We are all dealing with unexpected and emotionally draining challenges as we learn to cope with the changes that COVID-19 has brought into our lives. In many ways, crisis brings us together and forces us to rely on one another in new ways. However, conflict and frustration are also to be expected as we try to navigate new challenges together. While experiencing conflict during this time is normal, here are some strategies to help couples care for their relationships during the COVID-19 outbreak.
Structure time together and time apart
For most of us, our routines have changed quite a bit in the past two weeks. Couples are spending more time in physical proximity with one another than usual. Many people are adjusting to working from home and providing childcare full time as well. This enforced togetherness can lead to feeling annoyed at seeing each other all day, every day. It can also lead to a lack of real quality time together because the home is full of intrusions from the outside world. It can help to sit down together and talk about your differing needs and arrange time for closeness and separation to happen. For couples craving closeness: can you plan to have lunch together if you are both working from home, can you both turn off cell phones for an hour to watch a favorite show together free from distractions? Planning that time together can feel like a date—even if you can’t leave your home. For couples craving separation: try planning time to do separate activities in separate parts of the home for an hour or two hours each day. Even in a small space, some distance can be achieved by using headphones to listen to music or watch a show. It can also help to get out of the house individually for a walk or run.
Stay engaged with other supports
Although we are limited to physical interactions with people in our households, it is important to still remain engaged in other supports. It is easy to fall into the trap of viewing your partner as the “be all and end all” of your entertainment, affection, conversational, and venting needs. As much as possible, continue to reach out to friends, family, pets, online communities, and coworkers as ways of meeting those needs. Try to engage in those virtual happy hours and group chats with friends! Arrange phone calls with friends and family members who are far away. This helps relieve the pressure of being the sole support for our partners.
Use this as a chance to appreciate parts of your partner you don’t normally get to see
We are all dealing with a situation we have never seen before. This anxiety may cause us to focus on negative aspects of our partners we’re not used to seeing e.g., “I didn’t know she was a panic shopper” or “He is such a loud typer!” To combat this, take some intentional time to notice some strengths you normally don’t get to see in your partner. Do they have amazing patience to wait in long lines at the store? Do you have the chance to see them working and recognize the effort they put into their jobs? Or maybe they have amazing creativity keeping the children entertained? Take the time to notice and communicate those observations to one another!
Recognize that you may be expressing your anxiety in different ways
One common theme that comes up in couples therapy sessions is the stress that comes from differing styles of dealing with and expressing anxiety. Anxiety is ruled by our “fight, flight, or freeze” neurological response. Our actions stem from variations on those three responses. When we are in fight mode anxiety, we are attacking problems, doing research, going to the grocery store, sending emails, reading the news, etc. When we are in flight mode, we are actively avoiding issues: distracting ourselves, trying to live life as usual. In freeze mode, we become completely shut down, which often looks like simply wanting to sleep for an hour. It can be so hard when you want to go to the grocery store one more time to see if there is toilet paper and your partner just wants to stay home and take a nap. We tend to interpret the other person’s reaction as dismissive, excessive, lazy, or stressful. We can feel isolated and alone. Recognizing that anxiety looks different in different people allows us to interpret the other person’s actions as stress instead of laziness or excessive chaos. Then we can act in a more empathic way, saying “I hear you are anxious about the toilet paper supply, and I am too; but I just can’t handle the stress of a grocery store trip right this minute. Why don’t we try going tomorrow?” This kind of response validates your shared anxiety and makes a plan to honor your differing needs.
Approach household roles with flexibility and generosity
Most couples have systems for dividing household labor. It can be incredibly frustrating to see these systems no longer working. For example: Maybe you always pick the kids up from daycare after work while your partner is at home getting dinner ready. Now the kids are at home all day, you’re an essential employee working later than usual hours, and your partner is working from home with the kids. You come home to hungry children and no dinner. It’s frustrating because there’s really no good solution! The trick to surviving this is to recognize that you and your significant other are not working against each other; you’re working against the external stress of the situation. Adopting this mentality allows you to be flexible without blaming and take the steps you can to help one another out. Recognize that you’re both stretched thin. Keep communicating with one another and acknowledge that you know your partner is doing the best they can. Let your partner know you appreciate and see their efforts, even when things fall through the cracks. With time and creativity, you will develop new systems and adapt together.
Ask permission before engaging in stressful conversations
A simple tool couples can use to reduce conflict is to ask permission before engaging in stressful conversations. This is another way of respecting how the other person deals with anxiety. Instead of just jumping in and reading that COVID-19 news article out loud, ask your partner first, “Did you want to hear about the news right now?” This gives them a chance to say “no” if that would be overwhelming to them. If you decline to participate in a conversation with your partner, it is your responsibility to say when would be a good time to talk about it later. You want your partner to know you are not shutting them down. Asking permission gives you the chance to be on the same emotional playing field before beginning a conversation.
Mindful Listening and Validation
These are two of the most important skills for any communication whether in crisis or in times of normalcy. Mindful listening is the skill of listening purely to understand your partner. This tool involves letting go of any defenses, responses, and mental chatter. The listener purely focuses on asking clarifying questions to understand the speaker. This focus helps reduce miscommunications and escalations in communication. It is important to actively switch roles between speaker and listener so both partners have the chance to feel heard and understood.
Validation is the act of affirming that the other person has a right to feel and think the way they do, even if you disagree with them. An example of a not validating statement would be “Working from home hasn’t been so bad; you’re worrying too much about it. It will get better soon!” Validation looks like “I can tell that switching to working from home has been hard on you. That hasn’t been my experience, but it’s completely fair that you’ve been feeling that way. Tell me more.”
All of these strategies can help improve communication anytime, not just in times of crisis. However, please remember that conflict and disruption are completely normal right now. We can’t expect to be perfect spouses, partners, or parents, especially during a pandemic! The more compassion you show to yourself as a partner, the more you will show to your significant other.
Emily Short Steiner is a licensed marriage and family therapist in the state of Pennsylvania. She has experience working with individuals, couples and families and a specialization in sex therapy. Please reach out if you are interested in counseling services.