As the global pandemic drags on, changed routines and social distancing practices that you thought would be temporary have become a way of life. So how do you keep COVID-19 from wracking the bond between you and your partner? Here are 3 tips to help you strengthen your relationship during the pandemic.
The stress and isolation may have put a strain on you and your partner that feels oppressive. You’re constantly in conflict over the smallest things, or maybe you’re starting to feel distant. You’re trying, but you’re not sure how to maintain a healthy relationship during the pandemic.
The Course of the COVID-19 Pandemic for Couples
At first, it was stress of the unknown, the threat to your safety and the safety of your family. It had you and your partner picking at each other like two strays in a dog fight. Neither of you wanted to be in the fight, but you felt like you didn’t have a choice—you were fighting for your lives.
Then, realities set in, lives adjusted, routines changed. The immediacy of the threat of the virus subsided and you learned to get through the day-to-day. But now you were on top of each other at home with no release-valve activities or time with friends to let off steam.
It really started to feel like COVID-19 might threaten the stability of your relationship.
Now you’ve been at this so long, the dull hum of stress has become background to everything you do. You’re exhausted. You grieve the life you used to have alone and with your partner.
Maybe the distance between where you and your partner sit on opposite ends of the sofa has started to feel like an unfordable river.
The trick is, how to adjust to this new life without it ruining your relationship.
The Realities for Relationships During the Pandemic
According to a CDC survey conducted in three phases since April of 2020, the rates of anxiety and depression for all age groups have been steadily increasing (Anxiety, 2020).
It’s no wonder you’re fighting with your partner.
Both of you have been through a huge, life-changing event. You’ve suffered losses of hobbies or even jobs, and you can’t work out or see your friends.
It might feel like you don’t have any reserves left to be there for each other—even though now is when you need each other most.
Statistics from China last year revealed a higher divorce rate after quarantine than in prior years (Wuhan, 2020).
Similarly, in the United States, family lawyers reported a strong uptick in divorce proceedings in the spring of 2020 (Lehmann, 2020), and domestic violence hotlines reported a 25% increase in calls (Xue et al, 2020).
It’s clear from the data, a relationship during the pandemic is under stress. And because of that, many are at risk.
Connected Couples Weather Stress Better
The more connected you are as a unit, the easier it will be to get through stress of COVID-19.
Emotional connection provides mental and emotional support. It gives you the feeling of being able to take on whatever comes at you in life.
Not only that, the physical connection you have with your partner also acts as a stress reducer, and it has been proven to reduce your perception of physical pain (Coan, 2006).
Key Questions Couples Ask Each Other During Times of Stress:
There are a set of questions couples ask each other during times of stress explained by psychologist and researcher Dr. Sue Johnson in her book Hold Me Tight:
- Are you there for me?
- Do I matter to you?
- Will you be there for me when I need you?
If the answer to these questions is yes, you feel safe together and in your relationship. With the heightened levels of uncertainty and anxiety during the COVID-19 pandemic, you need need to know that your partner will be there to have your back. If one or both partners perceive the answers to these questions to be no, there is still hope. It doesn’t mean your relationship is doomed—but it does mean your relationship needs some attention.
Conflict Will Wrack Your Relationship During the Pandemic
There are a lot of reasons for couples to disconnect emotionally during these stressful times. Withdrawal may be a coping mechanism, or it may be due to being absolutely overwhelmed with all your other responsibilities.
But the more disconnected partners are, the more negative their interactions become.
According to Dr. Johnson, fights are protests against emotional disconnection (2008). Despite how difficult it might be to maintain healthy connection, neither partner wants to feel alone in the relationship.
Couples fight to connect and make the other partner respond, to ask those important questions without asking them in so many words: Are you there? Are you seeing me? Am I important?
The more you feel alone and the relationship feels empty, the more you will instinctively fight as a desperate attempt to regain connection.
Logically, we might deduce the key to avoiding conflict is to find a way connect emotionally.
TIPS for Protecting Your Relationship During the Pandemic (how to reconnect emotionally and avoid conflict):
1. Share your concerns and ask for help and support
Give a clear message about what you need. Instead of hinting at what you wish your partner would know, tell them directly.
Avoid criticizing from a place of fear, “Why do you never want to talk to me? Couldn’t you just once do something to help me before I ask.”
Replace these kinds of reactionary and offensive remarks with a statement about your underlying feelings, “I’m scared and exhausted. I need your company tonight, and reassurance that we’re going to get through this.”
Of course, this directness is not easy. You have to be willing to really identify your emotions and express your vulnerability.
2. Be emotionally available
This means answering “yes” in your actions when your partner is asking if you hear or see them. It means really listening when they’re being vulnerable and telling you their fears and needs.
You might even try these five couples therapy exercises to help you rejuvenate your relationship, even in the midst of the pandemic.
3. Take turns asking for help and supporting each other
When you take turns, it helps you avoid gender roles and stereotypes like men always being strong or quiet or women being weak or nosy. You can both be strong and vulnerable. You can both be talkative and quiet, leaders and supporters.
Taking turns gives each partner the opportunity to show all sides of themselves.
Benefits of Investing in Your Relationship During the Pandemic
At the end of this pandemic, you can have a stronger relationship if you invest in it now. The benefits are many—they go way beyond just fewer conflicts. You will be more flexible, resilient, and confident in the challenges that come your way.
Couples who invest in their relationships find more satisfaction in their lives together, and they deal with anger, stress, anxiety, and depression better individually and as a couple.
That said, many couples find investing in their relationship easier with the help of a professional.
Dr. Irena offers online therapy for couples in Texas and New York City. She is a certified Emotionally Focused Couples therapist who has worked with numerous couples who wanted to build more resilient relationships and overcome stress. She can help you rediscover your sense of security and strength as a couple. If you would like to schedule a session, email Dr. Irena for a free 10-minute video consultation: firstname.lastname@example.org or call (281)-267-1742.
Anxiety and Depression Household Pulse Survey. (2020). Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. https://www.cdc.gov/nchs/covid19/pulse/mental-health.htm
Coan, J.A., Schaefer, H.S., & Davidson, R.J. (2006). Lending a Hand: Social Regulation of the Neural Response to Threat. Psychological Science, 17(12), 1032-1039
Johnson, S. (2008). Hold Me Tight. New York, NY: Little, Brown Spark
Lehmann, C. (2020, November 7). Pandemic Drives Couples to Divorce or to Seek Help. WebMD. https://www.webmd.com/lung/news/20201207/pandemic-drives-couples-to-divorce-or-to_seek-help
Wuhan sees divorce rate soar after lockdown is lifted. (2020, April 14). Global Times. https://www.globaltimes.cn/content/1185583.shtml
Xue, J., Chen, J., Chen, C., Hu, R., Zhu, T. (2020). The Hidden Pandemic of Family Violence During COVID-19: Unsupervised Learning of Tweets. Journal of Medical Internet Research,22(11):e24361. https://www.jmir.org/2020/11/e24361