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Behind the Frontlines: Being the Partner of a Healthcare Worker

The COVID-19 pandemic has impacted everyone in one way or another. Healthcare workers (HCWs) have taken on the brunt of the fight on the frontlines, but not much attention has been given to the mental health of their families. If your spouse or partner is a HCW, it’s likely that your life has changed pretty significantly over the last year - maybe there’s more tension or emotional distance in your relationship, or maybe your relationship is great but as an individual, you’re feeling lonely. There’s no guidebook on how to feel right now, and whatever emotions you’re experiencing are valid. 

I’m so alone. 

With COVID-19 restrictions in place, many people are feeling lonely right now. As the partner of a HCW, you’re likely dealing with some social isolation like most others are (missing your friends, coworkers, etc.), but have an added layer of missing your partner too. Maybe you’re physically alone most of the time because your partner is either working or sleeping – or even when they’re around, you’re living in separate parts of your home to reduce the risk of exposure. You may even feel disconnected from your partner because of the lack of quality time you get together. Know that feeling this way is normal – especially given the current circumstances – and doesn’t mean your relationship is doomed.

It can be especially hard to reach out to people when you’re already feeling isolated, but there is a lot of power in shared experiences. Find out if there are support groups in your area for the families of HCWs – try contacting a local family support center, your doctor or mental health care provider, or your partner’s workplace. If you can’t find anything official, maybe your partner can connect you with one of their colleagues’ significant others; this way you’ll have someone in your life who gets it, and you can even start your own informal group together.

I’m stressed and overwhelmed. 

Your partner may have always had long hours and emotionally draining days, but this last year is far beyond that norm. You may have found yourself taking care of everything at home, all by yourself. Things that were once shared duties may have become your duties - like making dinner every night or cleaning the house. Or new things have popped up, like your child(ren)’s school going virtual, and you’re the one who has to balance helping with remote learning while working from home. Maybe you still have to go to work in person too and are worried about even more exposure coming into your home. Maybe you feel like you’re constantly scrambling to figure out childcare, or you had to quit your job altogether. These are big changes, especially when they aren’t short-term, like many people initially thought COVID-19 would be.

Your partner may not be able to share the load equally right now, but they aren’t the only person available to support you. It may be frustrating to figure out how to get help safely – you might need to be a bit flexible. Figure out what you need (a Zoom tutor to help your kid with homework? Someone to drop off pre-made dinner once a week?) and don’t be ashamed to ask for help or accept it when offered. You can reach out to neighbors, family, friends, or even strangers – many towns have some sort of Facebook group centered around helping each other through the pandemic. Schools, churches, and community centers are also great places to contact for supports.

I have a lot of resentment. 

There are a lot of reasons to feel resentful right now. Most people are experiencing constant grief – over lost loved ones, over strangers’ hardships that have gone viral, and even over losing your normal, pre-2020 life. Part of that grief cycle is anger, and it’s natural to search for someone to blame. You may resent public officials and the government for not doing enough to slow the spread of COVID-19 and prioritize speedy vaccine distribution, or maybe you resent people who seem careless about safety. It’s also common to take these feelings out on the people closest to you – maybe you’re mad at your partner for choosing this career or secretly wish they’d quit their job so things can go somewhat back to normal for you and your family.

It’s much easier said than done, but try practicing radical acceptance – accepting your situation and reality for what it is. You don’t have to be happy with what you’re going through or embrace it, but simply acknowledge that right now, this is how things are. Making peace with your reality can help reduce some of the anger you have about it and let you focus on solving the problems that you’re able to.

I feel guilty.

It’s easy to compare your life to the lives of others - and when it comes to COVID-19, it’s common to feel like you don’t have it “bad enough” to be upset or that others are worse off. When someone you love or live with or co-parent with is a HCW during a pandemic, you may dismiss your own struggles and feel like taking care of everything at home is the least you can do. Or maybe you feel like you should push everything you’re feeling to the side to support them. But their hardships don't change the fact that things are difficult for you too. Comparing your experience to someone else’s (entirely different) experience, like your partner’s, only causes more pain. It invalidates what you are going through - on top of feeling that original distress, you now may be feeling guilty about your emotions or how you’re coping. Remember that you have needs, too. Healthy relationships require give and take; your feelings and needs taking a back seat to your partner’s may have been sustainable for a few weeks, but we’re coming up on a year of COVID-19. You are allowed to need support, regardless of what your partner is facing.  

More than ever, open communication is crucial in maintaining a happy and healthy relationship. Tell your partner that you’re having a hard time – they may have a lot going on themselves, but that doesn’t mean they don’t care about you and your feelings. Most likely, they know that their hardships don’t mean yours aren’t valid; share that you feel guilty asking for their support or need some reassurance that it’s okay for you to be struggling too.

For more resources on mental health during the pandemic, check out MHA’s COVID Hub. You can find information on maintaining hope despite uncertainty, recognizing and moving through unpleasant feelings, and developing a routine to maintain wellness. If you’re feeling alone or disconnected, watch our webinars on combating isolation and loneliness and integrating gratitude into your life. Remember that your needs aren’t selfish – to take care of someone else, you need to take care of yourself. 

If you’ve been trying to manage your emotional lows but still feel stuck, take a mental health screen – the way you’re feeling may be a sign of depression or anxiety, and screening results can help you start a conversation about what you need to feel better. If you want to talk or vent to a third-party, call a warmline to be connected to someone who can provide emotional support.