New normal

I’ve been thinking a lot about what our new normal after COVID will look like. Many older Americans like me will soon be getting their second vaccine shots.  

Now what? How will the world be different as we emerge from lock down?  

The COVID crisis has led me back to the work of Pauline Boss and her writing about ambiguous loss. It made me curious about how families can increase their resilience and adaptability in the post-COVID new normal. 

In her book, Loss, Trauma, and Resilience, Pauline Boss cites the research of Froma Walsh who is perhaps our leading researcher on family resilience. Dr. Walsh developed a useful framework to help therapists increase resilience in marriages and families. 

Froma Walsh is a giant in marriage and family therapy. Her life’s work is to help strengthen families in crisis after a major trauma or loss, as well as families in disruptive life-transitions, such as divorce or separation. 

She is a recent editor of the Journal of Marital and Family Therapy.  Froma is also the past president of the most elite and prestigious organization in the field of marriage and family therapy; the American Family Therapy Academy (AFTA).  

Froma is particularly concerned about the most vulnerable families that are enduring chronic stressors such as; disability, discrimination, and economic hardship.  

Her research-saturated Family Resilience Framework is the gold standard in intervention and prevention efforts.  As we establish the post-COVID new normal, we would do well to learn from her research and practices.  

And even though her research is pre-COVID, her approach can help us to navigate our new normal after COVID. 

There are 3 domains of family functioning that will shape our response to the post-COVID new normal:

  1. 1
    Beliefs. What do we believe about the new normal after COVID? What messages did we learn in our family of origin about how to handle tough times? 
  2. 2
    Family structure. How is your family organized to adjust? How flexible is your family? What are your social and economic resources? How connected are you to one another? 
  3. 3
    Collaborative communication between spouses and other family members. What is the quality of your family’s communication? How good are you at collaboratively solving problems? What is your sentiment override as you emerge with your spouse from lockdown?

If COVID sucked the life out of you, how will you respond in the post-COVID new normal? 

COVID-19 obliterated 22.2 million jobs in the U.S. and at least 2 million jobs in Canada. Conventional State-run unemployment programs have not made a dent in the economic blight in the wake of the COVID pandemic. 

In an earlier post, I showed the connection between financial stress and a significantly higher risk of separation and divorce. 

The COVID pandemic was particularly cruel to recently married young couples who often struggled in vain to keep their heads above water.

COVID stress abounds 

Even for more financially secure couples, COVID Stress may have eroded marital satisfaction. Many of us were suddenly required to work from home, while school, and leisure activities in public venues were abruptly cancelled.

Stress and proxemics in the new normal after COVID

New research tells us that most couples had less personal space during the pandemic which leads us to the study of proxemics.  

Anthropologist Edward Hall was the first researcher in the new field of proxemics (Hall, 1966). Proxemics describes how physical distance and social distance are essentially indistinguishable from one another. 

In other words, we convey our degree of comfort with one another by how close we are willing to stand to them. Most people are more familiar with the idea of “personal space” than the word “proxemics,” but they are essentially the same thing. 

Many couples have been planted in the same parts of their home where they’ve also been eating, working, and minding their children. Because we can’t leave easily, the walls start to close in.

The erosion of any sort of functional personal space has frayed nerves and facilitated needless bickering.

 Couples have learned that when physical boundaries are impractical, psychological boundaries become significantly more important.

While feeling close to your spouse isn’t simply a matter of spatial proximity, it’s also about the ongoing efforts we make to feel close to them; to be more present, authentic and engaged in our relationships. 

That was more difficult for many who felt overwhelmed by a profound lack of personal space. We might discover that we’ve developed a completely different sense of proxemics in the new normal after COVID.

And because our work life has inserted itself into our home life, (perhaps never to fully leave) the workplace will continue to influence proxemics and our homes in the post-COVID new normal. 

