What happens to our family unity when our house is no longer just a house? What happens to our family unity when our home is forced to be, at the same time, a home, an office and a classroom? What happens to our family unity when we’re all together, every hour of every day? Vogue Portugal delves into these questions.
There’s a common reaction when you tell someone that you’ve been staying at your parents’ house for longer than a month, and that you haven’t been outside. Not even once. “Really? Aren’t you sick of it?” In between laughs, the answer is a similar variation of this: “No, not really. If I’m being honest with you, I actually thought it would be worse. We have never spent this much time at home, the four of us, together, every hour of every day. In my head, that would lead to more arguments. This is not to say that we don’t have our moments. Even so, I think we’re good.” But each case is a case, and this is just that – a case in the midst of many more, similar to some and different from others. Each family is a family, and each family is how it is – and, clichés aside, each one of us, and each one of our families, is living this moment in different ways, dealing with it in different ways, experiencing it in different ways, feeling it in different ways. “In a global sense, this period has brought a spirit of unity and solidarity,” says psychologist Catarina Lucas. “People are looking more at their families, and the importance of their families. Everyone went back to their countries and to their families, which confirms that same significance. However, spending too much time together, associated with the fact that there are fewer distractions right now, can increase some level of intolerance and irritability when it comes to the relations between those who share the same house. It’s important not to let situational factors affect the relationship we share with each other.” Published in the end of April, a study conducted by Portuguese consumers organization Deco Proteste suggests that families are in fact feeling a shift – 6 in 10 people who live with others have experienced situations of conflict, especially when it comes to sharing household chores and spending a whole day in the same space. As the study reports, different opinions regarding Covid-19 safety measures are another trigger, and for families with small children, keeping up with school can also be a source of conflict. But despite the natural tensions, there is still a silver lining: 45% of Portuguese people who cohabit with others say that the current restrictions had a positive impact in family relations, in particular for couples with young children.
As clinical psychologist and family therapist Neusa Patuleia explains, “in a context where most families are dealing with new routines and new demands, with constant adjustments to their professional, parental and even filial responsibilities, interacting more with each other is not necessarily synonym with being more available when it comes to our shared relations, and it can be the exact opposite.” In her expert opinion, managing and conjugating everything, from working from home to school assignments, having time for yourself and your hobbies, preparing meals and taking care of the house, all of it happening in the same space – a space that, in many cases, is already small – causes people to run over each other. “Obviously, this brings tension and conflict,” suggests Neusa. Besides that, the clinical psychologist and family therapist argues, the inherent preoccupations of the current situation we are living in also have an impact on people’s emotional availability. “All of this makes people less available for each other. Even though we are all in the same space and we have more time to interact (in the sense that we are all under the same roof) that doesn’t mean that we are more available. What I believe happens now – there are exceptions, of course, as each family functions differently – and from what we see on social media, on several articles and through the experiences people share is that people feel overwhelmed, they feel like they don’t have time to be with each other.” But, says Neusa, “that doesn’t mean that families can’t reinvent themselves, come up with solutions to better manage everything and find quality moments. Obviously, they can. That’s the challenge.” Cristina Valente, a psychologist, author and mother of two teenagers, adds that “quarantine is a test, a trial by fire, for family health.” The expert explains that, when confronted with adversities, “the families who understand and respect each other, in the sense that they understand that each member has its own pace, its own preferences and its own needs” and “already had those tools, as well as a healthy emotional atmosphere,” will feel a smaller impact. “To simplify a rather complex subject, we will see three types of families,” she argues. “We’ll see those families who will go through a rough patch, because they don’t understand this flexibility and, not having the tools, they will stay there, circulating through confinement problems, of daily interaction and lack of tolerance. We will see other that have already practiced certain internal tools and will be able to go through this with more levity. Not in a perfect way, but in a lighter way. And then there’s a third group that, despite never having had the tools or the attention to emotional intelligence, will take advantage of this adversity to grow as a family.”
