When you stood up at the altar and said to your partner, “I take you for better or for worse”, you probably didn’t think too much about “worse”. Maybe as you repeated your way through “In sickness and in health, for richer or poorer”, you knew these were possibilities.
But I doubt you had “quarantined during pandemics” in your vows. This unexpected time finds so many couples dealing with an unprecedented level of stress on their relationships. Suddenly you are trapped together in your home for the foreseeable future, working out of garages and closets and kitchen tables, practicing gorilla warfare parenting, and just trying to survive.
Many of you are finding out what it’s like to live together in a new way. You might be rediscovering your “favorite” habits particular to your spouse, like the way she yells from the bottom of the stairs when she wants to get the kids’ attention. Or how your normally distracted-after-you-utter-one-sentence husband is suddenly patient and attentive with his co-workers on his Zoom call. Where has that guy been for the last 15 years, am I right??
No matter what you are discovering about each other, your dynamic has changed. The routine that ran your relationship has suddenly evaporated. Date nights, if you had them, are a distant memory. Alone time is even harder to come by. And every minor annoyance feels likely to kick off your biggest fight ever.
Relationship management during quarantine requires re-thinking a few things, making a few tweaks and adding a little elbow grease to loosen up some stuck places.
You can do. It just requires a little management.
Here are six fixes to help keep your relationship going while you’re stuck at home together.
Examine the rules of engagement.
What you need right now in your relationship is not the same as what you needed two weeks ago. The world changed what it needed from you. So, of course, your relationship changed what it needed to. You might need more alone time than you did previously. You spouse might need more conversation. You might simply need a designated quiet hour where no one is allowed to talk to anyone but their respective devices.
The new needs of your relationship have to be identified or they’ll never be addressed. Unmet needs cripple a relationship. And unspoken needs never get met. So speak them. Need more downtime? Need to swap out with the kids more frequently? Need a quieter place to work?
Or better yet, be the first one to ask. What’s the biggest thing your spouse needs from you? How can you be more supportive of the stress they are feeling? Oh, by the way, you have to believe them when they tell you what it is. But by going first, they are going to be more motivated to listen and respond to your needs as well.
Get creative on your connection points.
You need new rituals of connection. Rituals of connection are those habitual touchpoints throughout the day that all you to check in with each other. It may have been the cup of coffee before the kids got off to school or a glass of wine on the porch when you both got home from work. Those previous rituals are probably disrupted right now. Your rhythms are off. You need some temporary stand-ins to maintain your connection. They do not have to be big but they need to change a bit. Maybe the coffee happens before you both power up your laptops for your first online conference call. Maybe it’s an after-dinner walk around the block strategizing how to safely say hi to your neighbors while staying the 6 to 10 feet away from them. Maybe you take turns planning the most creative date nights you can. Whatever it is, it simply needs to connect the two of you to each other and break up the mundane of the new routine.
Compliment the hell out of each other.
Listen, the freakin’ air around everyone is negative right now. Cutting through the negativity requires compliment bombs dropped early and often. The Gottmans say the magic ratio is 5 positive messages to undo the hurt of 1 negative message. And this is in normal times of a relationship. Extraordinary times require extraordinary effort. Your partner needs to know how much you believe in them right now and they need to feel that belief radiating off of you. They need to know you are on the same team and that you have their back. They need to hear how well-intentioned you believe they are even when the pandemic stress gets to them and they get it yell at you for using the last K-cup. You both are doing the best that you can. Believe in each other and then speak that belief out loud.
This time in history requires us all to act with more grace toward each other and the first place you need to experience giving and receiving that grace is with your person. To paraphrase the old hymn, it is grace that has brought us this far and grace that will keep us home. And grace is enacted in the fondness and admiration you show you toward each other. Speak grace out loud. Tell each other how good a job they are doing. Tell them how well they managed that conference call and tell them how good a parent they are. You will feel the atmosphere in your home and between the two of you start to change.
Cut the expectations in half.
It seems no matter how severe and cruel the time period, no matter how ridiculous the circumstances, humans load themselves down with absurd expectations. So humans get quarantined in their home and the expectation is they work from home, with most work-from-homers working more hours to help their respective businesses stay afloat. And let’s add on top of that the expectation to keep their children educated and entertained. Next let’s add the social media voices saying, “Don’t waste your quarantine!” Whatever that means. So projects get added, and baking lessons ensue, and exercise challenges commence, and something called “learning to appreciate nature” is supposed to happen.
And this is all without mentioning the relationship expectations that get added on top of all of this. The underlying expectation may be that if you have a “good” relationship (whatever that means) then you will both quarantine wonderfully together. You’ll be patient and kind and take more time together and work together so smoothly that you’ll fall in love all over again.
There is a global pandemic causing healthcare breakdowns and national economic crashes of historic proportions. And quarantine will only be successful if you both work together to paint the downstairs hall bath?
No, quarantine will be successful if you come out on the other side together. Together is what matters. Cut your expectations in half. And then cut them in half again. And then take those expectations and throw them out the window. And then replace them with the expectations that there will be tears and fights. Expect that you will step on toes and that things will go wrong. You will accomplish a quarter of the things you intend to and at some point, you will have binge-watched so much tv that one of you will actually say out loud, “I think we’ve literally watched everything on Netflix.” Expect it to be hard. And expect that coming out on the other side of this thing with a few more fights under your belt will be fine if you come out together.
Check-in early and often.
Checking in is important for relationships all the time, but during a crisis it becomes crucial. Weekly check-ins about how the relationship is going is Couples Therapy 101 stuff. It helps you both get your bearings about where you are in your relationship, identify what you are doing well and what each of you can do to be better for the other. This is not the deep dive conversation some of you fear and the rest of you long for. It’s more routine maintenance than an engine overhaul.
During a crisis, it might look like every third night early on, moving to a couple of times a week as you get the hang of it. It’s identifying how each of you is affected personally, how you are handling the specific stress of the moment. It’s identifying what each of you has been doing well handling these unique circumstances and what you need to be able to cope better. It is NOT airing your laundry list of complaints. It is also NOT stoic handling of your problems all by your lonesome. It is simply checking in and making sure you are on the same page. Check-ins prevent things from getting bottled up and building up. Check-ins help us identify where each person is being overly sensitive or maybe not sensitive enough. It’s where you get to let loose with the compliments and practice grace and make sure each of you are clear on what the rules of engagement are today and how they might have changed since yesterday.
Check-in with each other. Maybe with a glass of wine in your hands but definitely before that second one.
Stay safe. Stay together. And reach out whenever either of those things is threatened.
Your relationship is so important. It requires as much attention as your job or your kids. But so often it is the last thing to get help. We’re still here and ready as ever to help when you need us.
At Mathews Counseling, all of our therapists are highly qualified with a minimum of a Master’s degree in a mental health field, licensed by a state board, and experienced in the areas listed on their bios. We are sure there are a number of other questions you may have with regards to starting therapy and we are happy to answer any of them.