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Coronavirus Disease 2019

Don’t Sacrifice Your Relationship to COVID-19

Seven tips to help you end up still together when all of this is over.

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Divorce lawyers are overwhelmed with cases and as this weird extraordinary COVID time continues, it will only get worse. Just as businesses are failing, so too are many marriages that are breaking apart under the strain. As a couple counselor, I’ve seen close up how couple relationships have been in a pressure cooker for years, with people straining under the obligations of family life, never having enough time for anything. For many couples, resentment, boredom, and dissatisfaction are served up on a daily basis with the same frequency as breakfast, lunch, and dinner.

During COVID time, couples are together all the time but with zero couple time. Life has become about tolerating and surviving—literally! Those who have children and are working from home or who have lost employment are scrambling, trying to get everything done with no let-up in sight.

In the past, couples could send the kids to the grandparents or get a babysitter to get away from it all together but those options may be off the table. We have very little to look forward to. A relaxed evening with friends, planning a vacation, or dinner and a movie are fond distant memories. What happened to fun?

Spending so much enforced time with any other one person, whether it’s your partner or anyone else, will magnify that person’s shortcomings. That constant contact distorts your perception so that petty irritations blossom into major complaints, making you more and more annoyed until it may feel intolerable.

One partner may be resentful that he or she is picking up more of the extra work around the home. There may be an unspoken assessment of whose job is more important and the person with the more demanding job may feel exempt from taking on child care, cooking, and cleaning. That unbalance often leads to conflict.

I’ve often seen in my practice how couples naturally tend toward polarization. The more permissive one parent is, the more restrictive the other becomes, which leads the first to become even more protective, and on and on.

During COVID times, that polarization is expressed in differing levels of risk tolerance. From one parent’s perspective, it’s vitally important for the children’s mental health to go play in the laneway with the other neighborhood kids. The other parent may be panicky about that prospect, acutely aware that the virus is out there and exposure could lead to sickness and possibly death. Whoa! How do you have a calm, reasonable conversation about that?

How can you end up still together when all of this is over? Here are seven tips to help ensure that you go on to celebrate more happy anniversaries in the future:

1. Take a step back. Recognize that we don’t even begin to know how much strain we’re under and that this is not a normal time. OK, I know you know that, but really integrating it may help you develop more tolerance so that you can hang in together for the long run—because it’s going to be a long run. COVID times are not normal times and the stress of it all is giving you false information about the quality and nature of your relationship.

2. Don’t blame the other for having a different level of risk tolerance than you do. That’s normal—you’re two different people. Try to dial down the tendency toward drama and open your ears so you can talk with your partner in a respectful, civil manner. Avoid trying to coerce, steer away from loud voices and shrillness. Use all your emotional strength to try to communicate.

3. If a conversation is veering off track into the swamp, take a time out. Use what you know from past experience to recognize when you’re headed in a direction that is guaranteed to be unproductive or worse, to explode. It’s very hard but use self-control and suggest, “Can we revisit this topic later after we both have a bit of time to cool down and think?”

4. Please! Take care of yourself! Me time! Get out of the emergency mindset and devote some time to yourself, doing things you enjoy. Take a spa day (at home). Ask your partner to give you a few hours a week when you are completely, 100% off-duty and offer the same to him or her.

5. If at all possible, send the kids to a relative so that the two of you can spend a few hours a week focusing on being a couple and not only parents. Suggest that during that time, you don’t talk about problems. Here’s a paradoxical statement—put effort into relaxing and having fun!

6. Make a personal pledge to yourself that you’ll be mindful about what is going on, conscious of how valuable your partner is to you, and expressive of that appreciation. That will go a long way towards smoothing the rough edges.

7. And finally, if all else fails, contact a couple counselor. Don’t be put off by the awkwardness of consulting with someone online. It may feel odd at first but you’ll be amazed at how quickly you’ll get used to it and how helpful it can be. Your couple relationship is precious—treat it with kindness and care.

More from Vikki Stark M.S.W., M.F.T.
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