8 Ways to Get Through the Pandemic With Your Relationship Intact

The stress many couples are experiencing right now is real. Here’s how to make it work through this trying time.

a couple having coffee

Updated on May 14, 2020.

If you’ve been staying at home with your partner—and possibly your children—during these umpteen weeks of lockdown, it’s likely you’ve experienced strain.

“We’re getting a lot of family togetherness right now,” says Kory Floyd, PhD, professor of communication at the University of Arizona in Tucson and the author of The Loneliness Cure: Six Strategies for Finding Real Connections in Your Life. “Although we care about our loved ones, being around them 24/7 is not without its problems.”

While some couples may be navigating the COVID-19 era fairly easily, many of us are, well, still figuring it out. If you feel like your ability to empathize is tapped out, try these expert-backed tips for communicating and connecting effectively with your partner.

Understand what’s happening

“This is a new situation for all of us that creates acute stress, but the stress is also chronic,” says Amy Nitza, PhD, director of the Institute for Disaster Mental Health at the State University of New York at New Paltz. “What’s different now is that we don’t know the end point.”

Other lines are blurred, too. In most disasters, Nitza explains, it’s usually clear who the survivors and responders are. “But in this situation potentially everyone in the world is a survivor of the illness or the lockdown order, and some of us are responders, too.”

Being on high alert around the clock can take a toll on your nervous system. “When we’re in fight-or-flight mode, it’s as if our prefrontal cortex goes offline,” she says. That’s the logical part of the brain responsible for memory, concentration and thinking through the consequences of our actions. When the emphasis shifts to the emotional part of our brain, we operate more impulsively—and it’s then that tempers can flare, harsh words get exchanged and clashes may seem inevitable.

Merely reminding yourself about the unprecedented nature of the COVID-19 crisis can be the first step toward giving your partner—and yourself—some grace when you find your emotional capacities overwhelmed.

Focus on the most important skill of all

Strong relationships require patience—and the pandemic is likely testing yours.

“Everybody is more stressed than usual,” notes Floyd. “And being in close quarters can lower many people’s threshold for how much annoyance they can take before conversations move in the direction of conflict.”

In other words, says Floyd, it doesn’t take as much to spark the gunpowder.

It’s especially because our fuses are so short, he says, that we need to regularly remind ourselves to be patient with loved ones with whom we’re sharing space.

If you have been flying off the handle more than usual, try this next time your blood starts to boil: First, pay attention to the feelings in your body that precede your losing your temper. Is your heart racing or your jaw tightening?

Now, remind yourself that even if your partner’s actions triggered you, you can control your reaction. “It is always your responsibility to determine how you react,” Floyd says.

Take a few deep breaths to calm your emotions and pause the conversation you’re having. “When you come back to it,” Floyd advises, “bring suggestions that are focused on solutions to the problem, rather than blame.”

Do a daily check-in

One day you feel pretty normal and able to manage whatever needs to get done. The next it seems all you can do is lie on the couch watching TV. Sound familiar?

“It’s okay not to be positive and upbeat all day,” stresses Floyd. “We need to give ourselves permission if just getting up and being present is the best we can do that day.”

You may think that simply being together all the time lends insight into your partner’s mindset. “But you don’t know unless you ask,” Floyd says. Feelings shift quickly during this crisis, whether you’re tracking the daily death toll or hearing encouraging results about a potential treatment. It can all affect your or your spouse’s mood, so make the effort to touch base.

Let them be

Communicating regularly is essential, but so is simply accepting where the other person is at any moment.

“Don’t expect your partner to feel the same as you do,” Floyd cautions. “That can be a trap in close relationships, where you think, ‘If we have a good marriage, that means we’re always on the same page. And if we’re not, that’s a sign of relationship distress.’”

That’s a dangerous assumption, especially at a time when relationships are under extra pressure, and it ignores that we all deal with stress differently.

Knowing how the other person is feeling is an important starting point, Floyd explains. This gives you the chance to be responsive to what they need, which may mean more space, more quiet or asking less of them for the moment.

Exit stage left (sort of)

Leaving the house to blow off steam when tensions rise may not be so easy right now. “When I find myself about to let loose on someone, it’s important that I find some space to deal with my frustration,” Floyd says. That doesn’t necessarily need to be physical space.

“It’s about finding space in your mind, where we can shut out distractions, focus inward and find something that brings joy or peace,” he says. All the usual tools that help in non-pandemic times—meditating, listening to music, going out for a walk in fresh air—still work now (modified, where necessary, for social distancing).

“It could be as simple as saying, ‘I’m going to take five minutes and put in my headphones and retreat into myself and find some space for me there,’” notes Floyd.

See the opportunities

“I don’t want to minimize the challenges, but I’ve been working on finding the gifts in this,” says Nitza. “Like, right now I have time to cook dinner, which I don’t usually get to do.”

Floyd’s research has shown that stress decreases more when we express love and affection than when we receive it. Consider the gestures you can make—even nonverbal—that your spouse will interpret as expressions of love and care. “When you decide you’re going to do all the laundry or the grocery shopping, your partner will recognize that you did it for them,” he says.

Seek help if you need it

“Just like you can’t neglect your physical health—you need to keep taking your medications and go to the ER if you’re sick—it’s equally important to recognize when you need the help of a therapist,” says Floyd. Counseling is most helpful when both partners recognize it’s necessary and are willing to work on the relationship.

“Having a place to offload and process things with a neutral third party who’s not in your family system can be very beneficial,” adds Nitza. Many clinicians these days are offering virtual/telehealth appointments. To find a practitioner, visit the National Alliance on Mental Illness’s online resources page or try Sharecare’s Find a Doctor tool.

Remember that this, too, shall pass

We may not know when or how, exactly, things will get back to the way they were. But a new normal(ish) will eventually settle in.

“Even though the moment we’re in is filled with uncertainty, it is temporary,” Floyd notes. You can even start thinking about what comes next.

That could mean planning a trip, talking about what you want to do differently in your lives or relationship or coming up with bucket-list activities together. “Make it part of your conversation to talk about the future,” advises Floyd. “That perspective is therapeutic in and of itself.”

Article sources open article sources

“Tips for Community Members COVID-19: Managing Relationships Under Stay-at-Home Orders.” Institute for Disaster Mental Health. State University of New York at New Paltz.
“Are there any online resources for therapy/support groups or mental health apps?” National Alliance on Mental Illness.
Michael Pollak. “The Origins of That Famous Carnegie Hall Joke.” The New York Times. November 27, 2009.
D Djernis, I Lerstrup, D Poulsen, et al. “A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis of Nature-Based Mindfulness.” International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health. September 2019.
L Keniger, K Gaston, K Irvine, R Fuller. “What are the Benefits of Interacting with Nature?” International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health. October 2013.

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