The stress of living through a pandemic is putting relationships to the test.
“There’s not a single one of us who isn’t dealing with a tremendous amount of stress right now,” marriage and family therapist Winifred M. Reilly told HuffPost. “Work issues, tight living quarters, financial uncertainty, fears about the health of our loved ones, fears of getting sick ourselves. And as we all know, stress does not bring out the best in us.”
So how can you keep your relationship from crumbling under the weight of these challenges? We turned to couples therapists for their best advice on how to stay steady during a turbulent time.
1. Bring back date night.
Social distancing guidelines may have foiled your go-to date night plans. You can’t hire a babysitter, eat at a restaurant or catch a movie in theaters. But you can still carve out some time to connect at home. Psychologist Kelifern Pomeranz recommends setting aside at least an hour per week for just the two of you.
“Meet up in the backyard or on the balcony. Dress in your finest if you wish, have a drink together (non-alcoholic is fine), slow dance, and play charades or a board game,” she said. “Try and keep the conversation light, humorous and optimistic. This should be a time to step away from the stress of COVID-19 and reconnect with your partner.”
2. Cut each other some slack — more than you usually would.
We’re living through a highly stressful, unsettling, anxiety-inducing time. Under these conditions, it’s difficult to present the best versions of ourselves. So be gentle on each other when tensions inevitably arise.
“Find compassion for yourself and your partner when arguments come up and realize that it’s likely a normal reaction to an abnormal situation,” said marriage and family therapist Jon-Paul Bird. “Don’t rush to judge the quality of your relationship right now, and continue to find ways to communicate and be vulnerable about difficult feelings. Have compassion around the fact that this is hard.”
That’s not to say everyone should get a pass for all bad behavior right now. You can gently call out your partner for their snippy remark or harsh tone without escalating the incident into a bigger fight.
“If one or both of you are short-tempered or impatient, don’t turn it into a federal case,” Reilly said. “Keep in mind that when we’re under pressure, most of us need some TLC far more than we need a lecture about not being nice.”
3. Prioritize your alone time.
Stay-at-home orders have led to a whole lot of forced togetherness, for better and worse.
“It turns out that the time you used to spend on your daily commute or at the gym was actually really important for your mental health and relationship,” Pomeranz said.
Finding those pockets of “me” time may be a challenge these days so you need to be intentional about giving each other space.
“Be understanding if your partner needs some time with a book, video game, Zoom call or wants to put in some earbuds to listen to music,” Bird said. “Also, if you are fortunate enough to be working from home right now, try to give each other their own dedicated space to work and organize themselves.”
4. Practice self-care together.
You may have self-care rituals that you prefer to practice solo, but also try to find some nourishing activities that you can do as a couple: meditating together in the morning, walking outside after lunch, or sipping tea and sharing a few things you’re grateful for before bed.
“Being able to do these things together helps to build your connection to each other, while also engaging in healthy ways to cope with the stress that comes while in quarantine,” Bird said. “Keeping a healthy headspace will be good for you and your relationship.”
5. Create a quarantine routine that works for you.
When the world around us is chaotic, maintaining a consistent daily routine can make you feel more grounded.
“Set some structure around your day-to-day activities,” said marriage and family therapist Marni Feuerman. “Decide mealtimes, leisure times, time as a couple or family, and time alone. This will help reduce anxiety, especially if you have kids at home.”
6. Stop keeping score on who’s doing more around the house.
Couples’ systems for divvying up household duties like cooking, cleaning, laundry, walking the dog and taking care of the kids have been turned upside down during the pandemic.
“Though this division of labor may have had its frustrations and imbalances back then, it was at least predictable,” Reilly said. “Now, for many of us, the rules have changed. I’m seeing couples with one partner now working 18-hour hospital shifts and keeping a distance from the family. Or one partner with flexible work hours doing most of the child care and home schooling.”
“A good rule of thumb: Do as much as you can, express gratitude for your partner’s contribution and accept that there’s likely too much to do.”
– Winifred M. Reilly, marriage and family therapist
Given the mounting responsibilities, don’t get hung up on making sure everything’s divided evenly. Remember that your partner is probably doing their best — there’s just a lot on both of your plates right now.
“A good rule of thumb: Do as much as you can, express gratitude for your partner’s contribution and accept that there’s likely too much to do,” Reilly said.
7. Don’t try to resolve long-standing conflicts right now.
This probably isn’t the best time to hash out major relationship problems that existed prior to the quarantine, Feuerman said.
“For some couples, things have gotten better and for others, much worse,” she said. “If it’s gotten really contentious between you both, online therapy is readily available to help you better navigate your relationship. Don’t hesitate to get professional help.”
If there are smaller, specific grievances you need to air, bring them up but stay focused on the issue at hand. Avoid resorting to criticism or making sweeping generalizations that attack your partner’s character.
“For example, don’t criticize or try to control a partner who wishes to return to work,” Feuerman said. “Instead, state how you feel and make the small request for change. Saying something like, ‘I get scared at the idea of you going back to the office so soon. Can we decide together around the timing for that?’ is much more likely to get a positive response.’”
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