abuse become experts in the moods of their abusers, and if you feel something wrong, it is. Reach out to the National Domestic Violence Hotline for help.

It’s Okay To Be Human

As overwhelming as it can feel to be at odds with those we love, conflict is a normal part of life, and there’s no shame in the occasional meltdown or argument. At the same time, you can take simple steps now to build stronger household relationships and set ground rules to nip more explosive conflicts in the bud.

And if conflict does arise, take a deep breath and remember: many of us react to fear or feeling out of control with anger and conflict. Your partner, sibling, or friend is likely feeling the same things you are, and a period of conflict won’t break an otherwise healthy relationship. We are all only human, and we are doing the best we can. So if conflict does arise between you and loved ones during these times, remember that we all have access to an extraordinary power: forgiveness.

Talkspace articles are written by experienced mental health-wellness contributors; they are grounded in scientific research and evidence-based practices. Articles are extensively reviewed by our team of clinical experts (therapists and psychiatrists of various specialties) to ensure content is accurate and on par with current industry standards.

Our goal at Talkspace is to provide the most up-to-date, valuable, and objective information on mental health-related topics in order to help readers make informed decisions.

Articles contain trusted third-party sources that are either directly linked to in the text or listed at the bottom to take readers directly to the source.

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