By Lindsay Simon, Special to Moonshine
California Gov. Gavin Newsom issued his “stay-at-home” order over a month and a half ago, meaning there is inevitably going to be tension arising in romantic relationships across the state. The added stressors of worldwide uncertainty, financial and job losses, working in stressful conditions for essential workers, working from home, home schooling, cooking every meal, sharing chores, and living together in isolation 24 hours a day are going to have an impact on everyone.
If you and your partner started this situation strong then this might bring up new tensions and conflicts. If you are a couple that already had some areas to work on, the added stress has likely highlighted or exacerbated problems. Some couples might be flourishing during this time and if that’s you, that is wonderful and I am so glad for that. This article, however, is written for couples who are struggling right now.
Signs that your relationship might be struggling:
- Feelings of irritation or anger towards your partner
- Finding little things annoying that you didn’t used to
- Criticizing or nagging your partner often
- Talking harshly or negatively toward each other
- Acting defensively and blaming each other
- Wanting to avoid your partner
- Rolling your eyes at your partner
- Saying mean things
- Wishing you were single or with someone else
- Drinking excessive amounts just to tolerate your partner
If you are having difficulties right now, know first that you are not alone. Many other people are going through it, too. There’s a lot of extra strain in the world right now, and it’s natural for this stress to spill over and impact our relationships. Also know that there are evidence-based practices you can use to build resilience and strengthen the bond that you share.
Here are tips for strengthening relationships while staying at home:
1. Practice appreciation. Thank your partner for all the little things they do. Practice catching them doing something that was helpful (like changing the toilet paper roll) rather than looking for things they didn’t do and nit-picking them. This builds a positive perspective of your partner and fills your emotional bank account — a shared account that fills up when positive things are said or done, and is depleted when there is a negative encounter. Because of the way the human brain works, we need at least five positives in the bank account to withstand one negative. The human brain holds onto negatives much stronger than positives as part of an evolutionary tactic that helped our species survive. As a result, we need to actively train our brains to focus and recognize the positives our partners bring to the table.
2. Pay attention to your partner, listen to them. Being around your partner so much can lead you to easily tune them out. However, every time you tune out your partner when they are trying to connect with you (e.g. they share a fact about an article they are reading and you just say “uh huh” without looking up from your phone), you are depleting your emotional bank account and weakening the relationship. Research by Dr. John Gottman shows that all those little encounters during which we give our full attention add up to build a healthy and strong relationship. So next time your partner tries to share something with you, put down what you are doing, pay attention, and respond with interest. This gives them the message that you care and they are important.
3. Make sure you have self-care time. Communicate your needs with your partner and respectfully ask for what you need. If you are stressed and needing self-care, it is your responsibility to ask for it. If you are wanting time to yourself, make sure to communicate this to your partner and not just leave without saying anything. Communicating your needs builds trust and strengthens the relationship, even if the need is alone time.
4. Take the time to bond more deeply with your partner. This gift of time together is a great opportunity to deepen your emotional and physical bond with your partner. Create date nights; get to know each other again. There is a great free app you can download called The Gottman Card Deck, which guides you through questions that will deepen your friendship as well as your emotional and physical bond with your partner.
5. Have fun together. This is different for each couple, but here are some examples: Take an online dancing class, play board games, go for walks, dance around together, sing, cook, watch shows, or be intimate.
6. Cuddle. Oxytocin is the hormone released when you cuddle. It is a bonding hormone and promotes relaxation as it reduces cortisol, the primary stress hormone.
7. Kiss for six seconds. This is how long a kiss needs to be to release oxytocin.
9. Be accountable. When you spend a lot of time with someone, complaints are likely to come up. Accept your part in the situation and avoid counter-attacking, blaming your partner, or turning it back on the person. Avoid “Well, you didn’t do the dishes yesterday!” Instead, try: “Yes, you are right, I didn’t take the trash out. I’m sorry, I will do that now. Thanks for the reminder.” Acknowledge your part in the situation. Apologize and state a solution for the future.
10. Remember this is temporary. Even though it might feel like it, this situation won’t last forever. What can you enjoy out of it? Maybe more time together, or more opportunities to practice communication through difficult situations?
11. Talk about your feelings. It is important in a healthy relationship to feel emotionally supported and safe with your partner. Remember, there are no wrong feelings; all feelings are okay. Providing the space for your partner to express their feelings, being supportive and validating these feelings — even if you disagree — is essential to building a loving, lasting, trusting relationship.
12. Practice healthy conflict resolution skills. The purpose of conflict is mutual understanding, not proving who is right. When each partner feels heard and understood, then emotional trust is present, defenses are down, and problem-solving can happen. Until you both feel understood, DO NOT try and find a solution. Practice listening and understanding first. (Pro tip: Use I statements, not you statements. This will reduce defensiveness in your partner. Check out my article on our blog for more on health conflict and communication skills.)
If you maintain a good attitude, you can come out of this situation stronger, and enduring the smaller irritations will be easier. Every time a couple successfully makes it through a difficult time together, their relationship strengthens and gets deeper. Hopefully you can follow some of this advice to ensure a positive outcome of your relationship through this turbulent time in the world.
~ Lindsay Simon, LMFT, is clinical director and owner of A Balanced Life: Individual, Child and Family Therapy Inc. in South Lake Tahoe. Connect with Lindsay at abalancedlifetahoe.com. A Balanced Life offers tele-therapy and online counseling services using evidence-based practices such as CBT, DBT, Solution-Focused Therapy, and The Gottman Method Couples Therapy.
Main Image Caption: STAYING IN LOVE: This time when people in romantic partnerships are necessarily spending more time together, there is a great opportunity for bonding.