Most of us are still stunned that our new reality involves reading a guide on how to keep a relationship healthy during a pandemic. But as many cities in the world approach a month of shelter-in-place or quarantine restrictions, it’s more necessary than ever. Whether a couple has way too much together time or not enough, COVID-19 has thrown off all of our normal relationship patterns. Old problems can find new ways of presenting themselves. And things we never imagined suddenly need to be sorted.
And yet, this strange time also gives us unique opportunities to grow together and become stronger. Whether you’re a new couple, have a slew of celebrated anniversaries, or haven’t figured out what your label is yet, there are troubleshooting techniques that will help any relationship. Straight from couples therapy, these tangible and research-based tips are a relationship’s equivalent of handwashing — practice frequently.
1. Keep positivity in the relationship
Don’t let distress dominate your relationship. Of course, it is okay to lean on each other. One of the benefits of a healthy relationship is the haven it provides, the comfort it brings. When we’re stressed, we can rely on that acceptance. We know that when our anxious, defensive, shutdown, irritable, or over-functioning selves come out without permission, our partner will roll with it for a while.
But a chronic stressor, like a global pandemic and all of its fallout, means we have to check ourselves. We can’t let our distressed default characteristics take over without giving some positivity back to our partners. While it’s hard at first, this type of cheer doesn’t have to be forced or fake. It builds upon itself, becoming easier and easier for both of you.
Expert tip for all couples: Be mindful and share something you’re grateful for, something that you find funny, or something you felt good about doing that day. These don’t have to be elaborate, or even necessarily about each other. It’s about bringing something uplifting to each other. If you can, aim for relational researcher John Gottman’s 5:1 ratio — five positive interactions for every one negative. Forget toilet paper. You can withstand the stress together if you have a stockpile of pleasantness.
2. Gestures of love and goodwill
During stressful times the simplest thing you can do is to show your partner that you love, respect, and understand them. But sometimes it’s not that easy. The most chronically frustrating thing as a relational therapist is to watch people throw love at each other with heartfelt intention and miss the target completely. We each have different ways that we prefer to give and receive love. Figuring out the different love languages for both you and your partner are key to hitting the mark.
Expert tip for all couples: You’re about to become multilingual in your relationship. Get familiar with Gary Chapman’s five love languages: acts of service, words of affirmation, quality time, physical touch, and gifts. Some people aren’t huggers but give the most thoughtful presents. Others don’t notice the dishes that you want done; they just want to hang out with you. Take the quiz and share what you prefer. Make a point during these lockdown times to make loving gestures towards what your partner most appreciates.
3. Know when to stop stressful conversations
Here’s a truth: When it comes to some problems, there can be such a thing as too much talking. Don’t get me wrong, processing and problem-solving are essential for all of the other tips. But we know from relational research that all couples have “unsolvable problems.” These issues make us learn how to agree to disagree if we’re going to stay together.
We also know that most relationships have a dynamic of “distancer-pursuer.” It’s therapy-speak for when a couple is facing a conflict and one person tends to pull back and shut down while the other chases, pressing to fix it. The more one person pulls back, the more the other pushes and the first person pulls back even more. It’s this pattern that actually causes long-term problems.
Why is this relevant in the coronavirus crisis? When we’re stressed, the stakes seem higher. Our pet peeves and triggers are setting off more. With a lot of together time right now, there are not as many natural breaks from each other. Using all of that time to push and pull at our chronic problems kicks our distancer and pursuer selves into overdrive. It can consume those trying to fix and freeze those trying to avoid conflict. Since our schedules don’t stop us, we have to know how to stop ourselves.
Expert tip for all couples: Gottman calls being stuck in unsolvable problems gridlock, and it helps to think of this dilemma as getting through rush hour traffic. Trying to force a free path won’t work. It requires patience, some planning, and steady action. First, recognize that if you haven’t solved the problem by now, trying to force it in the middle of lockdown is not wise.
Instead, focus on healthy expression. Share your viewpoints, giving each a turn to speak, and validate. Validation does not mean you have to agree with the other person, but that you understand their point of view. We often underestimate the power of simply feeling heard. Look for opportunities for compassion, playfulness, and little compromises. These are your exits out of the gridlock. Then stick to a mutual agreement to let it rest.
4. Giving each other breaks
While true for all couples, this one is especially important for those of you in lockdown together. Remember those early days of dating and infatuation, when you thought of your special person often and wanted to be around them as much as possible? Your hormones provided a steady dose of happy reinforcement, even to the point that you were creating a low-grade hallucinogenic (hello, phenylethylamine). Everything truly did look and feel better. But that’s not sustainable, and neither is “all us, all the time.”
Individual identity is part of healthy relationships. Even the closest couples in the most collectivist cultures have unique roles in a relationship that give them some space. We need time to ourselves and time with others, and that’s okay. It’s important that you still carry on with your interests and allow your partner to do the same, even if it’s in the same space.
Expert tip for couples in lockdown together: Setting successful boundaries is all in the framework. Express the need for space and separation kindly, proactively, and as a relationship strength versus a fail. Remember, these breaks from each other give couples a chance to have separate experiences that they can then share. It also gives us time to connect with others, crucial during this distanced time. It’s not about escaping each other; all of this allows the relationship to keep growing.
5. Creative dating
Every couple needs some novelty. That’s why we go on dates, to break out of our habits and to focus on each other. Sadly, typical dating has taken a massive hit with the coronavirus. The crucial lockdown steps have closed dating venues. Essential workers are exhausted after long hours. Couples that don’t live together have to weigh the difficulty of distance with the risk of getting together. None of this helps us keep things fresh.
But it’s not all bad news. This current reality does give us opportunities to explore new ways to connect and fewer distractions if we choose to focus on each other. Free concerts, tours, apps, games, classes — never before has there been such an available variety of online activities. Now could be the perfect time to explore new interests as a couple.
Expert tip for couples separated during lockdown: Texting just won’t get it done during the pandemic. Whether you’ve known each other for some time or you’re just getting to know each other, voices and faces are necessary to comfort and connect. Get dressed up and have dinner and drinks with a video chat. Watch a movie simultaneously or tour a famous site together virtually. Discover the allure of a phone conversation about nothing that lasts for hours. And feel free to get mutually and virtually frisky. Just be safe in your social distancing, and remember: Some absence does make the heart grow fonder.
Expert tip for couples in lockdown together: Spice up your weekends or non-work days and do something different. That may mean turning off the screens and playing a game or creating something together. It can definitely include sexual intimacy. Think back to the things you did together in your early days of dating that you enjoyed. The key here is prioritizing this dating time. As days flow together and with this sensation of always being available, it’s easy to put each other off and become the wrong kind of distant. Make it a date.