It turns out that locking down with your spouse doesn’t exactly inspire intimacy and connection, but Americans seem to be weathering the storm with their partners. A recent study showed that satisfaction rates in relationships weren’t much different from previous years (pre-pandemic), in spite of fears that the US would see divorce and domestic abuse rates spiking like China.
While the numbers show our marriages aren’t doomed, Americans’ relationships have been truly tested over four months of seeing just how your partner really loads the dishwasher, conducts themselves on Zoom calls, and other interesting revelations.
Lesli Doares, Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist for 16 years and a Marriage Coach for 4 years, has given us a to-do list for all types of couples.
“The pandemic puts a magnifying glass on your relationship so any challenges will be bigger and you don’t have the normal way of avoiding them,” she said. “No gym, no friends, not even going to work.
Her advice is for those who feel their relationships are falling apart during repeated shutdowns as much as for those that just need a tune-up.
An Opportunity to Re-examine Your Marriage
Normal daily life pre-pandemic, with our set routines and busy schedules, meant that relationships weren’t always at the forefront of our concerns. Doares says if couples don’t perceive there’s anything “wrong” then they don’t really put extra effort into their relationships, and they go on the “back burner.”
It’s the squeaky wheel mentality, she says, and this is the first time in a while for some that the partnership is the squeaky wheel, after the magnifying glass zoomed in on relationship issues during the lockdown.
Instead of looking at this as one more problem you have to deal with in an already chaotic situation of virtual and in-person working, homeschooling, rearranging vacations, and dealing with pandemic anxiety and uncertainty, consider this a unique moment in time to refocus on each other.
“Now that it’s front and center, it can be an opportunity—but its not an opportunity without challenge,” Doares said.
Reprioritize Self-care as Critically Important
We are all tired of the word self-care. Often to the point that it no longer means anything. But for relationship health, it has to have a place in our personal routines.
“It can be hard if there are kids at home, but it’s really important...spending time reading, listening to music, meditating, exercising, whatever, to give yourself a break from the stress,” she says.
If bubble baths and podcasts just aren’t your thing, focus on the most effective self-care there is: exercise.
“Even just walk. It is a double benefit: reduces cortisol and increases endorphins. It doesn’t have to be strenuous or unpleasant. Get out in nature. It’s an outlet for stress. When you feel better you can function better,” Doares said. If nothing else, a twenty-minute walk outside is something you can safely do during the pandemic by yourself.
In addition, stop stress-eating, which Doares says is usually carb-heavy. A focus on eating well, in general, will contribute to your happiness in a relationship.
Temporarily Lower Your Expectations
We all saw it on social media a few days into the lockdown: people starting to post about how they are changing their lifestyle entirely, taking up a new hobby, getting twice as much done at work, and spending quality time with loved ones who they were living with during quarantine.
We all had lofty goals.
Then we realized the truth of our new reality—and how tough it is to go about our lives amid so much uncertainty.
“It’s not a great time to write the great American novel or start a business. What people don’t realize is that this is a chronic background noise stress and that’s what's driving the snipping and tension [in our relationships]. We don’t realize that it takes energy to deal with the uncertainty. On some level, we have extra time but I don’t think that’s a true statement...we underestimate it,” Doares says. “Stop comparing yourself to other people.”
Communicate to Understand, Not to Judge
Curiosity and confusion are two of Doares’ favorite words when coaching a couple to communicate better.
“I’m curious, tell me more."
"I’m confused, can you go back.”
She explains that approaching conversations with your partner using either of those two phrases can change your stance from one of judgement towards your partner to more of an understanding and curious role.
“One of the biggest challenges coming out with the pandemic is being able to recognize that your partner does not handle things the same way you do. They may have a different level of risk and anxiety, and this is an opportunity to learn more about your partner and how they work and not coming at it as a judgment standpoint...it’s tell me ‘more about that.’ ”
It’s also helpful to make a request not a criticism, such as “Can we make sure the kitchen is clean before bed.”
Lose the Word “You” and Check Your Yiming
“Life tip: never use the word 'you' unless you are saying ‘I love you, you are wonderful, I’m glad you are in my life.’ ”
Doares explains that “you” can be implied, and that dropping it from your sentences can eliminate accusatory language in your relationship that leads to bigger fights.
Instead, you can try saying things like, “I really hate it when I get up in the morning and the dishes are still in the sink” versus “You never do the dishes at night,” she suggests. “It allows somebody to be heard.”
We’ve all likely heard about the inherent power and vulnerability of using “I statements.” But Doares clarifies that “I statements are not ‘I feel like you are an idiot.’ ”
Another tip that seems basic but is easy to forget is to double-check the timing of when you bring up a tough topic. Is the other person able to focus? Is it a time in which they are already upset about something else?
It's always a great idea to take a moment to assess your timing. If it's not an ideal time to bring things up to your partner, reschedule it.
Stop the “Chore Wars”
The pandemic has provided a unique opportunity for rebalancing the workload of running a household. Doares conducts an activity with her couples to end what she calls the “chore wars,” in which the couples write down every single task it takes, from school forms to garbage night to bill paying, to manage a home.
Then you start “claiming” tasks you want to do, but with an important catch: you talk to each other in detail about “what the standard of done is, and the timeline it should take to complete it.” This eliminates potential misunderstandings and resentments towards inequality in the home.
Rethink Your Misconceptions About “Getting Help”
When you and your partner consider the idea of getting professional marriage help from a therapist, psychologist, or coach, what comes to mind? Years of awkward therapy on a chaise couch, or trying to convince your partner to come with you? Turns out, it’s a pretty painless process.
Start by finding a marriage coach or professional who works with at least 50 percent couples, Doares advises. Most of her couples are only working with her for 1-3 months, so reconsider the idea that you’ll be at this for years. She also says most of them simply need help with their communication processes.
“We are not punishment. We want to help people because we know what works...there are people who research this, what works in relationships. ‘All we need is love?’ No, that’s not enough.”