Let’s get one thing straight: no matter how much you love someone—whether it’s a friend, partner, or family member—it is simply not normal to be confined in your home with them 24/7. And in the context of a relationship—especially for introverts like me—having moments of aloneness can, ironically, be the very things that maintain connection.
It’s no wonder, then, that so many couples are struggling during this time. While in some cases these struggles are due to forced distance-taking, countless couples are also having to deal with forced confinement. In today’s post, I’ll discuss how to navigate the latter situation in the hopes that you and your partner will be brought closer together due to COVID-19 rather than tugged apart.
1. For the love of God, be a team.
With so many individuals and couples being forced to work from home, the playing field has levelled in a strange way, which may demand a re-evaluation of the division of labour. The excuse of “I can’t do the housework because I'm at work all day” has gone out the window. So, too, has the need for Partner A to cook dinner every night because they get home from work earlier.
I invite couples to sit down and be very explicit about what the new expectations are regarding household chores and duties. Decide what makes the most sense in this new context and be. a. team. This is not the time to whine about having to clean the bathroom every weekend because you “haven’t had to before.” My God, if a pandemic isn’t a good enough reason for you to check your privilege at the door then I don't know what is. Approach this conversation with the mindset of, “What can I do to support my partner” rather than “what can I do to make my life easier?”
2. Distance yourselves from one another during the day and let each other work.
I invite couples to create separate work areas during the day and resist the temptation to continually interrupt each other. You wouldn’t call your partner every half hour to ask how their work day is going, so don’t do this at home either.
In fact, even if you aren’t both working from home, setting up a room/area of the house as a “Do Not Disturb” zone can be helpful. Hell, if you need to put a little tag on the doorknob as if you're at a hotel then do it. The clearer you can be about your expectations and boundaries during this time, the better. Tell your partner what your new work schedule will be and what your expectations are. You might say, “I’m going to be working on a really important project between 9am - 1pm tomorrow so I’d really appreciate if I could have some privacy during that time.” Remember, setting a boundary doesn't make you (or anyone else) “selfish” or “rude”; boundaries are an important part of any healthy relationship.
3. Find ways to genuinely connect, too.
COVID-19 provides us all with a great opportunity to find hobbies other than watching Netflix all day. Get creative about how you and your S.O. can spend your free time. Ideas include:
Playing a board game
Giving each other massages, having a bath together, etc.
Cooking or baking together
Creating your own “Quarantinie Cocktail” recipe
Doing a workout together
Trying something new as a couple, such as learning a new language, instrument, or skill like drawing, painting, etc.
Playing a two-player video game that you both enjoy like Mario Kart or Tetris
Having thought provoking conversations (here are some ideas!)
Opening a nice bottle of wine and listening to your favourite albums together
Creating a scrapbook of happy memories
Going for walks outside
Watching Netflix certainly doesn't have to be off the table, but make sure that you’re fully present if you decide to do this. Don’t turn on a show and spend the whole hour texting your friends; genuinely watch the show, share your insights, and stay present.
4. Disengage from ‘personalization.’
Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) posits that humans engage in a number of cognitive distortions—that is, inaccurate, irrational thoughts that reinforce negative moods or biased interpretations of the world.
Personalization is a common cognitive distortion that involves believing that everything others say or do is a personal reaction to you. This might involve someone blaming yourself for things outside your control or incorrectly assuming that you’ve been intentionally targeted or excluded.
A good example of personalization in the context of COVID-19 would be taking your partner's need for uninterrupted work time personally. You might see this request as a sign that your partner “doesn't love you any more” rather than understanding that they truly just need to get their work done.
If you find yourself going down the path of, “What have I done to upset my partner?” stop and ask yourself, “What other factors are at play here that I could be missing?” (Hint: we’re in the middle of a bloody pandemic.)
5. Find other ways to have your needs met.
It’s easy to put the onus on your partner to make you happy during quarantine, but this is totally unreasonable and unrealistic. Know that your partner, too, is dealing with a number of stressors as a result of this bizarre situation and that they’re just trying to get through the day. If you’re feeling lonely, call a girlfriend or family member. Take charge of your own mental health rather than solely relying on another person to do the job.
6. Set reasonable expectations.
I don't know about you, but I've been reminding myself to just take it day by day right now. (Hell, sometimes I need to take it hour by hour.) Don't forget that you and your partner are going through a lot right n ow—not just as a couple, but as individuals, employees, friends, and more. Some days will be better than others and you may have different, conflicting ways of handling stress. Remember to show each other compassion and grace. Try to reserve judgment as best you can and just focus on how you can be a team and support one another.
7. Don’t forget the little things!
In high-stress times, it’s easy to become self-absorbed. While self-care is certainly important, don’t forget to show your partner some TLC, too. I’ve written about this in length in another blog post and I urge every couple to give it a read right now. The little things really add up!
The Bottom Line
In couples therapy, it’s not uncommon for people to lament about feeling “stuck” due to ambiguity about if they should break up or not. In such cases, a helpful catalyst for change is chaos, like temporarily living in separate headquarters or taking a break with agreed-upon boundaries set in place.
Adding chaos helps due to its ability to unearth different wants, needs, and feelings within each person, while also giving us more “data” to work with in therapy. I’ve learned that although chaos has the power to strengthen or weaken the bond between two people, it will always eventually provide one thing: clarity.
The thing about COVID-19 is that it forces all of us to look at what’s in front of us on a personal and relational level. Without being able to meet up with our girlfriends for a weekly vent session, we’re forced to actually talk to our partners about what’s bothering us. Without being able to work extra-long hours or go to our nightly workout classes, we’re forced to spend more time with our partners.
Regardless of what happens to your relationship during this time, remember:
This situation is not normal and you’d feel frustrated with ANYONE you were forced to be cooped up with 24/7.
If your relationship dissolves a result of this, you will be okay, I promise. Life will suck for awhile, but you will be okay.
Use whatever you learn about your relationship during this time to your advantage. The bad stuff doesn’t have to be a deal breaker; rather, it can become a starting point for couples therapy.
Hang in there, dear reader. We’re all in this together.
If you or someone you know could benefit from couples therapy during this time, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org.