Rebuilding my relationship during RMO

By the end of last week (three weeks into RMO), I completely broke down and cried to Kula, my live-in partner.

I had been trying so hard for the past one week to be extra nice to him, yet I still felt disconnected from the only person I have had direct access to for the past 21 days. I was too tired to keep up appearances and admitted my frustrations about feeling unseen and under-appreciated.

Suprisingly to me, Kula said the same of me as well.

I am well aware that I am very lucky to be locked in together with someone, apatah lagi my own partner during such an extended quarantine period. Also, I am blessed to be in a relationship with another Psychology graduate such as myself, who is also well versed in understanding human dynamics (ie. navigating a social relationship such as this romantic relationship).

That being said, it still did not stop us from reaching this moment of complete disconnect. Here I am saying I feel unappreciated and that I had been nicer than usual to Kula, yet Kula is saying that he had felt extra dismissed during this time. I am not sure what went wrong. I felt shame at that moment and was unsure if I wanted to continue this conversation. I am so scared of feedback and I was calculating how defensive I should be.

I took into account the book I had read recently by Dr.Brene Brown, ‘Daring Greatly’ which talked about the need for more vulnerability in our daily life.

As a shame researcher, she advocates for sharing our truths even if it means being uncomfortable because the research has shown that ‘shame derives its power from being unspeakable’. She cites a quote from her fav character, Professor Snape to illustrate this further, ‘Only when we’re brave enough to explore the darkness, will we discover the infinite power of our light’.

I had been dreading having to initiate this conversation – I knew it could potentially deviate towards us analyzing that this relationship is not meant to be, and therefore a break up might be inevitable. Yet, on the flip side, I also knew that if we were able to discuss our frustrations in a neutral way and then affirm each other, we could potentially come out of this with clearer alignment on how to navigate the rest of RMO and our relationship. After a long pause on my part, we pressed on to this bumpy conversation terrain.

For the next hour, Kula and I just shared our perspectives of how the other had been behaving during RMO.

Kula and I had an unspoken agreement about our RMO arrangement: He can sit in our home office and I will take the well-lit dining area. Throughout the day, I will jalan over to Kula’s desk and check in on him. Kula thinks about cooking, and I think about cleaning. Seems fairly simple. Both of us will cuddle with our cat, Ram where possible.

Yet, during RMO, I was so afraid to come off as clingy that I would intentionally keep my desk interactions with Kula simple and brief so as to not kacau him. Kula kept his distance from me too, as I was seen as busy working on my professional and personal projects all day. Kula cooked each meal for us, and I cleaned up our home everyday. In our reflection, we later revealed that we both felt underappreciated for our respective tasks. We wanted validation and appreciation but had been hesitant to show it.

Attending to bids

Unsurprisingly, Gottman’s theories came up in our reflections.

To the unfamiliar, psychologist John Gottman is well known for his long-term research and theories on love and relationship. You have probably read about any one of his popular theories before!

And his very key finding that Kula and I brought up in this case, was the one on ‘bids’ or ‘requests for connection’. Attending positively to bids is what Gottman had detailed as a key factor in determining healthy and successful relationships. When a partner puts forward a bid, “Come here and smell this pasta sauce I made for us”, we have the option to attend to the bid by ‘turning toward it’ (walking to the kitchen and complimenting the soup) or ‘turning away’ (dismissing it or worse, keeping silent). Obviously, you want to turn toward these bids positively, thus affirming these moments of connection with your partner.

Kula and I recognised that this is where we have had a bit of a miscommunication. Especially due to the outlier nature of the quarantine, both Kula and I were trying to thread carefully around the other person, and reducing giving out bids altogether, and therefore, we lacked the opportunity to attend to them as well.

We were also not explicitly showing our gratitude to the other person, something Gottman had indicated a healthy partner typically does, ie. to scan for ways to appreciate and say thanks to their partner. Because we had just fallen into our cooking/cleaning dynamic non verbally, we just accepted it as a matter of fact instead of recognizing the work that actually went to maintaining these two responsibilities respectively. I wanted Kula to notice that I had cleaned the house every morning, yet was I intentionally saying thank you as much as I should for every meal that Kula helped think of and prepare?

Thankfully, the conversation, as uncomfortable as it was, ended up in an affirming way. We came out having clearer expectations of what each other wanted and needed from the other during the RMO, and moving forward in this relationship.

Drafting a crisis contract

Earlier in the week, I had been tryna schedule some time with Kula to do up our ‘crisis contract’, an idea I learned from this Harvard Business Review article on how dual-career couples can work through the pandemic. We never got around to actually putting in on paper, but I still remembered the key points of the article cause I wrote it down, so I was able to bring em up naturally during our reflection together.

To summarise it briefly, couples are encouraged to have a very intentional conversation on the following items to navigate the relationship smoothly during the pandemic phase:

  • What matters most to you in this period (other than the health and safety of your loved ones)? You can break this down into three top goals you have for your work/relationship/home, etc
  • What are the relative priorities of your respective career at the moment and for the coming months?
  • What are your parenting principles during this period?
  • How do you split the home chores?
  • What do you need from each other to make this work
  • What are the things that concern you the most?

This was most definitely a much-needed experience and reminder to me that navigating adult relationships does require intentional vulnerable conversations, structures and practicalities. It does not sound romantic to sit down for these sort of conversations, but I think that it is thoughtful to make space for it – after all, it implies that we value our relationship enough that we want to see it succeed by putting these structures in place!

And so, we carry on to another week of RMO.

I hope all of you are safe and sound indoors, kawan-kawan. Please take care of yourself and your loved ones. Be well!

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