Covid, a Couple and Cabin Fever
Updated: May 17
Carly and Nathan went through the first two stages of the coronavirus pandemic in much the same way their friends and neighbours had. In the first stage they were anxious about their jobs and keeping their family safe. They didn’t associate themselves a stockpilers, although their pantry was significantly more top heavy with pasta, tinned food and long life milk than it had ever been before. They had stopped short of toilet paper hoarding though, which helped preserve their non stockpiler self-images.
As Carly and Nathan had kept their jobs and were able to work from home, so they revelled in the second stage. This involved excitedly setting up offices in different parts of the home, attending virtual meetings in their pyjama pants, embracing Zoom and House Party get togethers, drinking and eating a little more than usual and actually doing their first jigsaw puzzle together.
Home schooling became a hurdle that they overcame by utilising their mutual management skills, collecting resources and devising schedules that allowed their three kids to become self-sufficient students (aided by the fact that their youngest was in fifth grade which meant they were all at ages that made them fairly component with learning processes).
Carly and Nathan were feeling pretty proud of their efforts and were actually enjoying the ‘down time’ that came from not having to travel into work, and the fact that there were no after school sports and dance classes they had to take their children to and from. They were a team and ‘they had this’.
Then they hit the next stage. Cabin Fever.
While not the fever, Cabin Fever was similar in its onset as it involved a gradual creep up and then a sudden pouncing of symptoms that they couldn’t shake. They became irritable with each other, snapping and arguing about things that hadn’t been an issue in the previous week, like Nathan setting up the clotheshorse in the living area instead of the spare bedroom and Carly ordering take-out two evenings in a row.
In the previous week it made sense to have the clotheshorse close to the fireplace, but now it made Carly furious that the aesthetics of her downtime space was being impinged upon by the inescapable view of her future ironing. In the previous week it made sense to support local restaurants, but this week it annoyed Nathan to the point that he aggressively accused Carly of ‘being out-of-control with her spending and making a mockery of the financial insecurity he was feeling’. The way Carly sipped her coffee went through his bones like fingernails down a chalkboard and the way Nathan laughed with the kids almost began to feel exaggerated, almost as if he was trying to purposely get to her with its annoying pitch.
A new jigsaw puzzle arrived from Amazon and stayed in its package on the hall bureau.
Jigsaw puzzles were Stage 2, they had both moved on…and no Nathan didn’t want another Zoom get together with Carly’s brothers, despite the fact that he had been the one that had initiated their virtual Cards Against Humanity and cocktail parties over the few weeks prior. Carly and Nathan weren’t sick with the virus, but they were certainly sick of each other.
They aren’t the only couple with symptoms of Cabin Fever though. Over the past few weeks many of the couples I work with have become ‘edgy’ with each other. Couples Therapists I’ve chatted with here in Australia and also in the United States are all reporting similar things, the pyjama parties are over and the boredom has set in.
Work life might be as busy, home school might be as busy but prior to lockdown, days were nuanced with incidental drip feeds of social contact that nourished our social psyche. The stay at home routine is no longer novel and, for many, has morphed into a monotony with their only face-to-face adult social contact being from their partner.
Although cabin fever isn’t a recognized psychological condition, psychologists accept that there is a general cluster of symptoms that can occur when people are socially isolated for too long. These symptoms can include decreased motivation, irritability, feelings of hopelessness, lethargy, lack of patience and persistent feelings of sadness.
We all feel most congruent when our internal and external states are aligned, for example, I am happy because I am at a party filled with all of my friends. When creating this alignment we often search the external world to explain our internal state, rather than the other way around. We rely on our senses to gauge the world and, for many of us, our primary senses are sight and sound.
For couples in lockdown they just have to look up and see their partner hanging clothes on the clotheshorse or hear them order take-out to have the ammunition to blame their partner, rather than Cabin Fever, as the cause of their internal state. When this is combined with the fact that couples being in each other’s space more persistently than usual actually allows an accumulation of encounters and behaviours that could be potentially annoying, a smorgasbord of blame options fuse together to create a pick and choose causal menu of options for whatever negative emotion one has at the time.
For Carly and Nathan, it was important that they took ownership of what was theirs, beginning with their internal state. As they did this they were able to recognise the irritability that was building up in them wasn’t a reflection of their relationship but rather a symptom of the monotony and boredom that comes with social isolation. They could liken this to holidays they have had with their children where everything was great at first but by the end of the few weeks away, they were at each other’s throats. There was nothing wrong with any particular child, they were just getting on each other’s nerves because they had been consistently in each other’s space for so long.
By taking responsibility for their own internal state Carly and Nathan began to self-regulate and tend to their own inner world. In doing this they could see a path out of it. Carly recognised she benefited from quite time and refreshing with a bath and music. Nathan was able to see that his cycling nourished him so was able to make more space for it. If there was something the other was doing that was unfair or frustrating, it was much more productive to address it when their own internal world was calm. By taking responsibility for their own state, the problem solving of day to day issues, such a division of housework became more straightforward and easy, without it it could have erupted into a feud that simmered for weeks.
What’s right for the relationship
Carly and Nathan also had to look at the difference between being right and what was right for the relationship. Nathan could justify leaving the clotheshorse in the living room by the heater and the average reasonable person would attest to the merit of it, but he could recognise that he didn’t have to be right on that one, he could put it in the spare room, where the clothes would take an extra day to dry, because it would be the right thing for the relationship. Although Carly is responsible for her own internal state, it’s an act of kindness to say “if this feels irritating to my partner at moment, maybe I could change it”. Usually such kindness is reciprocated and can bring couples who are distanced by their mutual seething, closer together.
Another thing that can bring couples closer together is alone time. Before lockdown many couples I have worked with have struggled for alone time with each other (away from the kids and all of the chores of life). For couples with Cabin Fever, however, alone time needs to be far more literal, it actually has to mean time alone, away from each other. Nathan had his cycling and Carly had her baths but they also set up a time-out-room for reading and watching tv. Nathan, Carly and any of their children could go there when they wanted space from everyone else. Once someone was there they were not to be disturbed and no one else was to enter until that person had left. It was to be a cleansing room for the Cabin Fevered psyche.
Carly had a Zoom get-together with her brothers while Nathan sat in the other room watching Netflix. He enjoyed hearing her laugh and the distance between them allowed him to see what he loved about her. She was different, as was he, because they had transformed, ever so slightly, in their time apart (as couples always do), tiny minute transformations that are often missed unless one consciously looks out for them.
Carly and Nathan have no idea how long they will be social isolating but knowing how to recognise and treat their Cabin Fever could be the difference between it tearing away at their relationship or it simply just being a stage (not as fun a stage as the pj and jigsaw stage) but a stage just the same.