Because some of us could use the help.
A few weeks ago, I cried at my husband (oh yes, you can cry at somebody), saying, “You’re the only person I’m allowed to hang out with and you don’t even want to do anything!” What can I say? I’m a peach. I’m also not alone when it comes to dealing with relationship struggles right now. Thanks to the complete and utter chaos we’re all dealing with, some of the happiest couples I know are on edge. Whether or not to go to a new park versus an old park has become a red-alert conflict. Small daily tasks turn into tempting opportunities to snip at each other. Sound familiar?
To be fair, not all couples are having a rough go of it. Vagdevi Meunier, Psy.D., master trainer for the Gottman Institute and licensed clinical psychologist at the Center for Relationships in Austin, tells SELF that the stress of the pandemic has actually brought many of her couples closer.
And, well, good for them. For the rest of us mortals who are having a hard time with relationships right now, SELF spoke with three couples therapists for the advice they’re handing out regularly these days. These are by no means the only tips that might strengthen your relationship right now, but they’re the ones these therapists find themselves giving time and time again. And, honestly, let’s say you are in a relationship that’s thriving during the pandemic—these tips might make things even better.
1. No surprise: The biggest advice is to communicate.
This is especially true when it comes to feelings about the pandemic. The pandemic has ripple effects in nearly every part of our lives, whether you’re coping with it relatively well or feeling completely underwater. So, as a couple, you need to talk about the feelings the pandemic is bringing up, Robert Allan, Ph.D., LMFT, emotionally focused therapy trainer and assistant professor of couple and family therapy at the University of Colorado, Denver, tells SELF. Maybe that’s the boredom and monotony so many people are experiencing—it’s what day? month? season?—as well as any fears.
It's worth noting that Allan emphasizes communicating the feelings the pandemic stirs up. It might feel like venting about daily case numbers or the latest governmental blunder is communicating, but dig deeper to determine the feelings underneath your venting—then talk about those. This level of vulnerability and understanding can create a real sense of safety in your relationship, which is especially critical given all the uncertainty we’re dealing with. “I’m more focused on how do you each feel safe with each other and [ensuring] that connection is secure,” Allan says.
New and established couples can take this time to get to know each other more deeply in other ways too, Allan says, like learning more about each other's hobbies and interests, emotions related to the renewed outcry for racial justice, relationship likes and dislikes, and what your dreams are for the future.
2. Try to stay in the present, especially when voicing relationship concerns.
Getting on each other’s nerves more than usual? Meunier says that arguments often start because complaints go into the future or past, like if you look at the dishes and think, “This is the 10th time I’ve had to do dishes this week!” Arguing, or at least resentment, ensues.
“That problem feels bigger, but it feels bigger because I brought in the past,” Meunier says. Instead, try to focus on the present: “Hey, you left dishes in the sink, can you clean them up?”
3. Set boundaries around COVID-19 preventive measures.
Laurel Steinberg, Ph.D., psychotherapist and assistant professor of sexology at the American Academy of Clinical Sexologists, suggests setting ground rules for what you’re comfortable with in regard to COVID-19 risks. “Honor those family rules by setting boundaries with everyone else,” she suggests, like agreeing on which venues or circumstances are acceptable to see friends or family.
4. Try to find a “normal” rhythm if you can.
Okay, clearly nothing is normal. But maintaining as many “normal” habits as you can that helped you feel good in pre-pandemic times is key. Steinberg recommends things like keeping up on “romantic adventures” (interpret that how you like), exercise, getting outdoors together, and protecting your non-work time together.
Set boundaries around when work begins and ends, Allan agrees.:“It’s easy enough to get completely wrapped up in work or feel like you can do work at any time of day or night, but continue to maintain that boundary.” That can be easier said than done, especially for those of us working from home, but here are a few tips that may help.
5. Be conscious of your alcohol use.
While alcohol can feel like an excellent way of unwinding or numbing your emotions, Allan says that over time it impacts mental and physical health, which ends up impacting relationships.
A 2015 study published in the Psychology of Addictive Behaviors followed 634 newly married couples for nine years and found that 50% of these couples got divorced when one partner was a heavy drinker. There were various methodological limitations to the study (like the researchers assuming a couple was still married if they weren’t able to complete the follow-up), and, obviously, a lot of other factors come into play when determining how alcohol might affect your relationship. Still, it can’t hurt to take stock of how often you’re drinking and look for other ways to cope if necessary. Here’s how to know if you’re drinking too much right now.
For what it’s worth, things get a little more complicated with cannabis. That Psychology of Addictive Behaviors study didn’t find a relationship between cannabis use in relationships and divorce, and a lot of people find cannabis legitimately helpful for issues like chronic pain. Still, if you think any kind of substance use is affecting your relationship right now (or your own happiness and mental health), it’s worth examining.
6. Consider changing your roles in the relationship.
The way your relationship dynamic worked pre-pandemic may not be applicable now, and not getting stuck in how things used to be is essential, Allan says. Parents, in particular, may be struggling, especially as school schedules have been disrupted along with changes in working patterns. Quiet afternoons may not be possible or may require more teamwork. “It’s really important to share the load,” Allan emphasizes, though how you share responsibilities may look different from before.
That could also mean taking an unprecedented amount of space if it works for both of you. “I’m seeing a lot more couples than I ever have before who are either dating or married and living in separate houses,” Meunier says. This can be stressful, especially if one is dealing with daily parenting duties while the other works, but some of her couples have preferred it—when they do finally get to see each other, they look forward to it. Being able to take that amount of space from each other is certainly a privilege, but there are other ways to make it work, like being more intentional about carving out time for each of you to safely get outdoors on your own while the other holds down the fort at home. Here's how to politely but effectively tell your partner you really need some alone time.
7. Broaden your support system if possible.
Yes, we’re still physically distancing (remember when we used to get a thrill from canceling IRL plans?), but that doesn’t mean we have to close off our support systems. “If there were ways you connected with other people and those have fallen off… put the effort in to make those connections,” Allan says. Talk to friends on video chat (if you're not sick of Zoom at this point). Go on physically distanced walks or have an outdoor distanced happy hour. It’s near impossible for our partners to fill every one of our social and emotional needs, so these additional relationships are crucial.
8. Don’t lean too heavily on joint distractions.
Faced with more time together than ever, some couples may be keeping waters calm by watching hours of TV together or scrolling through their phones on the sofa. While this might relieve some tensions, it’s not likely to keep your bond going. “It’s actually not connecting time, it’s side by side,” Meunier says.
Try to find time to connect where you’re not distracted by another activity. Take a walk around the neighborhood, or just hold hands and chat. “I want to encourage couples to not take for granted that if you’re both spending time under the same roof that you’re somehow building the relationship,” Meunier says. “It has to be more intentional.”
Written by Colleen Stinchcombe
This article originally appeared on Self US.