The coronavirus pandemic has wrought unprecedented levels of distress on an international level. Such global upset can trickle down and translate to a personal level as well, particularly when it comes to relationships.
After all, sheltering-in-place with your partner adds extra pressure, while rendering the normal outlets and sources of personal perspective – things like visiting friends, going to school or work, even a trip to the grocery store – altered or entirely moot.
Whether you’re in a long-term relationship, are just getting adjusting to each other, or you're somewhere in-between, here are eight morsels of advice for tending to your relationship and keeping it healthy during the turbulence of the coronavirus pandemic.
1. Understand how your partner responds to stress... and how you do, too
It’s often easy to assume everyone reacts to high-level stress in the same way we do. But you and your partner might actually have different coping mechanisms to mitigate pandemic-related triggers – and if those responses are vastly different, your actions stand to baffle each other unless you openly explain them.
For example, you might prefer to stay on top of breaking news updates, while your partner only weathers the larger updates as they come. Whereas you’d prefer to spend 30 minutes of quiet time in the morning drinking your coffee and getting up to speed on the news, your partner starts their day with funny videos or silent meditation. Neither of your responses is the “right” one; they are simply your respective ways of getting through the situation.
Being aware of what you both need to process stress can help you learn to grant each other the space and respect to honor those needs, without questioning their validity. Plus, as renowned relationship therapist Esther Perel points out, using these differences to balance your perspectives instead of exacerbating tensions.
2. Keep communication open and ongoing
As scary as the pandemic situation is, it’s important to air your worries and fears. While your partner can’t be your sole source of support, they can provide solace about things that are concerning you.
If you and your partner don’t have the vocabulary for this type of open communication (or even if you do, but these trying times have rendered your emotional roadmap irrelevant), you can set the stage for mutual support by asking each other open-ended questions, like:
- What are you feeling today?
- How has this day been for you? How about the week overall?
- Is there anything I can do to be a better partner or source of support for you today?
One exercise from couples counseling, called uninterrupted listening, can help you deepen this type of communication. Set a timer for 3-5 minutes where you are able to talk freely about absolutely any stressor(s) on your mind. It could be work, your health, the health of your loved ones, your future, etc. Your partner can respond with non-verbal cues, but they can’t chime in until the timer ends. Then switch, and take your turn as the listener.
Working on building this communication may help establish what preeminent relationship psychologist Sue Johnson refers to as a "secure bond." Such an attachment is formed with someone when we know they are emotionally responsive, and that they feel for and with us. It doesn't mean that they'll protect us, necessarily, or that they'll do the labor of problem-solving for us. Rather, it means they'll face our problems with us (not for us).
3. Carve out designated space for different purposes around the home
You might have heard that it’s helpful when working from home to designate “work” space from “home” space. The same goes during quarantine life!
Since so much of our lives are happening indoors, it’s all the more important to identify and label different areas for distinct purposes.
That might look like a room (or corner) that’s just for your or your partner’s work; a table for sharing phone-free meals; or a nook for doing yoga and meditation together. Adding these defined spaces can provide you both with a sense of autonomy and boundaries you might be craving.
4. Do your best to keep any major decisions on the backburner
If you and your partner had some big choices on the horizon, to the extent possible consider holding off on reaching a decision. After all, it’s nearly impossible to make sound decisions when there are so many universally unpredictable variables, from job security to everyday health of ourselves and loved ones.
If there’s something that’s pressing, you don’t have to ignore it altogether. Instead, try keeping track of your thoughts about the topic in a shared or individual journal. You can revisit those ideas when things have resumed to normal, or you feel you’re both in a calm headspace.
5. If you feel an argument coming on, pause – and plan to revisit it when you’ve both cooled down
Just as it’s hard to reach logical conclusions on any major decisions during times of extreme flux, it can also be hard to fully stay grounded during an argument.
Ironically, of course, the upheaval in routine and living conditions can leave us feeling unsettled, and may trigger more arguments than we’d normally have.
If you feel a spat or full-blown argument coming on, plan to touch base again in at least half an hour and no longer than 24 hours later.
Go for a walk alone in the meantime, or engage in self-soothing practices like a breathing exercise, practicing self-compassion, or calling a friend to check in. Revisit the argument when you’ve both had the time and (mental) space to cool down.
Above all else, avoid unleashing unfiltered criticism on your partner; along with contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling, such behavior is considered one of the "four horsemen" of the apocalypse for romantic relationships by esteemed relationship psychologists John and Julie Gottman.
6. Go overboard with compliments and appreciation
In these times of absolute tumult, many of us are craving kindness and comfort. The little niceties matter more than ever – meaning your small notes of appreciation will go extra far in keeping your relationship strong.
Be sure to thank your partner for the little things, like boiling water for your tea, making the bed, giving your partner an extended hug, or putting away the dishes.
7. Resume your regular romance to the extent possible
You’ve likely heard it before: Keeping some semblance of structure is helpful for staying balanced when everything seems topsy-turvy. If you had a regularly-scheduled date night, for example, make time to incorporate that into your quarantined life, too.
Here are some at-home date night ideas to try out:
- Take a virtual tour at one of the many museums making exhibits accessible online
- Do a double date with friends via Netflix party streaming
- Try your hand at creating art together! If you’re not crafty, this can be as simple as drawing your houseplants with a pencil and paper
- Learn a new dance routine together. Getting silly and laughing together can be a great distraction from global and personal stress
Try to eliminate outside distractions, just as you would if you were on a normal date! Put your cell phone on airplane mode, and focus on creating these new (and certainly unique) memories together.
You might just discover a new ritual of connection, a term that the Gottmans refer to for small but meaningful habits that you and your partner regularly incorporate into your daily routine, which can help you grow closer over time.
8. Consider starting couples counseling
The global pandemic has triggered distress and disconnect for countless individuals and couples. If you’re finding yourselves fighting more, seeing eye-to-eye less, or just generally experiencing a surge in tension, consider working with a counselor to help you get through this chaotic time.
Most counselors have begun offering online services, so you can get help now while having the option of switching to in-person sessions when the shelter-in-place ends. It might help to familiarize yourself with different options for couples counseling. Be sure to also look around for a few providers to find someone who understands your background and whom you’re both comfortable with.
The little habits and routines that you implement during the quarantine stand to impact your relationship in the future, too. By giving each other compassion and support during the crisis, you’re setting yourself up for a smooth transition back to whatever new normal awaits.