Staying Home? How to Survive Spending 24/7 With Your Partner
Research-based tips for how to communicate when uncertainty is high.
Posted Mar 19, 2020
Fighting the spread of the novel coronavirus to #flattenthecurve has mandated social distance. If you are worried about staying connected during social distancing, here are a few tips for maintaining relationships at a distance. At the same time, many people are experiencing unprecedented and continuous close proximity with their partners and children.
Relationship tests are inevitable as we navigate the uncharted territories of spending 24/7 together and we learn how to be co-workers with our partners. It is one thing to return to your partner or spouse after work, it is another to be in close proximity all day long. Conflict is unavoidable. If you haven’t had serious conflict yet, it is coming. My partner and I have fought and made up at least six times and we’ve been working from home together all of three days.
When a co-worker leaves dishes in the sink, we might leave a passive-aggressive note. When my husband does it, I remember all the other times he has left dishes in the sink, his overflowing laundry basket, and our ski equipment that has not been put away from our last adventure together. I feel my blood pressure rise as I put his dish in the dishwasher myself and try to keep myself from walking into our guest-room-turned-office to tell him just how irritated I am. This irritation manifests in our bodies. Every time I feel my blood pressure rising, I try to remember that social distancing is a marathon and not a sprint. Yelling now will not ease his mind or mine about the state of the world. I remember to be thankful to have someone to spend quarantine with and I try to be the best partner I can be, because in some ways, all we have right now is each other.
Now more than ever, we must be good partners.
Relationship scientists know that at times of high uncertainty, relationship tension is escalated. Little things get blown out of proportion and small annoyances can turn into screaming matches. According to Relational Turbulence Theory, times of transition such as moving from out-of-the-house jobs to working from home can create uncertainty for both parties and for the relationship itself. Layer that with the uncertainty about the state of the world, the economy, and our healthcare system, and it’s a situation primed for relational discord.
What can we do to avoid creating a toxic situation in our homes? Treat each other with respect and remember that uncertainty can make everything feel worse than it is. If you are feeling anxious and uncertain, chances are that your spouse is too.
Keep this in mind as you navigate interactions with your partner. Recognizing the effect uncertainty has on us and our relationships can help lessen the sting of a casual verbal dig and allow us to forgive and forget spats more quickly.
I follow four simple research-based rules to make sure I am treating my spouse with respect. My partner knows the rules too, and when one of us breaks them, we call ourselves and each other out. These rules are so important in our house that calling them out actually helps instead of hurts during our conflict. Dr. Gottman refers to the behaviors underlying these four rules as the Four Horsemen of the Relationship Apocalypse.
- Do not criticize your partner. Avoid claiming that your partner “always” or “never” does something (like load the dishwasher) because always and never statements indicate that the person is flawed instead of the behavior. Focus instead of specific behaviors that need to change and when you bring them up, be sure to talk about how you feel and what you need instead of what they did or did not do.
- Do not deny responsibility. Even if you believe you did not do anything wrong, you can at least acknowledge your partner’s feelings and point of view. If you can see where you made a wrong move, apologize. My partner and I apologize to one another constantly. Apologize, when genuine, provide an opportunity for relationship repair and growth.
- Do not speak with contempt. Do not belittle your partner, make fun of them, call them names, roll your eyes, or otherwise act superior. Gottman says these behaviors are like sulfuric acid for love. I think he is right. These extremely disrespectful ways of communicating are painful and hard to recover from.
- Do not emotionally withdraw, unless you really need a break. When people are engaged in conversation and one partner shuts down or walks away, the other partner usually escalates out of frustration. This is a dangerous and unhelpful pattern. If you do need a break, take one, but let your partner know that you are intentionally taking a break and fully plan on returning to the conversation when you’ve had a chance to cool off. When our blood pressure spikes and we feel overwhelmed by conflict (or another dirty dish in the sink) we have trouble processing information. At that point, we need to engage in self-soothing in order to have a productive conversation. Take a walk, pet the dog, or watch a TV show to distract yourself for a bit, then, come back to the issue at hand.
These four ways of communicating with our partners are worth revisiting right now. Consider discussing them with your partner when you are in a healthy and calm state of mind and make a pact to identify them when they crop up. If you spot contempt in yourself or your partner, call it out! Start the sentence or conflict again avoiding contempt and emphasizing respect. And remember to apologize. Tensions are high and we will all be guilty of doing or saying the wrong thing as we navigate life together at home.
Ewart, C. K., Taylor, C. B., Kraemer, H. C., & Agras, W. S. (1991). High blood pressure and marital discord: not being nasty matters more than being nice. Health Psychology, 10, 155 –163. https://doi.org/10.1037/0278-6126.96.36.199
Gottman, J., Cole, C., & Cole, D. L. (2018). Four Horsemen in Couple and Family Therapy. In Encyclopedia of Couple and Family Therapy (pp. 1-5). Springer, Cham.
Solomon, D. H., Knobloch, L. K., Theiss, J. A., & McLaren, R. M. (2016). Relational turbulence theory: Explaining variation in subjective experiences and communication within romantic relationships. Human Communication Research, 42, 507-532.