The new normal about who does what

Before COVID, spouses could blow off steam in a number of appropriate ways but now partners have had significantly less time alone and their personal space was often severely cramped (here we see proxemics again).

New research also tells us that when more financially secure couples cut back on domestic help for fear of contagion, they sometimes squabble about who does what in the aftermath.

A recent international study has put a finer point on the issue of domestic labor. 

According to the University of Melbourne’s “Work & Care in the Time of COVID-19” survey, women report that they’re assumed more than two-thirds of the home-making chores during the COVID lockdown. 

New research indicates that the mean number of hours that couples with children in several countries spend on household chores has nearly doubled from 30 to 57 hours after the COVID-19 pandemic hit. 

During the COVID lockdown many parents were also burdened with the responsibility of homeschooling their children.  

 Working from home, with added household responsibilities, and the burden of homeschooling have stressed some couples to the brink. 

This unrelenting impact on marriages has been called the COVID Stress Spillover Effect. 

COVID stress, is it a catalyst for conflict, even in the new normal?

In September, the Journal of Sex & Marital Therapy published a study showing that among individuals in relationships, 34% reported some degree of conflict with their spouses due to the consequences of the COVID pandemic. 

It will be a few years before social science has a clear picture of the damage inflicted by COVID stress on American families.  

The sooner things return to the passably familiar, the better. But we already know that many things will be different in the post-COVID new normal. 

Here are 13 things to remember as you navigate the new normal.

13 resilient ways to navigate the new normal after COVID 

  1. 1
    Facts are one thing. Feelings are another. It’s a fact that you have a feeling but your feelings/perceptions are not necessarily facts. Both of you may feel exhilaration, bewilderment, and paradoxical sadness in the new normal. 

The impact of the COVID lockdown has been profound. The social isolation we have endured has eroded our collective mental health (Cacioppo, 2006).

The COVID lockdown has even impacted many resilient souls who had no prior history of previous psychological problems. Loneliness is often cited as the culprit.

Loneliness has been linked with a host of cognitive problems, including fatigue, stress and problems with concentration. It’s expected that there will be a powerful emotional hangover from the COVID lockdown. We’re going to learn how to take better care of each other in the new normal after COVID.

  1. 2
    Entertain any spiritual impulses with curiosity. We have a great deal of loss to process. There is no “right” or “wrong” way to meditate, pray, or reflect. 

The more inclusive and open you are with one another, the better. In the aftermath of a global pandemic, many couples of faith are bracing for a completely different worship experience in the post-COVID new normal.  

  1. 3
    Reframe events that elicit shame. Of course, you made mistakes during lockdown…we all did. Take responsibility when appropriate but externalize the shame and blame.

Too often, in the face of ambiguous loss, we collapse into “if I only did x instead of y!” It’s simply more helpful, according to Pauline Boss, for us to attribute our clumsiness in the face of COVID to the pandemic itself.

  1. 4
    Revisit your sense of agency, power, and control. As we slide into the post-COVID new normal, we need to listen to one another’s experience, support, and validate one another.  

There hasn’t been a generation in a century that has endured what we have. Let’s soothe each other before we step out into the new normal after COVID.

  1. 5
    It’s OK to be hopeful and optimistic. Seligman (1991) has researched the benefits of a positive outlook.

In the aftermath of an ambiguous loss like COVID, we’ll probably need time to gradually adapt to whatever the post-COVID world has to offer. Sometimes an unrealistic hope bridges us over the troubled waters of death and loss, until we find our bearings in the new normal. 

  1. 6
    If appropriate, take small steps into the new normal after COVID. Your emergence from lockdown, for reasons beyond your control, may be tentative and uncertain. Look for small improvements at first and keep seeking as many as you can.
  2. 7
    Look for opportunities to participate in local activities, projects, and events. This isn’t generosity, it's hard science. Families can buffer their children (and their relationships) from toxic stress through community connections.

