Home Clinical Psychology & Psychotherapy How to Survive Family Togetherness During COVID-19

How to Survive Family Togetherness During COVID-19

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Breakfast, lunch, dinner and everything in between. Parents with young children hover over computers while rocking babies and taming toddlers. Couples argue over going to the market in masks and gloves, or waiting for a home delivery.

University students, completing online courses in their bedrooms at home, bristle when mum and dad wonder why they were up so late last night. ‘I was studying! It’s university!’ one exasperated student explained to her mother.

Certainly, many families enjoy aspects of the enforced togetherness brought on by the COVID-19 stay-at-home mandates. But for many families, quarantine comes with an abundance of worries:  worries about jobs, health, ageing parents – you name it.

When we’re anxious, we’re often not on our best behaviour, especially with those we love the most. 

How to thrive, not just survive, in quarantine

Fortunately, psychologists have proven ideas about how family members can behave so their relationships not only survive, but thrive, through the ups and downs of life.

Back in the 1970s, Dr John Gottman, a psychologist at the University of Washington, began studying married couples. He wanted to know why some marriages succeed, and some don’t.

Over decades of research, Gottman and his colleagues found four specific behaviours, called the Four Horsemen, that doom couples to divorce. They also identified four antidotes to those behaviours. 

Practising these four behaviours and their antidotes is critical during this time of high stress, not only for couples, but for all family members.  Gottman’s rules teach us how to treat people in ways which protect relationships. 

The Four Horsemen and their antidotes

1. Criticism/the gentle start-up – When you criticise your partner, you attack them personally. Your partner becomes hurt, angry, and defensive. Criticism does not lead to empathy or problem-solving. Instead, think of offering feedback or information to your partner, instead of a critical comment. The sandwich technique works well as a gentle start-up:  compliment/feedback/compliment.

Criticism: ‘That’s not the way your supposed to wash your hands. You’re supposed to wash for 20 seconds. You always rush.’

Feedback (sandwich technique): ‘Thank you for washing your hands before you start cooking. The Government said we’re supposed to wash for a full 20 seconds. I know you care about how I feel, so it would be great if you would count to 20 when you wash up.’

2. Contempt/gratitude –  When you are contemptuous of your partner, you mock them, roll your eyes, use sarcasm. You’re just plain disrespectful, as if your partner is beneath you. Your partner feels attacked, defensive, stressed.  Are you starting to see a pattern here?Contempt is the most damaging of all the horsemen.  According to Gottman-related research, it’s the greatest single predictor of divorce. Partners in contemptuous relationships are also more likely to suffer from infectious illnesses.  All the more reason to be on the look-out for contempt in your family and to practice its antidote during the COVID-19 quarantine.

Contempt:You know, I don’t think your boss likes you.   You’re probably going to get the sack.  You’re such a loser.’

Gratitude: ‘I’m so grateful we have our health and our jobs are OK right now.  I see how hard you’re working, even though you’re stuck in the corner of the bedroom.’

3. Defensiveness/take responsibility – It’s so easy to get defensive.  It usually happens when we feel criticised (see Horsemen # 1).  In the moment, it feels better to blame someone else, the situation, anything but our role in a situation. However, when we’re defensive, everyone feels blamed.  Tension escalates; nothing gets better. What we really want is to be heard and understood.

Defensiveness: ‘So what if I didn’t wear a mask into the shop? It’s fine You’re such a nervous Nellie.’

Take responsibility: ‘You’re right.  I know it’s important to you I wear a mask if I go out.  You have diabetes and you’re high risk for COVID.  Next time I will.’

4. Stonewalling/self-soothing, take a break –  We’re supposed to maintain social distance due to COVID-19. Stonewalling is emotional distancing, and it’s not helpful.  We stonewall when we’re hurt or angry.  It’s the cold shoulder, the silent treatment, the one-word answer. As with the other Four Horsemen, we stonewall when we feel flooded with negative emotions and don’t know what else to do.  We can’t solve problems when we’re frozen in our feelings. The trick is taking an emotional time-out.  Let your partner know you need a break. Then do something that you enjoy and let your nervous system calm down. Go for a walk or just another part of the house.  Put on headphones. Breathe.


‘What’s wrong?’

‘Nothing.’ (Throws down newspaper and stomps off).

Antidote: ‘I know you’re angry, but I’m so knackered right now. I’m having my tea and then we can talk.’


Keep in mind that that the Four Horseman and the antidotes are skills. You’ll improve with practice. Apply the antidotes to yourself, as well. If you’re critical or defensive with a loved one, practice some self-compassion, and keep going.

For more information about The Four Horseman and the Antidotes, and Gottman’s research, please go to The Gottman Institute: a research- based approach to relationships.


Image credit: Freepik

Dr Stephanie Kriesberg is a clinical psychologist in private in the Boston area.  You can connect with her on Twitter @drskriesberg.

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