toy dinosaurs looking at each other

Avoiding Quarantine Conflict at Home

May 4, 2020

Last Friday, one of my roommates woke up on the proverbial wrong side of the bed. She refused to use headphones, blasted an infernal pop song, and yelled at me for stealing her favorite pencil. She then disturbed all other members of my household, including our rescue Oklahoma hound-lab, who hid in the closet. 

If any of this sounds familiar, you might be experiencing quarantine conflict. Which is perfectly natural, given that most people are under stay-at-home orders to prevent the spread of coronavirus. Even people who really like each other are not accustomed to perpetual cohabitation. You might need to develop some new skills for this new normal—so here are some quick tips to reduce stress at home.

Empathy

This may seem like a no-brainer, but empathy is an emotion that’s harder to summon under stress. (Empathy is defined as the ability to understand the feelings and experiences of another.) According to VeryWell Mind, during this time of social distancing, “it’s all too easy to turn inward and focus solely on yourself or your family unit.” But practicing empathy actually helps you understand and improve your own emotions.

Before you try to solve a problem, empathize with the other person or people (or creatures) you’re living with. Adults often underestimate the feelings of children, for example. And college roommates may find it hard to put themselves in each other’s perspectives (especially the messy, loud, or “problem” roomie). But if you empathize, you’ll remember that everyone has their own feelings and issues. Maybe the child who’s acting out misses school friends or the roommate who’s leaving chocolate wrappers everywhere just lost a job. This is not a time to insist on good vibes only—the current goal may be good vibes mostly.

Space

People (and animals) need personal space—and the exact perimeter an individual being needs is different for everyone. This has been scientifically proven. Neuroscientist Michael Graziano explains the importance of personal space in his book The Spaces Between Us: “Usually hidden under the surface of consciousness, occasionally rising into awareness, personal space affects every part of human experience.” The pandemic perimeter may be different as well, further complicating our at-home interactions.

Talk about the space you need. Establish clear boundaries and communicate those with the people you live with. If you’re working from home, clarify what that means. Is the kitchen table your home office from 9 to 5? Do you need to establish a shower schedule? Delineating the physical parameters everyone needs will help to prevent problems. In my house, “taking a time-out” is actually a good thing. It means that person gets to be alone—and unbothered—for 20 minutes. 

Communication

By now, many people know the advice psychologists give about using “I-statements.” It means you begin your explanations to others with sentences like “I feel ignored when you keep your headphones on” or “I get mad when you eat potato chips while I’m trying to concentrate.” Use these “I-statements” to communicate with your cohabitators.

Perhaps more importantly, communicate early and often. It’s better to point out something while it’s still a small annoyance instead of a large problem. You might even schedule weekly house meetings to communicate with others.

Fun

Don’t forget to have fun. Oddly enough, working, learning, and teaching from home has increased the workload for a lot of people. Many individuals are over-Zoomed too, which puts a different kind of stress on the human brain (because you’re meeting with people who aren’t actually “there”). This means that you can’t forget to have fun—even if you need to schedule it!

Play a board game (Twister even), go for a walk or run, throw the ball for the dogs, do an 80s aerobics workout, watch a silly movie, make an iMovie trailer for a film about your life (or your cats), and so on. Maybe one person in the apartment or house plans a fun event or fun break every week or every day at a certain time. Fun is vital, but don’t take it from me. Take it from Walt Whitman, who wisely said this: “Do anything, but let it produce joy.”