Looking at the current state of things, is it possible that we are less united to those who share a kitchen, a dinner table and a couch with us? Is it possible that our family ties are breaking more and more with each day that goes by? “I wouldn’t call it a lack of unity, but rather a situation of irritability and impatience,” argues Catarina Lucas. “Spending too much time with someone will always bring some level of weariness. Therefore, some tricks could be important, namely reserving some time for your individuality, having some space where you can spend some time alone, taking some time for activities that are just ‘yours’ and not shared, or talking to friends to hear other people and other experiences. It’s also important to practice tolerance because this is a time when we need to be tolerant with each other, foster a sense of mutual help and be less demanding. In their own way, everyone is doing the best they can.” As Neusa Patuleia explains, we can also avoid family tensions and conflicts by “accepting this situation, understanding that it’s normal that more conflicts and tensions will arise, and recognizing that it’s natural for people to feel overwhelmed” as well as “setting routine that are adjusted to each family.” Another important strategy, she argues, is to set and share responsibilities. “I believe it’s important that everyone has their own responsibilities and chores. This not only helps to ease the tension and not overwhelm one family member, but also create a sense of involvement. If we all work towards a common goal, if we all have our chores and responsibilities in the household, we all feel like we’re a part of it. It gives us a greater sense of responsibility – if something works out, it’s because I’m also doing my part to make that happen. It makes us feel united and it makes us feel like we belong.” As Cristina Valente puts it, making sure that our time together is as positive as can be also means “understanding each other’s needs, spaces and times, since our daily routines have all been confined to a single area” and adopting the “plug in, plug out” strategy. “This was something that I learnt from an American colleague and friend, who has always worked from home,” explains Cristina, who has also been working from home for quite some time now. “He lives in Denver and has two houses next to each other. One is the family home and the other is his office. When he’s at his family home, with his wife and his kids, he is 100% there, he plays with the children, he spends time with them, he doesn’t answer his phone or talk about work. And when he’s at the office he is completely focused.” With the right amount of flexibility in mind – because without it, Cristina Valente argues, it will be much more complicated – it’s important to find time blocks “during which we are not interrupted and we don’t leave the state of flow”, as well as “spaces in the house that the rest of the family sees as someone else’s space; and since not everyone has a big house, this work space can be in the kitchen or even created with some tape on the floor, but it has to be created.” Besides that, it’s also important to adjust the expectations we all have as a family. “We are bringing the corporate world and the educational world to our houses. This happened overnight, without any sort of adjusting, and it’s impossible to have the same expectations we had once before,” Cristina argues. “Parents’ expectations need to be annulled. My advice is: don’t create any sort of expectations and live day by day with the necessary respect for the learning space and pace.”
Adding to all these strategies, Catarina Lucas also suggests that people practice gratitude as a way of keeping a positive family interaction. “Developing empathy, being open-minded and helping each other, be it with helping the kids study or doing chores around the house” as well as “allowing some individual space and doing some family activities” are some of the tactics that we should all have in mind, the psychologist says. All of this, of course, while keeping in mind that communication is key. “It’s important to share our feelings and find those moments to share, to talk about our feeling and review our day,” says Neusa Patuleia. “Just because we’re together doesn’t mean that we should abolish this time to share how our day was. Even though we are running over each other in the space we have, each one of us is living what we’re doing, developing feelings associated to all of this, feeling that are not obvious to other people. It’s essential for people to have space in the family, and in the midst of this situation, to continue talking about how they feel. I say continue because this is always desirable. If communication was something that didn’t happen before, in this context, not happening will just enhance tense situations and isolation.” Cristina Valente also shares this same idea. “Right now, I would say that it’s really important for people to say what they feel and what they need – not what they want, but what they need. It’s essential to separate these two concepts, and that’s something that I say to families on a regular basis. That’s the first thing. The second, and speaking in terms of emotions, is having the conscious that I am afraid, and that fear is an important reaction in my system, as a protection. Right now, people are afraid, but because they don’t know how to identify that emotion as part of their system, with its own function, that should be used not in a negative way but in a positive one, they manifest it in a number of ways.” Those manifestations range from censoring to judging, criticizing, being angry or even euphoric – and recognizing that fear can manifest itself in many ways “gives the tolerance to understand that I may feel euphoric when I’m afraid, while my son may feel stressed out or experience insomnia.” As Cristina Valente says, it’s also important to look at the things we have to do, concentrate our energy in what we control and understand that “actions are the only thing capable of cancelling out our fear.”
As Neusa Patuleia argues, “family ties should serve as a support system to help us deal with all that is happening, and to better manage all these circumstances and the emotions associated with them.” And for that to happens it’s essential “to communicate, have empathy and adjust expectations.” “Especially when it comes to couples, there’s this idea that he knows me, or she know me, and that he or she should know what I want and need. No, not at all. We need a clear, an objective communication. Sometimes we don’t even know what we need to feel better, let alone someone else.” Individually, as a couple or as a family, each one of us is feeling different emotions. And those emotions can range from feeling closer to each other or sick of one another. This is something that becomes even more clear when I question two of my friends on the subject. The first experience pops up: “I feel closer to my mom because we only have each other. We talk a lot, we are interested in each other’s day and we care a lot. More than usual. But at the same time, because we only have each other, we get saturated with each other. More than usual, too.” A few minutes later, another message lights up our group chat: “I feel like we’ve created a routine that’s adjusted to the situation. We have moments where we keep each other company without necessarily talking a lot! On the beginning it was quite hard, but now I feel like I’m in this quarantine loop that I have adjusted myself to the situation. It seems like there’s more harmony between us. We understand that this is the reality we’re living in and that we have to tolerate each other a bit more. But, of course, we still get on each other’s nerves once in a while.” Before our conversations ends, Neusa says that “being open and available is the challenge for us to get through this difficult period and survive as a family.” In this challenging moment, she argues, “it’s important to find recourses and strategies for all of us to feel better and more balanced, for us to fulfill our responsibilities, keeping a harmonious family environment as much as we can, and always adjusting our expectations, because we won’t be able to have the moments we were used to having, the way we were used to having.” Besides that, families must “find ways to reinvent themselves and each of us has to come up with ways to be with ourselves, so that we can then be with each other in a more harmonious manner and make sure our families survive in the best way they can.”