7 Ways to Protect Live-In Relationships During Isolation

Here's how to prevent lasting damage.

Posted Apr 16, 2020

As Americans enter their second month of social distancing measures, with many jurisdictions under stay-at-home orders, millions of people are spending more hours with their partners on a day-to-day basis than they ever have before. While there are certain potential benefits of this, it can also put unprecedented strain on a relationship. Add in the stress of the pandemic itself, new financial concerns, and the possible addition of children home all day with their own emotional and schooling demands, and the stage is set for conflict.

It's important to recognize that it's not realistic for interactions to be perfectly smooth at all times, nor is it realistic to never be upset or even just irritated with your partner. "Normal" in this new reality is very different than it was before, so flexibility and compassion—with yourself and your partner—are crucial. Moreover, it may not be helpful to read too much into this time in terms of what it may mean about your relationship, since conditions are anything but typical.

That said, this time can illuminate — for some relationships — underlying dynamics that have always been a problem. It's undeniable that some relationships will buckle under the strain and may not recover. With that in mind, here are ways to most protect your relationship from undue damage.

1. Carve out individual space.

Part of the day-to-day agitation of this new reality is a lack of space: intrusions and confinement where there used to be freedom. Maybe you are desperately missing the change of scenery of going about your errands each day. Maybe there are too many people trying to do professional work or schoolwork in one place and you feel like you have no physical room to stretch out. Maybe you long for the quiet that you used to have, or simply time away from your partner that made you excited to see them when they came home.

Either way, it will be helpful to carve out some space for you and your partner that you individually feel is yours. Maybe it's separate workspaces, noise-canceling headphones, or even a schedule of who gets the living room to themselves for a certain period of time or whose TV shows are prioritized and when. The more you can feel like you have a little bit of breathing room, the less likely you are to implode.

2. Communicate expectations clearly. 

There are fewer faster roads to resentment and conflict than individual members of a couple holding vastly different expectations but never talking about them. Now that the schedules and daily rhythms of life are out of whack, it can be important to adjust and establish new routines, divisions of labor, and responsibilities.

Perhaps commutes are now gone in your home and one person is using the extra time to get chores done around the house first thing in the morning while the other one sleeps in, for instance. This can work fine if both people are okay with it and it's been established as an acceptable standard. But if the chore-doer is silently seething because they expected the sleeper to use that time for household tasks as well, but they are not ever communicating that expectation, then they are bound for conflict down the road.

3. Develop a new ritual.

Being together all day is not the same thing as spending quality time together. In fact, this "together" time during the pandemic may feel like it's far lower quality than usual, given the added stress. You may also be seeing your partner work at their job all day, something that may be jarring, as many of us have professional personas that differ from our home ones.

So, it can be helpful to create a small ritual during the day where you both focus on each other and reconnecting, even if for only a few minutes. Maybe you take a brief walk after dinner, or before you settle into separate devices, you make a point to have a conversation about highs and lows of your day. The specifics should be tailored to your tastes as a couple, but the important part is prioritizing each other.

4. Use "I" statements.

Use "I" statements where you aim to express your feelings rather than accuse your partner of wrongdoing. It's a couples counseling classic to the point of becoming a cliche, but that's because it really does help deescalate and even prevent arguments. 

Such statements are particularly important when feelings are big and difficult to deal with, running the risk of pointing our behavior in dysfunctional directions. "I've been frustrated that I've made dinner every day this week, and it's made me feel like I'm taken for granted," will go a lot farther in resolving the situation than, "You seem to assume that now that we're not going out to restaurants that I should be your personal chef!" Whether it's anger, fear, or sadness, choosing to be vulnerable and open enough to express your emotions can be difficult, but it can help you connect and problem-solve—an investment in your future as a couple.

5. Establish priorities together.

Just as communicating clearly about expectations is important, so too is being able to establish joint priorities for this strange time. Is one of you really hoping to use this time to organize your entire home? Is the other one so worried about his or her job stability that their biggest priority is working as many hours as possible to improve their company's bottom line?

Sometimes the simplest of conversation-starters are the most profound. "What's important to you right now?" said without presumption, but truly in the spirit of hearing where your partner stands with their own priorities—can help you feel like a team and make it easier to support each other.

6. Express gratitude to each other.

Much marriage research has shown that it's the little acts of kindness that matter immensely in the long-term health of the marriage. A simple thank-you, as much as you may be tempted to forego it, really does make a difference in the long run.

You don't have to be saccharine about it or be writing constant love letters (or nauseating social media posts!) to your partner. But when you notice them doing something you like, positively reinforcing it helps you as well. Or maybe you simply verbalize something that you've always taken for granted but now has been a crucial part of what's keeping you sane—from their sense of humor to their making the perfect cup of coffee.

7. Don't neglect physical touch (when safe).

So many of us are feeling particularly cut off from the world at large because of the fact that touch can now be deemed dangerous. Hugging a sibling, shaking the hand of an acquaintance, or touching the shoulder of a friend when they make you laugh—a lot of us are missing all kinds of non-romantic touch.

So it may be time to go heavy on both romantic and non-romantic touch with your partner, if it feels consensual and safe, of course. Not everyone has the same physical needs, pandemic or not, but when there is a zone of overlap, it can be a powerful way of connecting.