Quarantine Quarrels: An exercise to help relationship conflicts

We all experience some fear when we have disagreements or arguments with our partners. As we’re all sheltering in place, being around one’s partner 24/7 may be putting extra strain on the relationship. During times of stress and uncertainty, arguments can bubble up in confined spaces.


Internationally recognized leader in the field of couple interventions, Dr. Sue Johnson is the primary developer of emotional focused therapy (EFT) and has worked with couples for over thirty years. Here is a quick exercise from her bestselling book, Hold Me Tight: Seven Conversations for a Lifetime of Love, to help soothe conflict while in quarantine with your partner.


Recognizing How Fear Drives Your Partner: Couple’s Exercise
1. With your partner, pick a brief, unsettling (but not really difficult) incident from your relationship, one that happened since you’ve been sheltering in place. Write down a simple description of what happened as seen by a fly on the wall. Hopefully you can both agree on this description. Now write out in a plain sequence the moves that you made in that incident. How did your moves link up with and pull out the moves your partner made? Compare notes and come up with a joint version you can agree on. Keep it simple and descriptive.


2. Add in feelings you both had and how each of you helped to create this emotional response in your partner. Share your responses and agree on a joint version. Now ask about the deeper, softer feelings that might have been happening there for your partner. Be curious. Being curious gives you valuable information. If your partner has a hard time accessing his or her softer feelings, see if you can guess using your sense of your partner’s raw spots as a guide. Confirm or revise with your partner what their deeper feelings were.


3. Using the information above, see if you can together describe or write out what you might have said to each other at the end of this incident, if you have been able to stand together and complete it in a way that left you both feeling safe. What would that have been like for you? How would you have felt about each other, your relationship?


4. Try the previous three practice questions with a difficult, unresolved incident. If you get stuck, just acknowledge that a certain part of the exercise is hard for you. If your partner finds the exercise hard, ask if there is any way you can help them right at this moment. Sometimes a little comfort is all people need to be able to stay with this task.


5. If you knew that you could take moments of conflict or disconnection and defuse or review them in this way, what impact would this have on your relationship in general? Share this with your partner.


“As lovers, we poise together delicately on a tightrope. When the winds of doubt and fear begin blowing, if we panic and clutch at each other or abruptly turn away and head for cover, the rope sways more and more and our balance becomes even more precarious. To stay on the rope, we must shift with each other’s moves, respond to each other’s emotions. As we connect, we balance each other. We are in emotional equilibrium.” –Dr. Sue Johnson, Hold Me Tight