During the Coronavirus pandemic, individuals are under extreme stress, and their partnerships/marriages are too. Couples may be coping with infection, job loss, loneliness, and grief about losing “normalcy” and much more. They may be sharing the same space all day while juggling work-from-home jobs, homeschooling, or other complex stressors.
Research on marriages and partnerships pinpoints positive ways couples can remain strong and grow together in the face of hardship. These simple, evidence-based steps help couples avoid experiencing detrimental conflicts, taking their anger and difficult feelings out on each other, or silently drifting apart.
1. Go to bed at the same time as your partner, at least a few nights per week.
A simple way to stay connected with a partner is to go to bed at the same time, at least a few nights per week. Research by Jeffrey Larson published in the Journal of Marital and Family Therapy shows that couples whose wake and sleep patterns were mismatched reported significantly less marital adjustment, more marital conflict, less time spent in serious conversation, less time spent in shared activities, and less frequent sexual intercourse than matched couples.
If you go to bed at the same time, you’re more likely to cuddle, which provides intimacy, shows support, makes people view their relationships as positive and spurs couples to disclose positive feelings toward each other. Talking and cuddling can provide nightly comfort.
2. Maintain super-simple at-home date nights once a week.
The National Marriage Project (2012) found that couples who devote time specifically to each other at least once per week are more likely to have high-quality relationships and are less likely to divorce. While couples often cite finances (“We can’t afford a babysitter” or “We can’t afford to eat out”) or time issues (“We’d love to have a date night, but we are just so busy!”) as reasons for not having regular date nights, the pandemic offers an ideal opportunity for couples to commit to very simple at-home dates “every Wednesday” (or whatever works).
Because people are already exhausted from homeschooling, working, coping with a tough array of emotions, and being “hypervigilant,” it’s best to keep date nights incredibly simple, such as cooking dinner together, playing a board game or cards, or going for a walk. The comfort and predictability from routines act as “stability anchors” to relieve stress, reinforce emotional calm, and decrease anxiety. Commit to a weekly time to nurture your relationship amid the intensity.
3. Answer each other’s “bids” (subtle requests) to connect.
Because people are feeling lonely, stressed, and fearful in the face of the Coronavirus pandemic, they need even more connection. John Gottman of The Gottman Institute describes “bids” as subtle requests to connect with a partner. They can be small or big, verbal or nonverbal, and can involve an expression/statement, question, or physical touch. They can be mini-invitations to talk about an issue, get physical affection, be intimate, or ask for support.
Some examples of bids include:
- Taking a partner’s hand while watching a TV show
- Asking “How’s that work situation going?” or “What did your mom say today?”
- Asking “Do you want to talk about our plans this weekend?”
- Making a joke like grabbing a huge flower vase and asking, “Can I pour you some coffee in here this morning?”
- Saying, “I’m getting overwhelmed by this news lately.”
A bid is a simple thing you do or say that implies, “Hey, I want to connect with you.” In his extensive 40+ year research, Gottman found that how couples tend to “answer” bids from each other makes a huge difference in their trust, sexual satisfaction, and emotional connection.
- Turn toward the bid (acknowledge and respond to the bid — e.g. “Tell me more about that” or “Sounds good! Let’s do it!”),
- Turn away (ignore or miss the bid — e.g. reading one’s phone instead of listening), or
- Turn against (reject the bid by turning it into an argument — e.g. “you’re always complaining!” or “I can’t deal with you right now”).
By mindfully noticing and "turning toward" your partner’s bids, you can stay emotionally connected during this heavy time.
4. Acknowledge that you're both grieving; connect with empathy.
Grief experts explain that grief, including the grief from a pandemic, takes many forms, including numbness, anxiety, disbelief/denial, despair, sadness, and anger, as well as meaning. Opening up to a partner about your tough feelings lets you move through them in a healthy manner and get support.
Grieving expert Collin Murray Parkes suggests that people often need to be given “permission and encouragement” to express their grief. He discusses the expression of sadness as a tool for healing, writing, “If we feel moved to tears at times, there is no harm in showing it. Bereaved people may need reassurance that they are not going mad if they break down.”
Give your partner empathy. Expressing empathy in all of its forms (dispositional, situational, affective, and cognitive) is related to a variety of positive relationship outcomes, including relationship satisfaction, interpersonal conflict, social support, and constructive responses to partner misbehaviour. Studies show that cognitive empathy, or taking the perspective of someone to deeply and accurately understand him/her, is a powerful way to get insight into a partner’s needs and prevent you from giving unhelpful advice. Feeling understood can also nullify the impact of conflict.
5. Give your relationship room to breathe.
The Coronavirus pandemic has almost forced couples into “dyadic withdrawal,” or becoming hyper-involved with a partner at the expense of other relationships. It puts tremendous pressure on a relationship to expect that one person can fill all your emotional needs. Friendships, extended family relationships, and time alone infuse your life — and your partnership — with novelty, insights, humor, fun, reflection, connection, support, and diverse conversation topics. As psychologist Terri Orbuch argues, “space” can be very healthy for your relationship and even your intimacy.
Build emotional and physical space into your relationship by:
- Spending time in different areas of your home, at least a few times per day
- Connecting with friends and family members through phone calls, videoconferences, or email
- Setting up telehealth videoconference counseling sessions if you need additional support
- Recognizing the different emotional needs you get filled by which friends and family members, and
- Noting that your partner (one person) cannot and should not be expected to provide all the support you need right now.
Parts of this blog post have been excerpted from Joy Fixes for Weary Parents: 101 Quick, Research-Based Ways to Overcome Stress and Build a Life You Love by Erin Leyba, LCSW, Ph.D.