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As couples, roommates and family members continue to be confined under the same roof, many people are facing new challenges in relationships. Being cooped up, and under higher levels of stress, can amplify underlying problems in many relationships.
Married couple Jacqueline Olds, MD, consulting psychiatrist in the Massachusetts General Hospital Department of Psychiatry and associate professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School (HMS), and Richard Schwartz, MD, senior consultant in residency training at McLean Hospital and also an associate professor of psychiatry at HMS, provide tips to keep relationships on track while quarantined.
“There’s no question that being cooped up together can act like an amplification of all the things that are already difficult in a relationship,” says Dr. Schwartz.
Dr. Olds and Dr. Schwartz are staunch advocates of using the golden rule in everyday life. Particularly in this time of uncertainty, stress and anxiety, it is important to practice kindness to those around you.
Be intentional when praising and complimenting your partner or roommate, and keep conversations respectful.
“This may not be the best time to bring up underlying problems in relationships, as arguments can linger longer when both parties are under close quarters,” says Dr. Olds. If you and your partner or roommate are discussing something controversial, try to speak on it for 10 minutes at a time and then take a break.
Prioritize Social Time
It is important for all parties to prioritize virtual socializing time with friends. Being surrounded by a partner or roommate 24/7 can have an isolating effect, and friends outside of the situation can provide fresh perspectives and world views.
“It is a good thing to each have separate time with friends and not do all your socializing as a couple,” says Dr. Schwartz. “You can bring back a fresh view of the world to your partner rather than sharing the same information at all times.”
The caveat to this scenario is ensuring that both people have equal time with friends because “the more symmetrical a relationship feels, the better it works,” says Dr. Olds. If one person is spending time socializing and the other is not, this could lead to feelings of jealousy and separation.
Find Your Own Space
Separate schedules in daily life are what typically create needed breaks in ongoing arguments between partners, friends or family. Now, without that separation, problems can become amplified.
It is helpful for each partner to have their individual space throughout the day, whether by physically doing work in different rooms, or taking time to alone to put your mind in another space through reading or meditation.
“If you are lucky enough to have separate rooms and spaces in your home, use them,” says Dr. Olds.
Take Advantage of the Outdoors
As long as you practice physical distancing, exploring new spaces outdoors is a great way to get a break from the confinement of quarantine. This is particularly important if you live in a smaller space or have many people living under the same roof.
“And the imagination has no limits,” says Dr. Olds. “Even if you live in a studio apartment with your partner, you can try an activity like reading a book that has an outdoor adventure in it, to transport you to a place separate from those in the house.”
For families with children, Dr. Olds suggests one partner take the kids to a nearby state park or hiking trail, preferably where few people go. This breaks up time in the day and allows both partners to have individual time apart (and kids love it, too).
Schedule Times for Check-Ins
In the midst of a situation that is foreign and stressful for many, bickering can feel unavoidable. One way that partners and roommates might foster effective communication is to agree on a regularly-scheduled meeting, to check in with each other’s mental and emotional well-being.
“If you have this expected time when complaints and praises can be exchanged, it can help to avoid one person feeling like they are being unexpectedly attacked,” says Dr. Olds.
This approach allows space for families to make gentle adjustments, agrees Dr. Schwartz.
Utilize Virtual Tools
Virtual tools like Zoom or Facetime are crucial for staying connected with friends and family during these times. Particularly for couples in long-distance relationships, maintaining regular contact and communication is vital.
“Even if you are doing a solo activity, like studying,” says Dr. Olds, “do it virtually with someone else.” Keeping Zoom on while both partners do their own things can make them feel more together, as it mimics what would happen if the other person were in the room and allows both people to talk naturally, without the pressure of coming up with conversation during a scheduled call.
Zoom can also be utilized by families with children. Setting up time for grandparents or extended family to homeschool or talk with children can give parents a break from around the clock childcare. Additionally, virtual couples therapy or telehealth remains widely available and a great tool to keep a relationship on track.
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