Dear wonderful humans,
Let’s talk about how not to kill the people you love while being quarantined in close quarters with them, shall we? 🙂
My fiancee, Daniel, and I, have been together for almost seven years and sharing living quarters for almost six. We love each other and are generally pretty happy together. We’re even getting married in September (provided coronavirus settles). People often comment about how healthy and connected our relationship seems to be and how well we communicate.
We definitely don’t think we’ve “arrived” at great communication. What we have done is put in a lot of intentional work over the years to navigate life’s ups and downs (and there have been many – deaths, illnesses, job transitions, new businesses, cross country moves, etc), which has made us overall more resourced than ever before to navigate trying times without killing each other or throwing each other too far under the bus. We’ve put systems and structures in place to help us check in regularly, plan together, learn & honor each other’s needs and styles…which we’ve been know to regularly revisit and iterate on as well as forget entirely at times. 😉
Over the years, we’ve learned that the most important thing we can do for ourselves and for the health and longevity of our relationship is to be on each other’s team and on the same team. To help us do that, we created five ground rules for our relationship that guide how we make decisions and interact with each other which we’ve been generally (though less than perfectly) living by for the last two years with some solid results:
- Treat self care as community care (and vice versa).
- Choose connection over being right.
- When we don’t know, inquire.
- Focus on what we have and take it from there.
- When we can’t see all the steps, do the next right thing.
Generally, when Daniel and I start a new project (like wedding planning) or enter a transition (like one person leaving/starting a job) – we take a few minutes to chat about what each of these rules means in that specific context so everyone is on the same page. This has helped us avoid, minimize, and move more quickly through the inevitable fights and frustrations that accompany life changes.
However, the coronavirus quarantine happened so quickly and unexpectedly this past week that we didn’t really have time to sit down and talk about how we wanted to be together at the outset of this experience. I don’t think many of us did! Yet, after being at home together for the last week and a half, day in and day out, with the uncertainty of how long sheltering in place will be our new normal, and feeling all the frustrations and tensions that go along with being confined to a small space with someone (even someone you love), we realized that a conversation about ground rules was in order. So this weekend Daniel and I sat down, looked at our ground rules and talked about what they mean and look like in the context of quarantine.
I know many of you are in similar situations as we are, looking for strategies to help navigate being quarantined with others – partners, children, roommates, family members. I’m sharing what we are up to, not because I think ground rules are the silver bullet that will solve all interpersonal quarantine woes, but in case this tool is something that might be useful for you to adapt or draw on to meet the needs of your own context. I’ll walk you through what we landed on…and then I’ve put together a quick guide to help you do this exercise with your quarantine-mates – whether that’s your partner, your family, your kids, your roommates or someone else.
Our Ground Rules for Quarantine
RULE #1 – Treat self care as community care: Our motto for quarantine has become “health first” – physical, mental, & emotional. We noticed last week how quickly and easily we got sucked into extra long work hours. We skipped meals, working out, & other basic activities critical to our sense of wellbeing; we ate a lot of sugar and baked goods. We watched a lot of negative media and engaged in hours of future speculation around things we can’t actually control right now – like what’s going to happen with our September wedding or our finances & work long term – often right before we tried to go to sleep. While all of these things are understandable efforts to bring a sense of comfort and control to our lives, they spiked our anxiety levels and led to a lot of interpersonal tension between us. We know we aren’t our most empathetic on an empty stomach when coming down from a sugar high. 😉 So this week, we are going back to the basics – we’re blocking time on our calendars to work out and eat meals every day, no excuses, no scheduling over this time…and we are doing it together for accountability. We’re giving ourselves one sugary treat a week – no more bags of Easter candy hanging out in the house. We are setting working hours and tech free hours. We’re put a 30 min daily limit on media checking – at breakfast & dinner time, NOT right before bed. We are taking an early afternoon walk together with our dog. We’re agreeing to work in separate areas of our house and minimize interaction during the day so that we don’t get sick of each other. Daniel is attending team social events & setting up remote gaming with his friends. I’m calling, texting, & Marco-Poloing with friends, reading & doing crafts. We are focusing on getting 8 hours of sleep each night. And just a few days in, we both feel much more grounded and less frustrated with each other.
