'So many things are falling apart': An Italian doctor and her husband say the coronavirus lockdown has brought their relationship and parenting issues into sharp focus

  • On March 10, Italy went into a nationwide lockdown in an attempt to prevent further spread of the novel coronavirus.
  • To better understand the emotional implications of the lockdown on relationships, renowned therapist Esther Perel interviewed an Italian doctor and her husband.
  • Perel asked about their lives right now during an episode of her podcast, Where Should We Begin.
  • They talked about how the lockdown has forced them to deal with relationship problems they previously ignored.
  • Anxiety about the virus also makes them worry for their kids. "I don't think they're going to have a great future," the husband said.
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As cases of the novel coronavirus continue to mount in Italy, citizens are now two weeks into a nationwide lockdown.

It was an attempt to prevent further spread of the novel coronavirus, which had already killed more than 460 people and infected 9,000 others.

They require special permits to leave their homes to walk their dogs and to get necessities like food and medicine.

To better understand the mental and emotional implications of the lockdown on relationships, renowned therapist Esther Perel interviewed an Italian doctor and her husband about their lives right now during an episode of her podcast, Where Should We Begin.

This new dynamic has exposed their very different parenting styles

The couple, who did not share their names for privacy purposes, have three children, one who is school-aged and two who are younger. Finding time to care for their own needs while being good parents, all stuck at home, has been difficult, they said.

"The kids have been home for 10 days and they're starting to ask some questions," like if they'll be able to see their friends and celebrate their birthdays, the husband told Perel.

Typically, both the doctor and her husband would go to work for the day while the kids were at school and, once she got home, the doctor would be the primary caregiver for their children. But now, while she continues to go to the hospital to tend to the sick, he is working from home, and has more child-rearing responsibilities than ever before.

The flip in roles has made them realize their parenting styles are very different.

"I'm quite adamant about rules and discipline and want life to have some order, especially now," the husband said, while his wife, the doctor, isn't as strict and is more willing to compromise with their kids.

The doctor said her aversion to strict rules stems from her father, who was always strict growing up. She doesn't want to act like he did towards her own children, and her husband's approach sometimes reminds her of her father. 

"I saw something in him similar to my father. Sometimes when he disciplines the children, it is too strong, too hard," she said.

The nearly two weeks stuck at home as exposed, and even exacerbated, these differences.

'We have 3 kids, and I don't think they're going to have a great future'

An Zhifei, one of An Hui's and Ye Jianbin's three sons, stands next to his and his brothers' shoes at home in Xishuangbanna, Yunnan province, China December 5, 2018. An and Ye are fathers of triplets who were conceived with the help of a German egg donor.
Jason Lee/Reuters

It's not just a matter of parenting styles: They desperately want to resolve their clashes because they worry for their children, both now and looking ahead. They're aware that they are both very anxious about what's happening in Italy, and globally, right now.

"We have three kids, and I don't think they're going to have a great future. Not because of them, but because so many things are falling apart," the husband said. "We are very sensitive to the state of the world."

Perel said that, unless they pause and learn to appreciate their differences in parenting style, they could make their current situation worse.

"A partner can say, 'I don't like these things [about you], change,' or they can say, 'I'd like to do things differently,'" and offer suggestions for how to do them differently, Perel said.

The lockdown is also forcing them to reckon with their existing relationship problems

"The biggest problem we have is a communication problem," the doctor said, which has become glaringly obvious now that they're living in lockdown together.

"You have a glass that fell and is broken," the doctor said to describe their relationship, "and you have glue to put it back together, but the glass is still broken."

The couple said they started to feel emotionally distant after the doctor had a miscarriage years ago, and the husband admitted he didn't know how to be close to her during that time. Then, when she got pregnant again, the husband said he felt betrayed because he had told her he didn't want more children.

Since then, their relationship has been emotionally strained. But Perel said the doctor's own emotional hangups influenced her relationship long before the miscarriage.

"This is a relationship with two adults, three children, two histories, and a wall," Perel said.


The doctor agreed, saying she's scared to be hurt, so she built mental walls around herself that kept her husband from understanding her feelings.

But Perel reminded the doctor that her husband wants to understand her emotions, good and bad, and she should work to open up to him.

Perel also said that the doctor should recognize how she treats her husband is similar to the way she sees him verbally discipline their kids, and looking at her actions through that lens could help her become more compassionate towards him.

"You need more of each other, and not just as parents," Perel said, adding that the couple should make a point to check in with each other daily to rebuild their intimate connection.

"Talk about how it all connects: the fear at the hospital [where the doctor works], coming home, being afraid for the children, needing his support. It's one set of interdependent needs. They all relate to each other," Perel said.

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