Relationships fray during COVID, but help is at hand

Don’t let conflict simmer!

Note: This article discusses conflict in relatively healthy relationships, not in situations of family or domestic violence. If you or someone you know is experiencing violence, please call the Domestic Violence hotline on 1800 737 732 or Lifeline on 13 11 14. If it’s an emergency dial 000.

With half the nation currently in lockdown, many Australians will attest to the strain it can put on family relationships.

While domestic and family violence agencies report a “shadow pandemic” of violence during COVID-19 lockdowns, even healthy relationships are showing signs of strain. The underlying stress of a pandemic – with its toll on mental health, even for those who aren’t in lockdown – is fraying the edges of many relationships.

When asked if he has seen an escalation in personal conflicts due to the pandemic, Steve Roberts – a relationships counsellor and conflict coach with Christian mediation organisation PeaceWise – replies, “Unfortunately, the answer’s a pretty clear, yes. I think it’s being played out in mental health support networks across the board in society at the moment …

“The last two years have exacerbated things that were already there, but now they have come to the surface.”

The heightened pressure that lockdown, in particular, puts on relationships is evidenced in a survey by Relationships Australia. In 2020, 42 per cent of people surveyed said their relationship with their partner got worse in the first few months of lockdown. While this year, that proportion has dropped to 33 per cent, that’s still one-third of respondents who are, most likely, dealing with tension and conflict in their closest relationship.

“People are trying to negotiate a different dynamic they haven’t actually dealt with before.” – Steve Roberts

“With the change in routine, a lot of people are not going out to work, they’re working from home. So being at home more in a shared space, people are trying to negotiate a different dynamic they haven’t actually dealt with before,” says Roberts.

“If they don’t have a good communication background – so partly they managed [previously] because they weren’t together so much – then the symptom of not having some of these skills before has been exaggerated.”

Roberts is among a group of conflict coaches across Australia who have offered their time for free to PeaceWise to run sessions with anyone needing help to resolve conflict. PeaceWise runs training in peacemaking techniques for churches, Christian schools and workplaces. Last year, in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the organisation began offering two free 40-minute conflict coaching and prayer sessions to anyone who needs them.

Rather than a formal counselling session, PeaceWise stresses the conflict coaches are “offering to stand with you and listen and talk and pray”. Coaches come from a range of backgrounds, so are not professional counsellors, but are all “committed Christians” who have completed PeaceWise training courses. All sessions are silently observed by a mentor, who gives feedback to the coach to help them grow in their skills and experience.

“Being willing to talk with someone about it, rather than just letting it simmer or escalate is the first step.” – Steve Roberts

Roberts has served as a conflict coach with PeaceWise for the past two years. After spending 25 years as an Anglican minister, he and his wife moved into personal and couples counselling because it was “very much our hearts and sort of fits with the ministry and work we had been doing over the years.”

The key to resolving conflicts, Roberts says, is good communication and understanding our own reactions to conflict.

“In conflict, you often feel like the other person is getting in your way of what you need. You can then start to punish the other person by getting a bit attacking or withdrawing. Then you become very critical.

“We try to help people discover deep down what do they really want and feel they need from the other person. When that’s not being communicated well and not being received, it starts to become a real barrier in the relationship.

Roberts adds: “And we ask people ‘Have you actually brought this to God, and asked God to shape your desires?’ That’s part of the journey we take people through, which is usually very helpful as often people are totally oblivious as to why they’re getting into conflict with someone they care about.

“The other big thing we take people through is being aware of what do we bring to the situation. If we feel the other person is causing the conflict, then what do we bring that might be exaggerating [the conflict]. We have to own that.”

Roberts admits that in just two sessions, the conflict coaches “can really only have a starting point and a short journey with people.” His aim in these sessions is to give “three or four core frameworks that people can have as a tool or resource that they can continue to use.”

However, he adds: “But I can continue to pray for people, obviously while keeping confidentiality for the people involved. We encourage people to do some of the [PeaceWise] training to resource themselves. They may choose to see someone else – a local counsellor, for example, if they want to.”

“Conflict is an opportunity to grow yourself …” – Steve Roberts

It was actually the isolation caused by COVID-19 restrictions, rather than the closeness of lockdown, that led Nerida* to seek conflict resolution help from PeaceWise.

“The issues in my life were pre-existing, but COVID did make them impact me in a greater way. Because there was some disconnect with members of my family, that meant I was more isolated than I would otherwise be,” she says.

“I’m very blessed to have access to support in my workplace, as well as in my local church,” Nerida adds. “But sometimes it is helpful to have someone to speak to who is not necessarily a part of your immediate circle, so they’re a little bit more distanced about what’s going on. And so their advice can help you think outside the box that you’re hunting around in.”

Through the two free sessions, Nerida says she “certainly was encouraged and helped to look at things from a healthier perspective”. Following the sessions, she joined one of PeaceWise’s online hubs – where she shared about the information she had gained and prayed with people from across Australia – and later, she completed a one-day PeaceWise training session.

“This gave yet another layer of support and direction,” says Nerida.

To those currently experiencing conflict in a relationship, Roberts’ advice to simple: seek help by finding someone to talk to about it.

“Sometimes this is harder in Christian circles because people are caught up in a bit of guilt or shame or are just concerned what people will think,” he says.

“But if someone has a trusted friend or mentor, or even a counsellor, or by using the PeaceWise conflict coaching sessions, at least an objective perspective is being given.

“So being willing to talk with someone about it, rather than just letting it simmer or escalate is the first step.”

The second step to dealing with conflict, according to Roberts, is to embrace the opportunities that conflict resolution brings.

“Conflict is an opportunity to grow yourself, to understand yourself and also to step into seeking to restore and reconcile with others.”

*Name changed for privacy reasons.