Part 3. If you have mastered a cohesive relationship during this pandemic, bravo! For those of you who haven’t, here are a few tips to help you turn things around.
Being available to care for your relationships starts with caring for yourself. Doing so while sequestered may require a more intentional commitment on your part. First and foremost, a daily routine is extremely important now. A routine helps to provide a sense of purpose, however small, and help us to regulate emotion. Also, you may benefit from starting a new online exercise program, trying a relaxation app, such as Calm or Headspace, or other strategic things to manage anxiety. Managing depression may involve a mental shift to experience a greater sense of internal control. For instance, rather than “I’m trapped” see if you can extend your thinking to “I”m voluntarily staying-at-home to help my family and community.” It’s also important to control what you can. That may mean staying away from the news or from naysayers if they are bringing you down.
Strive to understand your partner
One of the deepest needs we have as human beings is to be “seen.” In relationship, we long to be not only known but accepted by our committed partner. Remember that your partner is going through their own unique version of stress related to this global crisis that very likely has some similarities and some differences to your experience. Avoid assuming that you already know what is most stressful for them about the current situation. Maybe they are worried about a change in work status or elderly relatives, or perhaps they are having a hard time managing anxiety for the first time. Check in to find out. Be prepared to listen.
Extend grace to your partner
This relates to the golden rule your grandma told you about AKA treating others as you want to be treated. Grace can be described as “favor” or “courteous goodwill.” I like to describe it as giving your partner the benefit of the doubt when you are unsure of their intention. Understand that if they are not themselves then it’s not personal to you. This could apply to forgetting to do a routine household task to having a diminished libido.
You may notice that these last two points focus on attending to your partner. I have always found that caring for your relationship starts with the simple acts of listening to your partner and giving them the benefit of the doubt. Typically the investment returned to you is exponential.
Communicate, communicate, communicate
The 1967 film Cool Hand Luke left gave us the infamous quote, “What we have here is a failure to communicate.” Even if you never saw it, you’re probably familiar with the statement. And for good reason. Communication mishaps are at the center of most relationship struggles. By the contrary, even when issues aren’t settled, people experience greater connection to their partners simply by talking and listening to one another.
In times of stress and uncertainly, communication is more important than ever. If you have a fight, it’s important to not let that fester or it will only expand your stress. Remember not to blindside your partner with your concerns but to establish a time that works for both of you to address them and to use “I” statements rather than “you” statements, which may put them on defense.
Further, in their pioneering work Drs. John and Julie Gottman recommend a brief connecting talk daily called an “events of the day” conversation. “Events of the day” are typically shared when couples return home after the work day. In this exercise, each partner has 5 min to debrief about their day. The listening partner’s job is to be engaged and supportive. If you are currently home with your partner, it is still important to establish a set time daily and/ or weekly to check in with your partner. Topics could be deep and light hearted, such as: “What is most stressful for you right now?" or “What’s the first restaurant you want to go to when it reopens?”
Have date nights / have fun
Perhaps when you were first dating you had little money to spend. I bet it forced you to be creative. Maybe you even planned some “home dates” for your future spouse. Now would be a great time to bring them back in style. You can surprise your love with printed menus and cloth napkins as they dine at Chez (enter your last name here). If you feel more comfortable with a pen in hand then a pot on the stove, a love letter never goes out of style. You can have flavored popcorn and craft soda while watching vintage movies at the local indie theater (your media room). Consider picking up some flowers or a potted plant next time you step inside the grocery store for an essential item. Whatever your method, don’t neglect to date your partner. Spending time dating, laughing, and with other “mating behaviors" continues to release bonding chemicals throughout our relationship. And if you are still unsure how your spouse prefers to receive love from you, check out 5lovelanguages.com.
Turn towards rather than away
"Social distancing” is undoubtedly the biggest social influencer of the year. After decades of being encouraged to be friendly to our fellow man, we are now told to stay away from them. As confusing of a time as this is, remember that social distancing doesn’t translate to members of your household and need not include emotional distancing. In fact, emotionally approaching is imperative. Use this time to develop a deeper connection in your relationship to your partner, and to God. Many people have identified a silver lining of the pandemic as being forced to slow down, to talk and connect, and getting to know themselves and their partners again. You will never again be in this place in time: good, bad, or indifferent. Find out what you can learn from it, what opportunities for growth lie in this space, and what you can carry from this experience going forward.
Don't make long-term decisions during a short-term crisis
We’ve all heard that after a loss it’s unwise to make rash decisions. The same is true for an ongoing significant stressor such as the COVID-19 crisis. You are doing quite well to manage your daily affairs (I’ll bet you even wash your hair every week!). Unless it’s 100% necessary, there is no reason to make a decision right now that will affect you beyond this year, for instance, moving. I would also encourage you to refrain from making a permanent decision about your relationship now when tension is higher than normal. Remember that if your relationship feels strained now but was faring better pre-COVID, it can get its equilibrium back. Know that help is available (see below).
If you are having symptoms or conflict in your life that are beyond your ability to manage, then I encourage you to seek professional help. You would be in excellent company if you did as requests for mental health services have skyrocketed in recent months. You can now receive an abundance of professional services including individual and couples therapy and medication management from home via a Skype-like platform. Don’t forget that your pastor is available to hear your needs as well.