Has your partner’s loud Dorito chewing frayed your next-to-last nerve? Are you counting how many sheets of toilet paper your S.O. uses? Yes, you’re probably way past the pandemic’s honeymoon phase.
You’re not alone if you’ve eyed up your spouse and thought, “Wait, I married this person? Do I have to live with them forever?”
The strange stressors of working and schooling at home, an unholy lack of personal space at home, and extreme social distancing is more than enough to put a strain on even the best of relationships. It’s one thing to climb the walls. It’s totally another to be in a life-or-death lockdown situation for months.
Love it or hate it, we’ve been living in a new reality. It’s not easy: Marriages of all stripes are creaking at the seams, even generally healthy ones. For couples with communication issues or other underlying tensions, the forced togetherness has spotlighted their fissures, leading to the newly coined term “covidivorce.”
Worried that your relationship is on the brink? Here are seven ways to avoid splitting after the coronavirus cools down.
1. Validate each other’s pandemic feelings.
As we slowly come out of stay-at-home status, our new normal will continue causing challenges. There’s financial tension: Millions of people lost jobs or experienced furlough. Some closed their businesses. Kids missed months of their lives, including big milestones like prom and graduation. We may be wearing cloth masks in public for the foreseeable future. We’re still reeling from social isolation.
The key takeaway? While we’re all missing something we lost, you won’t feel it exactly the same way your spouse does. That difference in how you deal can also cause tension. You might be devastated by how COVID-19 upended your life, while your partner is generally okay with it.
Try to meet on common ground by first showing your spouse empathy, which contributes to greater relationship satisfaction, constructive responses and conflict resolution. Studies show that when you empathize to truly understand how your spouse feels, you gain insight into their needs (plus, you hold back on giving meaningless advice).
People often need encouragement or permission to express grief, so ask your partner what they miss most about pre-quarantine life. Actively listen 100% by repeating back what your spouse just told you in your own words. Don’t offer a “let’s fix it” reply. Then, follow up by giving them a hug or holding their hand.
2. Communicate respectfully.
Remember that this pandemic has done a number on us: totally decimated schedules and routines. We’ve been living in close quarters, and working and helping kids with online learning. It’s normal if a schedule that worked last week for your family now has your hair standing on its ends.
Practice talking compassionately with your spouse. One surefire thing to try? Use manners. “Please” and “thank you” may take you a lot farther than you expect.
Also, use “I” statements. Instead of, “The kitchen sink looks like a spaghetti monster hurled all over it and it’s your fault,” try, “A messy kitchen really stresses me out. Could you please clean it when you’re done working?”
Don’t expect your S.O. to read your mind. For example, instead of this is vague and fight-provoking statement: “You need to help me more around the house!” try, “Could you cook dinner a few nights a week?” In a situation that’s constantly in flux, stay in touch with what you need and spell it out as clearly and specifically as possible.
3. Build a ritual, not a wall.
When you and your partner set up predictable rituals, you build a stronger marriage and intimacy. Rituals evoke the feeling that you have each other’s back, reducing fear, uncertainty and stress.
Rituals can be simple: Have your morning coffee together on the deck before you each head to your home office space. Text each other ‘I love you” at different times during the day. Take your dog for a midday walk together. Share your favorite tabata or yoga workouts. Cook lunch or dinner together.
Even though you’re living together, you can still feel miles apart. That’s why small “invitations” to ask your partner to talk, show physical affection or ask for support go a long way. Grab your partner’s hand when you’re watching a movie. Make a light-hearted joke. Follow up on what’s important to them: “How’s your mom feeling today?” or “Did you resolve that work situation?” Ask what they want to do on the weekend. Walk down memory lane: Say, “Remember our first date?”
One other easy way to stay connected? Go to bed at the same time. Research shows that couples whose sleep-and-wake cycles were misaligned reported more conflict, less sexual intimacy and fewer serious conversations than those who hit the hay together.
4. Kick perfectionism to the curb.
While social media might have you believe that other couples are thriving—decluttering their entire space, learning a new language and teaching their kids to bake artisanal breads—lots of us are struggling.
Stop thinking about what your ideal quarantined self is doing, and accept your reality. Yes, you’ll disappoint yourself when you’re impatient with the kids. Your spouse will let you down. It’s time to let go of your unrealistic expectations and cut back on the criticism.
Instead, start a ritual where you and your partner cue the appreciation: Tell each other three things you’re grateful for about them before you go to bed.
5. Learn how to win at arguing.
No, we don’t mean how to get the upper hand in your disagreements. Fight like you’re on the same side. If a fight starts spiraling, postpone your talk for at least 30 minutes, and even up to 24 hours. Either one of you can call a timeout and set a time when you’ll resume talking calmly (no name calling allowed). When you’re able to hear and acknowledge the other person’s point of view, then you can resolve your differences. And of course, try to argue away from your kids: Go for a walk if you can to hash it out.
6. Schedule a date night, without the pressure.
Look, we’ve got enough going on right now, so your date nights can be low key: Plan a special meal with candles. Play a board game. Watch a movie or live concert together. Work on a home-improvement project together. The most important thing is devoting time to each other. The National Marriage Project found that couples who spend time together weekly are happier and less likely to divorce. Just schedule weekly time, whether it’s every Wednesday night or Saturday afternoon. Now that the usual excuses don’t apply (“We can’t afford a babysitter” or “We’re so busy”), you can commit to simple, at-home dates.
7. Carve out much-needed alone time.
Spouses who’ve been working within rooms—or a table length—of each other need to get intentional about their time: Schedule date time, together time and super-important alone time. Try to log even 30 minutes of “you” time. That might mean your S.O. does a potholder-looming project with the kids or unloads the dishwasher. (By the way, alone time means going outside for a walk, taking a bath or shutting your office door—it’s not sitting side by side surfing your smartphones.)
Plus, remember that your spouse doesn’t fulfill all of your connection needs, nor should you expect one person to do so. Stay in contact with your friends and family via phone calls, video chats and emails. For more support, look into virtual counseling sessions.
The most important thing? Agreeing as a couple that you want to strengthen your relationship—that’s when the real magic happens, especially when you take our seven suggestions to heart.
If you need help with a family law matter, our attorneys at Keith & Levine Divorce and Family Law can provide you with the professional advice you need to make an educated decision. Schedule a consultation with one of our attorneys today.