“Self-quarantine” or “sheltering in place” can be frustrating and uncomfortable.   One huge problem is that we’re spending much more time than we’re used to in the same room—or the same limited spaces—with our “loved ones.”  The quote marks around those words don’t mean we’ve fallen out of love.  We’re just not used to being around each other this much.  We want more space, more variety in our contacts, more freedom to be where we’d like to.

Communication research can help.  Here are 7 theory and research-based suggestions for fine-tuning your communicating to help cope with the pressures that the COVID-19 pandemic is probably creating in your household.


1.     Offer relationship Reminders   Early in your day, tell each family member, “I love you today.”  It’ll feel awkward the first time.  And your days together are bound to include moments when you really don’t feel loving.  If the day’s started with this reminder, though, frustrations and disagreements will have been framed with this starter, so they’ll be interpreted in this context.  Some family members may be unwilling or unable to make this effort.  Do it anyway; think of it as your gift to the household. 

2.     Lose “but;” use “and.”  “I love you, but I wish you’d change your underwear more often.”  Notice how what’s said after the “but” cancels out “I love you”?  When you substitute “and” for “but” you’re making two statements, each of which stands on its own.  They can be heard as equal.  One doesn’t cancel out the other.  It’s a small change in what you say, AND it can make a real difference. 

3.     Always Listen First.  The “ALF rule” is a good one to apply in every communication situation.  It follows from the old saw that humans are born with only one mouth but two ears (notice how the word “but” works here?).  When you’re attacked, ask for an example of the problem he thinks you created.  Take a complaint as an opportunity for a conversation rather than a demand that you defend yourself.  Avoid needless combat by getting clear rather than just attacking her.  The most effective communicators know that careful, empathic, active listening works wonders.

4.     Make generous choices, not selfish ones.  When you crave loud music and others don’t, turn it down.  If a room’s too messy for you, straighten it rather than bitching about it.  Do your part to keep the bathroom clean.  Couples who really want to stay together learn that being in their relationship has to be more important than being “right,” and this principle also applies to families.  No family member should be a doormat, and nobody will be as long as everybody makes Us as or more important than Me.

5.   Move toward the problem.  Everyone knows the difficulties an elephant creates when it’s in the living room.  Especially when more than one member of the household notices a problem, look for, or even create an opportunity to talk about it.  “Can we have a conversation about what’s happening almost every morning?”  “I’d like us to talk about the money problems, not just yell about them.”  When family problems are ignored, they almost always get bigger.  Communicating is the only way to cope with them.  Obviously, it needs to be effective communicating that begins with listening, demonstrates respect, and prioritizes relationships.  Set a time to work the problem, though, rather than continuing to ignore it.

6.   Use Quiet Time.  Guidelines 5 and 6 go together.  Sometimes an issue is too intense, too difficult to talk about constructively.  A pause in family talk about this issue can help everyone dial down enough to communicate productively about it.  For a few hours or even a couple of days, focus on other topics.  The thing about feelings, whether they’re good or bad ones, is that they always change.  When an especially difficult issue arises, use some quiet time to create a productive space for talking about it.

7.     Embrace the Golden Secret:  It Always Takes Two. Statements like “You started it!”  “This is not my problem!” and “It’s your fault!” are the most common and most poisonous ones that couples and family members make to each other.  And they’re never accurate.  Never.  Communication always happens between people.  It’s always, always at least a two-person production.  When somebody knows how to push your buttons, it can really feel like they “hurt your feelings” or “made you look ridiculous.”  But your hurt feelings come from a combination of what they said plus what you think is important.

Another way to put this is to remember that communicating in your family began before you were born.  It was happening in the room when you came out of the womb, and plenty of research confirms that you’ve been affected by family patterns that are much older than you are.  Everything you say and everything you interpret can be viewed as responses to this ongoing communicating.  And the same is true for everyone in your family.  None of you “started” it.  Sometimes you just continue what’s been going on, and sometimes you interrupt the pattern.

A 454-page, heavily footnoted academic book published this year demonstrates the truth of this secret.  It’s called Communicating and Relating, and it develops what it’s author, Robert Arundale, calls—are you ready?—“The Conjoint Co-constituting Model of Communicating.”  Bob demonstrates how the basic process that makes us human (on p. 109 he calls it “the primordial constitutive social process”) is “everyday face-to-face conversation,” and it’s always, always co-constructed by its participants.  If you doubt the accuracy of this Golden Secret, have a look at Bob’s book.

The practical value of this Secret is that, when you remember and apply it, your communicating, especially with those who are “sheltering in place” with you, is going to improve.  You are going to own your role in a family problem, your contribution to a difficulty.  You will be able to see how the situation—being cooped up, hearing scary news every day—contributes to the problem.  You will stop seeing yourself as the target of every negative statement you hear.

You’ll know that, since problems are always co-constructed, they can be managed or dissolved by civil, kind, respectful, loving communicating.