Nobody is immune to stress, and during these unprecedented times—a global pandemic that’s nearly shut down the economy worldwide—high degrees of stress can be a daily occurrence.
For couples, stressful moments can both fortify or strain a relationship. If you’re currently spending most of your time at home because of social distancing efforts to curb the spread of COVID-19, keep these following ideas in mind to help you avoid letting your shared stresses get the better of your relationship.
5 Suggestions for Surviving and Thriving as a Couple During Quarantine
1. Name your emotions and stress triggers.
Research reveals that when we are able to name and label what we’re feeling, as well as identify the things which trigger our stress response, we feel better. Think, “naming is taming.” This kind of emotional regulation and awareness is an excellent way to soothe yourself. It also allows you to be there more fully to support your anxious partner.
Be sure to let each other know about what your unique triggers are (e.g., noise, too much media consumption, etc.) and what you’re feeling when negative emotions come up (“I’m feeling anxious,” “I’m feeling frustrated”). Help tune each other in to your emotions so you can more quickly recognize when the other person needs a little extra support.
2. Set healthy boundaries for new and unusual constraints.
Social distancing and quarantining has forced millions of couples and families into a very uncharted territory: working from home, schooling from home, and spending far more time at home in general. Many of us are also grieving reduced income or loss of a job, which heightens the uncertainty.
To help everyone in your home adjust to these changes, lay out some appropriate boundaries and clarify expectations about school, chores, work, and so on. Ideas may include:
- Maintaining a weekday schedule that is different from the weekends (to provide a sense of normalcy and routine)
- Designating certain areas of the home as “work only” spaces or “work-free” spaces (as able)
- Creating written schedules and checklists to help manage and conquer household chores and work/academic duties
- Respecting each other’s space when you are working (e.g., not just interrupting them with a question or request just because you’re all home)
- Respecting when your partner attempts to voice a boundary (e.g., “I don’t have the bandwidth to talk about this right now”)
3. Establish the expectation that you will both look after your physical and psychological health.
Taking good care of your health improves stress resilience—and it also boosts your immune system (an ever important benefit, but especially now as we face a global health crisis).
Agree with each other that you will both take responsibility for your physical as well as mental wellness by regularly practicing healthy lifestyle habits that suit your preferences and needs. Top habits to prioritize include sleep, nutrition, hydration, exercise, and mindfulness or spiritual practice. Many of these can be done as a couple—an excellent bonding opportunity!
4. Communicate productively under stress.
You and your spouse are a team—and being able to communicate your needs, concerns, and feelings is an essential function of that team. You may try to boost your communication through techniques such as:
- Busting out those tried and true active listening skills: don’t interrupt, use accessible and non-threatening body language, ask clarifying questions, and so on.
- Trying the “soft start up.” Relationship research Dr. John Gottman says that the way conversations begin usually determine how the conversations end. So, when bringing up a challenging or difficult subject with your partner, start from a space that is as loving and as open as possible. Gottman calls this the “soft start up.” At its core is using a productive, non-judgmental, and non-accusatory tone with “I” based rather than “you” based statements that do not place blame.
- Clarifying what each of you want out of a certain conversation. To avoid providing unsolicited advice when really all was wanted is the opportunity to vent, give a heads up about what you need from your partner before the conversation begins (“I really would love for you to just listen right now,” or “I could use some advice. What do you think about this?”).
- Being kind. Sounds simple because it is—but being kind with each other during these stressful times is so important for healthy communication. It is so easy to get caught up in our emotions and fail to see that your partner is doing the best he or she can. (After all, he or she may be struggling, too.) Do not accept toxicity such as raised voices or name-calling, but try to be more forgiving of each other when either of you aren’t feeling or functioning at your best. Also be willing to offer (and ask) for help.
5. Make Time to Connect
Through all of this tremendous uncertainty, couples need to reflect on the good things, too. Simply asking each other about your day, sharing what you’re grateful for, and complimenting each other are all ways to boost productive communication and make deposits into your shared “emotional” bank account.
Making time to connect—such as during a phones-free dinner, a walk around your neighborhood, or even a shared shower—can deepen your bond, alleviate stress (including the physical effects of stress like high blood pressure and insomnia), and help you focus on the now. In the face of so many unknowns, being able to focus on the present moment is a valuable way to take meaningful action with more confidence and less fear-based reactivity.
Couples in quarantine—we see you. And no matter what is going on in the world, it’s never the wrong time to work on strengthening your relationship. Consider speaking with a skilled and experienced marriage therapist to help your relationship thrive during this uncertain time.