Relationships everywhere are facing unprecedented stress amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Anxiety, fear and the inescapable close quarters of mandated social distancing or shelter-in-place ordinances are bringing new challenges, especially to those relationships who were already on rickety bridges.
“Many of us aren’t used to spending so much time at home every day with our partner, even when a crisis isn’t in the mix. Love is 24/7, but usually our days together are not.”
Almost all of us are now affected by COVID-19 and the emergency measures being taken to slow its transmission. We’re stocking up on essential items. Schools across the country are closing, leaving us to home school our kids. Claustrophobia is settling in as theaters, stores, restaurants and small businesses shutter their doors. Financial concerns abound as thousands are losing hours at work or being laid off entirely, plus the stock market is fluctuating wildly. And beneath it all lurks the ominous concern: what if I or my loved ones get sick?
To add to this already heavy list of worries, many of us aren’t used to spending so much time at home every day with our partner, even when a crisis isn’t in the mix. Love is 24/7, but usually our days together are not. Cabin fever may not be viral, but it is real: if we don’t take proactive steps to keep our relationships healthy, they could buckle under the pressure. Here are five actionable tips that you can begin using today to help your marriage or partnership through this stressful time.1. Carve Out Alone Time
Couples thrive when there’s a healthy balance between time spent together and time spent apart. However, due to the COVID-19 lock down, creating separate spaces is now more difficult than ever. Still, it’s important to physically remove yourself from your partner for an hour or two each day.
“No matter your living situation, the essential ingredient is communicating when you need alone time.”
Go into your backyard, your child’s bedroom, your home office—anywhere where you can carve out some alone time. If you live in a studio or loft where there are no real walls, create zones for each other and retreat to your separate corners. No matter your living situation, the essential ingredient is communicating when you need alone time, as this is likely to be different every day. And when your partner requests a similar break, honor it.2. Ground Yourself Using Routines
Adjusting to life in a COVID-19 world has required a significant transition in a matter of days. Never before have we had to homeschool our kids, hold down a job, and do our part for public health in such a radically dynamic environment. For many of us, we’ve also never had to stay home for extended periods. How do we navigate these changes without coming apart at the seams?
“Our brains love—and even crave—structure, and the grounding effects of routines are powerful.”
One tool is setting up a routine for yourself and your family. Planning meals, scheduling exercise times, devoting specific hours to work or outlining a plan of attack for a DIY project, can restore some semblance of normalcy to your otherwise-upended life. While this advice may seem simple, our brains love—and even crave—structure, and the grounding effects of routines are powerful.3. Focus On The Short-Term And Develop Plans Together
For many people, anxiety is fed by two main things: fear of the unknown and wanting to control the future. In moments of stress, the mind can spiral into a series of “what ifs,” and then we get swept up in an abyss of unknowns.
“The COVID-19 situation is evolving, and new developments may require tweaks to these plans, but by getting a handle on the day-to-day stuff, you’ll quell your anxieties while fostering teamwork.”
When trying to clear the clouds of anxiety, it’s helpful to periodically remind yourself to take things one day at a time while simultaneously creating short-term plans with your partner. Put your heads together and brainstorm ways to take care of the essentials: How will you homeschool your kids? How will each of you work from home? How will you manage any medical needs? How will you tackle necessary runs to the supermarket or pharmacy? Come up with simple, prudent, feasible plans that fit the directives of your city, county, or state. The COVID-19 situation is evolving, and new developments may require tweaks to these plans, but by getting a handle on the day-to-day stuff, you’ll quell your anxieties while fostering teamwork.4. Remember, No One Is Perfect
Has your partner been moodier than usual? On edge? Lethargic? Overly frenetic? In times of prolonged stress or alarm, mood swings are common, and the COVID-19 pandemic is all the more difficult because it’s something we’ve never faced before. We’re all flying blind on this one.
“If you’re concerned you’ve somehow triggered them emotionally, simply ask directly and calmly. If they say their mood has nothing to do with you, believe it.”
If your partner’s behavior has been unusual, give extra attention to their mood, and remember not to internalize it or read into it. If you’re concerned you’ve somehow triggered them emotionally, simply ask directly and calmly. If they say their mood has nothing to do with you, believe it. Everyone will react to this rapidly shifting landscape in their own unique way, and it’s not your job to jump into your partner’s brain and determine their thoughts. We are all stressed these days and have a responsibility to manage our behaviors, but no one is perfect. Remember that.5. Practice Kindness In The Face Of Fear
With COVID-19 spreading across the nation, many of us are scared right now, and rightfully so. Yet yelling or snapping at your partner will not only intensify the crisis in the short-term, it will erode your relationship in the long term.
“This is a time for pulling together and drawing on the unique strengths of your relationship. You’ll get through this thing together.”
Hold yourself in check. When you feel like shouting or criticizing, take a deep breath and a step back. Count your blessings and practice gratitude. Remind yourself that your partner is doing their best amid the chaos, just as you are. Make it a point to say please or thank you to each other, even for the littlest things. Tell jokes, laugh when you can. Weather this storm together, and above all, be kind to each other.
Lastly, it’s essential to understand you’re not alone. The feelings you are experiencing—fear, anxiety, anger, frustration, or something else entirely—are all normal and okay. That said, it’s crucial not to let your emotions dictate how you treat, or how you react to, your partner. This is a time for pulling together and drawing on the unique strengths of your relationship. You’ll get through this thing together.
Erica Bossiere is a licensed marriage and family therapist specializing in couples therapy and business executives struggling in their work relationships.