COVID-19 has forced almost the entire UK into our houses. The new-to human virus that causes respiratory infection and can lead to serious or fatal health complications has turned our lives upside down in a matter of weeks. Now, previously unknown phrases like “social distancing” and “flatten the curve” are part of our everyday vocabulary.
Understandably, the COVID-19 pandemic is creating a lot of fear, anxiety and stress for many people. This can cause friction in our relationships — especially with romantic partners we cohabitate with. In times of high stress, it’s easy for communication to break down with your partner. But here’s the good news — you can make it out of quarantine with a stronger relationship and better communication skills. With a bit of work, mutual compassion (and maybe even a few online sessions with a couples therapist!), you can thrive as a couple while social distancing.
We wanted answers to some common relationship struggles people are facing in quarantine, so we turned to Gottman-certified relationship therapist Stacy Hubbard, LMFT, to weigh in.
Here’s what she told us:
Editor’s note: This interview has been edited for content and clarity.
1. Why are couples struggling so much during the COVID-19 pandemic?
Hubbard: People got so surprised by how quick everything moved. They found themselves going into crisis mode, lockdown, their kids being at home without school and, you know, adjusting to whether they’re working or not. If they’re working, they’re lucky, right? But then they’re working remotely. If they aren’t working because they’re, you know, restaurant workers or hairstylists or massage therapists, that would increase struggle too because then it’s financial burden and worry on top of everything else. Obviously, money is one thing couples often struggle with, so adding that with being kind of cooped up, increases stress.
2. What advice would you give couples that are fighting more, or feeling more irritated with their partner while sheltering in place?
Hubbard: What I’ve been recommending to my couples is just to really be focusing on the fondness and admiration and gratitude for each other — finding things every day that your partner is doing right, and commenting on those things. It’s like kind of walking into a room and scanning for what’s going right and noticing those things because it’s so easy to focus on what’s not going right and the negative.
I also encourage couples to have a dedicated time to share appreciation, whether that’s in the morning or in the evening, but really trying to have what we call, “positive habit of mind” or a “culture of appreciation.” Maybe that looks like an end of the day wind-down ritual, checking in with questions like, “What did we do well today?” and “How can I support you tomorrow?” or “What do you need to feel loved tomorrow?” So it’s kind of just taking it day-by-day because everything changes so quickly.
3. What tips would you offer couples in quarantine who have different capacities for social interaction? (For example, one partner is extroverted while the other is introverted.)
Hubbard: I always encourage couples to dialogue about their differences. For example, talking about the experiences the other person is having is a good daily check-in for a couple to do. Just asking each other, “What feelings are coming up for you right now?,” “What negative feelings are coming up?” and “Are there any positive feelings that you want to share?” Because then even if the extrovert is feeling really depleted socially, at least they’re sharing that with their partner and getting support and validation. So the introvert would be able to hear their extroverted partner and say, “I know this is a really hard time for you and I can see you’re struggling with this lack of social interaction.”
If you’re an extrovert who needs interaction, you might consider doing “Zoom parties” or “happy hours” online with friends. Depending on where you live, you might be able to go for a walk outside or go on a bike ride with somebody, while staying at a distance. If you live in a more rural area, you can meet somebody on a deserted road or a forest and go for a hike. Those kind of things can be planned.
4. How can partners stay connected with one another in this highly stressful time?
Hubbard: I’m trying to keep my couples working on a daily ritual of connection between the two of them, whether it’s sharing something interesting they read about or saw that day, or maybe sharing something they’re looking forward to in the future when everything goes back to normal. Another idea is to try going on dates, even at home. I suggest trying out Gottman’s Eight Dates. The book guides you through eight essential conversations with questions on topics like sex, money and adventure. The questions are great for anyone in any phase of a relationship!
5. What would you recommend for couples dealing with financial hardship due to job loss or reduced pay?
Hubbard: First of all, it can be helpful to talk about the emotions that come up around money and what money means to them. For example, for one partner, money means security and safety. And so they’re feeling really unsafe and insecure right now, which I think probably a lot of people are right now. But maybe their partner is more like, “Look, it’ll work out. We’ve always gotten through everything, and we’ll get through this together. We’ve got a young family and support.” Even if a partner is more of the second mindset, they still need to understand their partner’s worry and feeling insecure. So, talking about the emotions that come up in a safe space, and then being able to problem solve and compromise about what they each really need to move forward.
6. How would you recommend each partner has their own space and time to themselves (especially if they live in a small space)?
Hubbard: Couples in this situation may need to get creative. That might look like clearly stating their feelings and needs. So if one person really had a need for personal alone time, then maybe they need to say something like, “I’m going to go into the bedroom or office and I need two hours to just read a book not interrupted. I really need that space.” That way, they’re stating what they need from their partner. Then the couple can work to honor each other’s needs.
7. How can couples with kids communicate effectively about child care and home-schooling responsibilities?
Hubbard: For this situation, couples can use the same processes we’ve been talking about, you know, asking what feelings are coming up on an issue and talking about what each partner needs and coming to a compromise. For example, coming up with a plan: “OK, here’s what we’re going to do: I’m gonna do this with the kids for ‘me times,’ and can you do this for your time with the kids?” They could also check in on their properties every week and ask questions like, “OK, how’s it going? How’s our plan working? Is it working for you? What do we need to do to address what isn’t working?”
If you and your partner are struggling right now, you’re not alone. Going through a pandemic is uncharted territory for most people right now, so please be gentle with yourself and remember there is no shame in needing help to communicate with your partner in a time of high stress.
If you are struggling during quarantine with your partner contact us today.