RULE #2 – Choose connection over being right: Daniel & I realize that now is not the time for being right at the cost of being connected. If we disagree on something and it’s not really consequential, now is the time to “agree to disagree” rather than to try and force resolution or insist that the other person do something our way. We’re agreeing not to go to bed angry with each other or to keep score. We are setting aside blaming in favor of looking for root causes and coming up with actions we can experiment with to make things better. We are choosing “making a sincere effort” over “executing perfectly.” We are committing to being gentle with ourselves and each other, rather than forcing anyone to be or feel differently than they are.
RULE #3 – When you don’t know, inquire: There’s so much stress right now that little things become big things fast. For example, we were cooking dinner on Friday, and I asked Daniel to wash the broccoli florets and instead he prepped the spices for our recipe first and I got so upset and frustrated. Clearly that wasn’t about the broccoli – though we easily could have started to argue about that. Instead, we are practicing asking what’s really going on when we find ourselves getting frustrated about the small things. When Daniel asked me what was really going on, I opened up that I was worried about my elderly mother’s health and feeling worried about the state of our finances and my role as an independent contractor. From here we were able to have a deeper conversation and to connect on a deeper level…and while neither of us could resolve the tactical challenges I was worried about, just talking about what was really upsetting me brought us closer together and avoided what could have been a frustrating and ultimately useless fight over broccoli.
RULE #4 – Focus on what we have, and take it from there: There’s a lot up in the air right now, and Daniel & I have seen how easy it is to start focusing on all that’s wrong with the world, all of the potential negative fallout of coronavirus, all of the ways our lives have changed in the last two weeks, our worries about family members & friends, the things we’ve lost or might lose, all the ways in which our government could do more, our inability to help others in the ways we want to now…just really all the things. For sure, we want to be attuned to the reality of what is and what could and will be, and if we focus first or primarily on all the things we lack, all the ways we are limited, and all that is not happening, that is what will grow in our hearts and minds. And we’ve noticed that the result, for us, of focusing on these things is a diminished sense of personal efficacy, motivation, hope, creativity and resourcefulness and an increased sense of anxiety, desperation, and despair. And right now, the former is the toolbox we need to tap into to weather this storm personally and to be a support for others. So we are choosing to focus first on what we have and what is good, not as a way to avoid looking at what is missing and what sucks about this situation or to deny feeling the deep vulnerability of this moment in time, but as a way to strategically safeguard our emotional wells and tap into the personal strengths and resources we know will help us practically weather this challenge. We are choosing gratitude – and we have much to be grateful for. We are young, able bodied, educated, with strong communities of support, one of us has a full time job in a resilient industry, we have food in our stomachs, a roof over our heads, each other…and a very dopey basset lab to keep us company. We are also choosing service – How can we be useful to others in this time of need? Knowing we can’t do everything for everyone, how can we strategically use the resources we have access to – our time, talents, money – to support our community?
RULE #5 – When you can’t see all the steps, do the next right thing: There are so many things that Daniel and I can’t see the outcome of from our current vantage point – small things and big things alike. We don’t know when we will see our friends again or whether we’ll be having our wedding in September. We don’t know when quarantine will end. We don’t know the future of our jobs or our finances. We can’t guarantee that everyone we love and care about will come out of this unscathed. We don’t know how long it will be until the world gets “back to normal.” We don’t even know if life as we knew it will be the life we ever return to. We think it’s pretty likely a lot of things will change, but we can’t really see what exactly will emerge. Because we can’t see too far forward in the world or in our lives right now, it’s hard for us to make big sweeping plans, months and years out that feel realistic. This feels vulnerable and scary. While we don’t know a lot, there are also some things we do know. Firstly, we know that assuming all will be well with no effort on our part, throwing in the towel and going on summer vacation for the next x number of months, likely won’t prepare us well for the future, even if it gives a temporary reprieve now. Secondly, we know that trying to control, stress plan and force our way to clarity about the future likely won’t prepare us well either, as it will certainly render us exhausted now and less ready to meet the demands of the world as they emerge. We can’t fix address challenges in this second that are, as yet, possibilities, and we also can’t ignore that those challenges could become real. So for now, we are adopting a motto of eyes on the horizon + “do the next right thing” now. (Yep, we are stealing this from a Frozen II song!) In other words, we are staying aware and abreast of what “might” & “could” happen, while taking action on what is in our immediate control right now. And we are adapting our actions & plans as more information & clarity emerges. We are choosing to handle each big challenge as it draws near to us. This is how we are seeking to prepare ourselves for the future without getting overwhelmed. The next right thing for us right now feels like:
- Taking care of our bodies, hearts, & minds – exercising, eating healthy food, managing our stress levels, communicating well with each other, doing creative activities;
- Doing the work we have as best we can – for Daniel that means being present & collected with his team as they navigate communications for many organizations supporting the coronavirus response. For me that means sharing tools & resources from my many years in personal & organizational development with people as they navigate this moment in time;
- Showing up for those we love – being of use to friends, colleagues, & family and modeling love & logic, reason & hope, planning & trusting;
- Being mindful of how we are directing our resources so that we can take care of ourselves & support others – analyzing our budget, conserving some financial resources, while making sure to invest others in supporting local vendors, giving of our time to help elders get supplies, donating blood, checking in on individuals who might be struggling;
- Being clear about what the next couple of major decisions on our horizon might be – for us, that’s things like potentially cancelling or rescheduling our wedding, pivoting my business model, drastically reducing our expenses to meet the realities of the market.
