How to stay together when you’re never apart: Surviving couplehood during the coronavirus

In the past eight weeks of quarantine, my husband and I have regularly commented that we are not sure how we would have survived a lockdown if our now-grown four children had been toddlers or elementary school kids or even high schoolers, desperately negotiating to be with their friends…We have deep respect and appreciation for all of the parents who are currently wearing so many different hats–hats they may have never signed up to wear: from nanny, to teacher, camp counselor, sports coach, arts and crafts director, home chef, and house cleaner…We’re all juggling jobs we don’t usually do. And this is stressful for even the most resilient couples!

Corona-stress on relationships

Quarantine can exacerbate the positive and negative dynamics in any relationship. All of a sudden, we have had to shift to eating three meals a day together, renegotiating laundry and the dishes, dealing with extra needy kids, their schoolwork and our jobs, with none of our usual escape valves like working out at the gym or enjoying an afternoon Starbucks coffee…

In addition to the daily internal stressors, many of us are facing external stressors: job insecurity, financial uncertainty, fear of illness, lack of control about the future, and grief for the most marginalized and vulnerable in our world.

The increased stress from COVID 19impacts each of us differently in our relational lives.

Some of us may be feeling lonely, even if we’re living with others, while others may be feeling tired and overwhelmed by the constant togetherness. Some may be experiencing painful disconnection and constant conflict. In contrast, others may be grateful for more connection time and intimacy. My husband and I have felt a combination of all of these feelings in the past two months.

How are you coping?

We all cope differently with the feelings of fear, anxiety, and lack of control brought on by this global pandemic. I am much more irritable and controlling lately, and I get triggered by the smallest things. For example, my husband slurps his food much more loudly than he did pre-coronavirus–although he denies it vehemently, of course!

How are you managing? Are you reading the news multiple times a day, hoarding hand sanitizer and toilet paper? Are you canceling all outings? Are you minimizing the pandemic and going about life as usual, or are you maximizing and talking about the virus nonstop? These different coping responses can create tension and conflict between partners.

The pandemic requires us to respond to each other with patience, resilience, humor, flexibility, courage, and creativity. If you feel like you’re running low on any of these, here are three simple strategies to increase your teamwork, strengthen your communication, and deepen your intimacy as a couple.

Corona-proof your connection with the 3Ts: Take Time, Talk, and Touch

1. Take time

  1. Intentional time apart

Nurturing your relationship has to start with nurturing yourself, giving yourself permission for self-care, even if it’s only 15 minutes a day of physical and emotional space.

Some self-care practices we recommend:

  • Take time to pause regularly, breathe deeply, and simply be present in the moment.
  • Acknowledge and feel all your emotions.
  • Develop a practice or ritual that helps you self-soothe and self-regulate: listen to music, journal, start a gratitude list, use a meditation app like Calm, or take a bath (my personal favorite!).

What is one thing you can do (or continue doing) for your self-care every day?

  1. Intentional quality time together

We’ve noticed how easy it is for the boundaries between work and home life to blur

We need to create boundaries, even in our own minds where “the parent brain and the professional brain are smooshed together, quarantined in the same skull” as one Washington Post columnist recently put it.

Be intentional about planning at least one activity together every week. Here are a few ideas:

  • Cook a fabulous meal together
  • Have a virtual double date with friends once the kids are in bed
  • Watch a funny movie together or play a silly board game (laughter helps reduce stress)

What is one thing you can do for quality time together in the next week?

2. Talk

  • Share appreciations every day

Cultivating a practice of appreciation lowers stress and strengthens our connection for two reasons.

First, it retrains our brainsto look for and celebrate the good. Our minds have an evolutionary bias to focus on the negative, so we have to teach them to focus on the good. And focusing on the good makes the good grow because energy follow attention.

Secondly, appreciations fill our emotional bank accounts.Negative interactions are like withdrawals, and appreciations are like deposits. The relational researchers John and Julie Gottman study couples in their Love Lab in Seattle and have come up with a 5 to 1 rule: for every negative interaction (blame, criticism, negative body language), our brain needs five positives to come back to balance. Fill your emotional bank account!

What is one specific thing you appreciate about your partner? Share it with them tonight.

  • Practice safe communication

When it feels like we’re living in a four-walled pressure cooker, it’s easy to blow up at our partner and create rupture and hurt.How do we keep communications emotionally safe?

Three tips:

  • When you feel frustrated, make an appointment first, and share what you need in a calm way when your partner is available to listen.
  • Suspend your desire to be “right.” You can be right, or you can be in relationship! Instead of trying to make your point, listen closely to what your partner shares. Cross over into their world with curiosity and openness.
  • Keep the space between you clean. Remove negativity, shame, blame, and criticism.

3. Touch

  • Turn towards each other

Turning towards means responding to your partner’s bids for connection.Bids can be as simple as a smile, a wink or a request for help. It’s about feeling like you’re on the same team.

Welcome Home Exercise

Here is one specific ‘turning towards” practice that involves touch:

the “Welcome Home Exercise” by researcher Stan Tatkin.

  • It was designed in “pre-quarantine times” when one or both partners left for work every day, but we can easily adapt it to the current reality!
  • Greet your partner twice a day with a strong belly-to-belly hug, which you hold until both of you relax fully, without words.
  • This isn’t just a lovey-dovey thing—the science backs it! This ritual allows physical co-regulation–our nervous systems sync up–which is foundational to the basic sense of safety in a relationship. In addition, hugs release the hormone oxytocin, which facilitates bonding and trust, reduces the stress hormone cortisol, and boosts our immune system.

Practice the Welcome Home Exercise today with your partner!

  • Focus on physical pleasure

Pleasure is a powerful antidote to fear and stress: it helps bring us back into the present moment, out of our heads and into our bodies. Research shows that healthy physical connection through skin contact is essential for our physical and mental health.

During the pandemic, partners may feel differently about sex. Some of us may crave sexual intimacy to relieve stress, feel closer and more alive. Others of us may feel totally “turned off” by the stress of quarantine. Both are normal reactions. Accept what your partner is feeling. Communicate about your needs openly and be generous.

Focus on giving and receiving non-sexual affectionate touch to keep your physical bond strong.What feels physically pleasurable to you and gives you sensual comfort? Ask for what you need: your partner’s arm around your shoulder, a massage, eye contact, a soothing voice, holding hands, touching feet in bed…

Survive the pandemic as a team

Strong and healthy relationships boost our immunity. It takes intentionality to build our sense of teamwork as a couple, improve our communication, and deepen our physical connection on lockdown.

When we are conscious and intentional about our relationship, especially in stressful times like these, we clean up the space between us and allow it to flourish and bear fruit. We know that this has ripple effects all around us, especially for our children and loved ones, and contributes to a better world for all.

If you and your partner are struggling to feel like a team during this pandemic, reach out to an Imago therapist for support.