In Uncertain Times, 5 Tips for Coping as a Couple
No one could have prepared us for the impact that the novel coronavirus and social distancing would have on our relationships. Stress and uncertainty in our own lives, and also with others, are at all-time highs. Building resiliency, the notion that we can bounce back from difficult events, is important. Now more than ever we need to turn toward each other to deal with the pressure that we are facing — as partners and as a nation.
Here are five tips to help you strengthen your relationships through this challenging time.
1) Acknowledge That You Will Cope Differently
Each person will deal with the emotions that come up during this time differently. Some may be more withdrawn and not share the way they feel; others will outwardly express themselves. Building resilience in relationships is about acknowledging that you and your partner are two separate people. You have your own thoughts, opinions, desires, and wishes. Be mindful that even if your partner is not showing their emotions, they are still having a reaction. Some individuals will personalize the experience of their partner not sharing their emotions. You are different people, so remember that your partner’s preference for sharing may have nothing to do with you. Try not to take their approach personally, even when it feels like you don’t know what is going on with them. If you're curious to learn more about your partner’s feelings, ask open-ended questions (e.g., When you are doing that, what are you feeling? What was it like for you? What thoughts were you having?) and reflect back to them what you see and hear (e.g., It seems like you are sad. I noticed you are overwhelmed. Is that right?).
2) Repair Quickly
In times of distress, couple partners may get stuck in one of four negative communication patterns: criticism, defensiveness, stonewalling, or contempt. These patterns are cyclical in nature and stop couples from feeling close and connected.
An antidote to these patterns? Learn to repair quickly. All partners have disagreements. Conflict is an integral part of relationships. The goal is not to avoid conflict but rather to learn to repair it quickly. Start talking about how you and your partner are communicating. It might sound like “I felt defensive when you said that” or “I’m feeling angry and I started to criticize you.” This is moving toward a process discussion instead of trying to solve the problem in front of you. Own your actions and their impact on your partner (e.g., I know when I speak that way you want to shut down. We didn’t get off to a great start, did we? My defensiveness makes you angrier). If disagreements become too escalated, take a break to allow yourself to calm down. I recommend stepping away from the conversation for 20 minutes and then returning to it.
3) Redefine Roles
Your daily demands and routines have changed during this difficult time. This means you will need to look at your roles and redefine what each of you does in the home, in your professions, and with your families. It is helpful to have a weekly meeting to talk about what tasks or projects require your attention. Write down the items to be attended to or completed over the coming week. Decide who will do each and when. Who will be with the kids? Who is making meals and preparing for the next day? What household and work chores have to get done? The intention of the exercise is not to show who does more but rather to identify who is willing to do what to work together as a team.
4) Communicate Your Needs Clearly
You may sometimes lament that you should not have to tell your partner what you need. Unfortunately, this is a myth that many people buy into in their most intimate relationships. Our needs change every day. What worked yesterday may no longer work for you today.
People often find it difficult to communicate what they need. This may be due to socialization or not learning to express their needs. They also may be taught to minimize and push away their own desires and focus on being caregivers and looking after others.
Another challenge is that our needs are often coded. We tell our partners what we don’t want without focusing on what we do want. We also tend to speak of our needs in the negative. For example, instead of a positive statement like “I need time with you today,” it may be voiced as “You took time only for yourself today.” This does not help partners know what we're looking for.
To express a need, start by identifying how you are feeling. You may be sad, stressed, overwhelmed, alone, or anxious. Ask yourself what would help you in this moment. To share this with your partner, focus on your feelings and a positive need. You might try this recipe: I feel (insert emotion). To help me with this, I need (insert what you would like partner to do, what you want help with).
5) Create Intentional Ways of Connecting
In many relationships, self-isolating, social distancing, and quarantine measures have resulted in an increased amount of time together — and for some people, never having spent this much time alone. However, this togetherness is not necessarily intentional. How often can you relate to sitting side by side on the couch, scrolling on your device, or watching television?
Take time to agree on when and how you will intentionally connect. This should occur each day in small moments: maybe a six-second kiss, a few moments when you start and end your day, or a daily check-in. You should also plan for some kind of intentional date each week, like playing a new game, listening to a podcast, or trying a yoga challenge. Having experiences together, even while staying in the home, helps to create a strong bond and a sense of connection.