If you, like us, are currently sharing a confined space day in and day out with others: What kind of “ground rules” might be useful for you to try on in the next couple of weeks to lower stress and anxiety?
Here’s a little guide with a few simple questions to help you start the ground rules conversation. I invite you to make this activity your own and to adapt this concept and exercise to fit your context. I can imagine doing some version of this with kids, roommates, family members…really anyone you’re sharing space with, not just an intimate partner.
Tips For Writing Ground Rules
- Keep them simple: No one really remembers more than 3-5 things, so keep your list short.
- Center your ground rules around common stressors: What are the things or the interactions that are causing you the most stress day to day right now? Is it communication? Division of labor? How you’re using space? Finances? Self care? Look for the biggest stressors and ask yourselves – what could we all agree to do to make this area of our life individually and collectively less stressful? Your answer likely contains the seed of a ground rule.
- Make sure everyone knows what the ground rules mean: Something like “Choose connection over being right” is broad and poetic (and we do love lovely words in this household) but it’s not really that useful to Daniel & me unless we are both really clear about what that means and looks like – which is why we talk about that stuff and agree on it together. Make sure everyone knows what examples of the ground rule in action look like and what non-examples look like as well.
- There is no “right” set of ground rules: There are just agreements that you and the people you are in close contact with set up to make your shared experience better. Daniel & my rules are what works for us – no judgment, only love and appreciation for what works for you.
- Post them: It’s easy to forget the rules. Help each other out by making a visual and putting it somewhere people will see regularly.
- Revisit ground rules regularly and adjust as necessary: Set a time to collectively reflect on your ground rules – what’s working? What needs to be changed? Tweak as necessary. Daniel and I are taking 20 minutes on Saturday over coffee and breakfast to check in and reflect on how the week felt for each of us and how we did against our ground rules. We see this as an opportunity to connect, learn more about each other, and tweak how we think about what our ground rules look like in action for the week ahead.
We are all finding our way right now.
Daniel & I anticipate that we will have to “find our way” into ways of interacting with each other that keep us healthy and connected in this super stressful and ambiguous time. We expect we will experience moments of interpersonal tension, and we aren’t trying to avoid those moments or pre-plan perfect responses to conflict. Instead we are individually and collectively committing to doing our best and giving ourselves and each other grace as we figure this whole thing out. We know we will be imperfect at it, and that that is okay. We also trust that with a few guiding waypoints, which is really what our ground rules are, we’ll be able to find our way forward in a more intentional and connected way than we would sailing blind.
I invite you to consider that on some level we are all finding our way right now – experimenting, learning, and doing the best we can with what we know and the circumstances we’ve been given. In this space, I offer you some encouragement to: 1) give yourself and those around you some grace; 2) remember you/we are resourceful – you/we can and will find our way through this because we are being called to; 3) as you discover waypoints – things that work, tools that are helpful, insights that ground you and light your way, share them, so that others might learn from them as well.
I’d certainly love to hear what you learn from trying this exercise in your life – comment here, share your thoughts on my Instagram or Facebook page or send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
You’ve got this. We’ve got this.
Be well, stay sane.
Want to learn more about how change works and how to strengthen your ability to work through change and transition? Check out Find My Way Forward, my latest online course.