While some of the most ground-breaking research on resilience was done back in the 1980’s. The research reflected the values of the male executive study-subjects, over-emphasizing individual virtues. It neglected important dimensions of community values and resources.

Researchers today define resilience as the ability to stretch and flex in a complex relational process that often must include the greater community (Boss et al., 2004), (Landau & Saul, 2004)

  1. 8
    Talk with each other about your individual stress and relational stress. Conduct fight autopsies, make repair attempts, but above all, talk about what you just went through together.
  2. 9
    Talk to one another with validation and empathy. No, this is not just “being nice.” When we feel empathically validated, our resilience can now show up.
  3. 10
    It’s OK to want to look good. More than a few of us have COVID hairstyles and are heading back to the gym. Some are doubling down and hiring personal trainers. 

As we enter the new normal after COVID, it’s understandable that we might feel more self-conscious. Appearance anxiety might be a real issue for you or your partner right now. While it may not be more important to look good than feel good, the two are highly correlated.

  1. 11
    Take a good hard look at your PTO. I’m hopeful that in the post-COVID new normal that American workers will more highly value and use their paid time off and they seem to be doing that in a way they haven’t previously.

I appreciate the fantasy of everybody going on vacation for 2 weeks, before returning to deal with the new normal after COVID. So how much paid time off do you have? Or vacation days?  

You might want to plan your use of these days sooner rather than later. Start looking at summer rentals now, because they are booking much earlier in the post-COVID new normal. 

  1. 12
    Expect to live with shortages, delays, and inflationary price increases. Be patient and plan accordingly. Any large purchases that you’ve been contemplating might need to be approached more strategically.  

Americans are not used to waiting on delivery for cars, consumer electronics, or major appliances, and as the global supply chain adjusts to the post-COVID new normal, we might initially be offered less choice, and less immediate gratification than we’re used to. Patience will be a virtue in the new normal after COVID.

  1. 13
    Expect delays from service providers as well. This is something we’re really not used to; waiting on skilled help. Pent-up demand will create delays, and top service-providers will be in high demand.  

For example, in a recent study in Great Britain, 45% of psychiatrists said that they had seen a significant collapse in the number of clients showing up for routine appointments during the COVID pandemic but now patients are coming back in droves.

We could be facing a global “tsunami” of demand for services once restrictions on movement have eased in the new normal.

High-demand experts will become harder to book in the early phase of the post-COVID new normal. Everyone from carpenters, hairdressers, yoga instructors, couples therapists, dentists etc., may soon have a wait list (if they don’t already.) Once again, our patience will be sorely tested.

Final thoughts about the new normal after COVID

With the COVID lockdown, the outside world became unmanageable. 

As the new post-COVID landscape emerges, we may find that we have to start reframing our sense of control. A few of us may feel a growing, heartbreaking nostalgia for the way things used to be. 

When we have no power over a situation, we can start to manage it better by seeing it as something that does not necessarily panic or immobilize us (Mandler, 1993).

One of the important lessons that I’ve learned from COVID is that our subjective sense of control is critical. We can’t change our external reality and so it becomes essential for us to lessen our focus on controlling what is beyond our ability. Instead focus on controlling your inner thoughts.

There are many things we still do not know. Embracing the new normal will require all of us to make peace with this not knowing, as well as grappling with our residue of loss and grief from this pandemic. 

If you want to process COVID stress with your partner,

As our therapists pivot to resume in-person work, book early to avoid delays and schedule your private couples therapy intensive.  

Ready for a change in your relationship?

It starts with a no-obligation 15 minute phone call with our client services team.

Daniel Dashnaw

Daniel is a Marriage and Family Therapist and the blog editor. He currently works with couples online and in person. He uses EFT, Gottman Method, Solution-focused and Developmental Models in his approaches. Daniel specializes in working with neurodiverse couples, couples that are recovering from an affair, and couples struggling with conflict avoidant and passive aggressive behavior patterns.

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