Ellyn Bader

Couples around the world are being impacted by this challenging time. According to surveys we conducted recently, here are just a few examples of how people are reacting to sheltering in place:

  1. Some love it. They enjoy having more time together and a slower pace. “We are really getting to know each other better.”
  2. New couples decided to quarantine together and moved in hardly knowing each other. They’re finding out quickly whether they’re compatible or not. 
  3. Divorce filings increased in Wuhan and New York.
  4. Domestic Violence hotlines are busier than ever. The rate of calls to the suicide and help hotline in Los Angeles went up more than 8,000%.
  5. In our own informal research therapists report couples struggling with too much time with their spouses and kids. 

In the surveys we conducted, we found that cabin fever creates increased challenges for couples.

So what is cabin fever?

There’s no official definition, but we define it in this case as the tension and anxiety that results from being trapped in confined quarters daily with your soulmate turned work-chore-parenting-schooling-health-mate. 

There are many more interdependencies and fewer distractions than usual, a higher need for good routines, and fewer opportunities for social connections with others.

The internet is full of jokes about overeating and excess drinking. Some partners report feelings of dread, loss, grief, or anxiety. Overall the ability to cope with stress is lower.

What does this look like?

Many couples report that they feel restless, lethargic, and have low motivation to do projects. Others are sad, depressed, or crabby. It’s not unusual to cry unexpectedly or erupt because of a small upset. 

What Contributes to these Symptoms?

We’ve seen 5 categories that create major irritants and difficulties for couples.

1. Messes

  • Dinner not cleaned up until midnight
  • Laundry on the floor for days
  • Kids’ toys not picked up
  • Chores left for whoever gets sick of it first

2. Boundary invasions

  • Loud music, talking, “will I ever get some quiet?!
  • Chewing gum or loud mouth noises
  • Constant interruptions of work time and space
  • Kids’ needs increasing

3. Health and Safety Disagreements

  • Disparate standards of cleanliness and safety protection
  • Very different levels of caution
  • Who can go out, come in, where is okay to go
  • Complexity of these issues not discussed well 

4. Economic Concerns

  • Loss of jobs and income
  • Business future uncertain

5. Facing Real Losses

  • Death of a friend or family member
  • Postponed or even cancelled graduations, weddings, funerals, family reunions

For many couples this is a traumatic time. The more time a couple spends together without agreements, boundaries, or routines, and the smaller the space, the more possibility there is for conflict.

The more fear and anxiety is left unprocessed, the more this will contribute to fights, explosions, or shutdown and withdrawal – and a decline in mental health. 

For a long time, many psychologists embraced a victim narrative about trauma, believing that severe stress causes long-lasting and perhaps irreparable damage to one’s psyche and health.

But when researchers and clinicians looked at those who coped well in crisis, they found that it’s possible to grow from it by cultivating an attitude of tragic optimism.

The term was coined by Viktor Frankl, the Holocaust survivor and psychiatrist from Vienna. Tragic optimism is the ability to maintain hope and find meaning in life despite inescapable pain, loss, and suffering.

This time provides an opportunity for couples to find meaning, whether it’s new ways to collaborate, building their connection, or becoming a stronger team. 

If you’d like to help your couples grow from adversity, consider helping them find meaning in this time.

Recently, my husband Dr. Peter Pearson did a demonstration with a couple and helped them consider themselves as a team for the first time. They hadn’t thought of teamwork as a form of meaning. But by the time Pete was done working with them, they felt connected, collaborative, and were able to find the silver lining in the situation.


As couples are sheltering in place together and more therapy sessions happen online, we’ve developed a few ways to support you. Whenever you’re ready, here are two other resources for you.

Cabin Fever Couples: The Answers to Their Biggest Problems

How to Work More Effectively with Couples Online 


Ellyn Bader, Ph.D., is Co-Founder & Director of The Couples Institute and creator of The Developmental Model of Couples Therapy. Ellyn is widely recognized as an expert in couples therapy, and since 2006 she has led innovative online training programs for therapists. Professionals from around the world connect with her through internet, conference calls and blog discussions to study couples therapy.

Ellyn’s first book, "In Quest of the Mythical Mate," won the Clark Vincent Award by the California Association of Marriage & Family Therapists for its outstanding contribution to the field of marital therapy and is now in its 18th printing. She has been featured on over 50 radio and television programs including "The Today Show" and "CBS Early Morning News," and she has been quoted in many publications including "The New York Times," "The Oprah Magazine" and "Cosmopolitan."

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A Glossary of Terms that are sometimes Confusing

Couples Therapy is a counseling procedure that seeks to improve the adjustment of two people who have created an interdependent relationship. There are no standard procedures to help two people improve their adjustments to each other. Generally, a more experienced therapist will offer more perspectives and tools to a couple. Length of treatment will depend on severity of problems, motivation and skills of the therapist. A couple can be dating, living together, married or separating and may be gay, lesbian or heterosexual.

Marriage Therapy is a term often used interchangeably with marriage counseling. The term marriage implies two people have created a union sanctioned by a government or religious institution. The methods used in marriage counseling, marriage therapy and couples therapy are interchangeable and depend more on the specific challenges of each unique couple.

Psychotherapy is one or more processes to help improve psychological and emotional functioning. Examples are psychoanalysis, cognitive therapy, behavior therapy, Gestalt therapy, Transactional Analysis, Rational-Emotive therapy, or group therapy. Many forms of psychotherapy are blends of different approaches. For example, newer forms of psychotherapy called energy psychology draw upon recent advances in brain and neuroscience. These approaches often build on cognitive behavioral methods.

Clinical Psychologist. After graduating from college, it usually takes about five years of graduate school to get a Ph.D. in Psycholgy. It then requires an additional two years of supervision and passing a written (and often) an oral exam. There are a few states that allow psychologists to prescribe medications (with additional training) but that is uncommon.

Psychiatrist. After graduation from medical school, there is a generally a 4-year psychiatric residency. After the completion of this training, psychiatrists must pass an exam issued by the American Board of Psychiatry and Neurology to obtain certification and legally practice in the field. Psychiatrists can prescribe medications.

Clinical Social Worker. This profession usually requires two years of study after obtaining an undergraduate degree. While specific licensure requirements vary by state, most require clinical social workers to obtain 3,000 hours or 2 years of supervised clinical experience, after obtaining a Masters degree. Social workers can also specialize in diverse fields such as human services management, social welfare analysis, community organizing, social and community development, and social and political research.

Marriage and Family Therapist. Obtaining this license requires a Masters degree which takes approximately two years of post graduate study. The license also requires 3000 hours of supervised work and passing written exams.

The Couples Institute. We have assembled a group of top notch therapists at The Couples Institute. Whatever marriage help or marriage advice you are looking for, we are here to serve you. While most other therapists see only a few couples a week, we specialize in marriage and couples relationships, working to develop and bring you the most current and effective approaches to couples therapy. For more information about couples therapy or marriage counseling, see our couples therapy section.

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