Protecting Your Relationship in the Shadow of Coronavirus

Three keys may make all the difference in your relationship right now.

Posted Mar 24, 2020

Photo by Elizabeth Tsung on Unsplash (by permission)
Source: Photo by Elizabeth Tsung on Unsplash

The coronavirus raises new challenges for our most cherished relationships.

There are three keys that my colleagues and I have stressed in our work to help couples.[i] They are simple to remember and potent. They may help you now.

  • Do your part.
  • Decide, don’t slide.
  • Make it safe to connect.

These three keys could frame a public health campaign but my focus here is on a relationship health campaign — the relationship you have with your spouse, mate, or partner. These ideas will also apply to any relationship that matters dearly to you.

Do your part.

COVID-19 has introduced massive uncertainties and stress into our lives. So many things feel out of control because they are. As ever, we do best when we focus on what we can do in our relationship over what we think our partner should do. You can influence your partner but you can only control yourself (if you are in a healthy relationship). To be sure, there are times when one partner needs to confront, challenge, or nudge the other about their behavior. That can also be doing your part, but in day-to-day moments, we do best to focus on what we can do to make a difference.

What things can you do to strengthen and protect your relationship during this time?

Decide, don’t slide.

There are two applications of this key: one about transitions and one about moments.

Transitions: People often slide through potentially life-altering relationship transitions. To understand how much this can matter, consider two fundamental aspects of commitment: dedication and constraint. Dedication is about the “want to.” It encompasses the desire for a future together, the will to sacrifice for one another, and having an identity of being a couple (in addition to being individuals). In contrast, constraints reflect the mix of things that would be either costs and losses of leaving or poor alternatives. Constraints can be good or bad, depending on the quality of a relationship. If you have a great marriage, you have a lot of constraints. If you have a damaging, dangerous, awful marriage, you likely also have a lot of constraints.

Constraints can be chosen or not, and that makes all the difference in understanding commitment.

Commitment is making a choice to give up other choices. It is choosing to be constrained because you believe in the path you are choosing. Deciding. In contrast, sliding often increases constraints, but they are not chosen as much as experienced, as inertia grows and nudges one forward on a path not clearly chosen. When a transition can deeply impact what follows, it’s worth deciding and not sliding.

COVID-19 presents a massive transitional moment, maybe unrivaled since World War II. At home, routines are disrupted, and roles that had worked great for years may not work well now. With disruption, it’s time (and opportunity) for discussions and decisions. You do not need to talk about everything or even most things, but it is worth talking about the things where not sharing can lead to consequential sliding. You don’t want to lose options without making a choice.

Here are a few ideas.

  • Who does this, who does that, in this present time?
  • How does working remotely affect you as a couple?
  • If one of you is still working outside the home, how does that affect you both or the family? Is there added risk and concern? How can you work together coping with that?
  • What does positive time together look like now?
  • Money, income, debt—are there things better to have decided than let slide?

If you think about it a bit, you will know what should be on your list. Realize that decisions can be re-decided as things change. That’s a strength, not a weakness. And, slides can be converted to decisions you both share.

Moments: “Decide, don’t slide” also pertains to moments where you could either let something hurtful happen, decide to let something go, or even do something to show you care.

Many are on edge and worried. Fuses are short. One says X, the other hears Y, and off you go into an argument or, almost worse, a missed opportunity to connect. In these moments, sliding is an easy but costly path. My colleagues and I teach couples to take time outs to protect their relationship from things going awry. I don’t mean “go-sit-in-the-corner” social distancing. I mean the type of time out a team calls when they need to stop their ragged play and reset their game—as a team.

One person can use this concept to stop a slide to the bad side: “I’m not at my best right now but I know we should talk about this. Can we a little break and come back to this in a bit?” That can work, especially if the “come back” part happens. It works all the better if both partners have decided to use the strategy and use an agreed-upon signal for when taking a time out is the smart play—like using the words “time out” in a constructive way. “I would like it if we took a time out on this for a little bit.”

One member of the team should not keep dribbling when the other is trying to get a time out called.

There are so many other moments where a decision will beat a slide. Don’t try to “decide” about everything, but look for the moments and at the issues where deciding beats sliding.

Make it safe to connect.

Types of safety can describe the foundations of good relationships. Physical safety is freedom from fear, physical harm, and control. If you feel unsafe in your relationship, there are people at the National Domestic Violence Hotline who would want to help (US number: 1-800-799-7233).

Emotional safety is being able to talk and share, to feel accepted; it’s having and giving support and acknowledgment. It gets at what most people want deeply in their closest relationship. It’s also easily damaged.

Change, worry, and exhaustion create the perfect conditions for nasty comments, criticism, cold distance, or avoidance—all things that damage emotional safety. Escalation, where little arguments grow to big conflicts, is a hallmark of a couple not being able to maintain emotional safety. My colleagues and I have written for decades about various patterns that represent “communication danger signs,” while similar patterns were more creatively named the “four horsemen of the apocalypse” by John Gottman. That is pretty fine language for our times. I’m a little envious.

You make it safe to connect by doing your part to make it so you both feel heard, loved, accepted, and secure. That means communicating well, reining in the harsh words, listening, and showing care. Here are just a few more ideas:

  • Do you struggle to communicate well under normal circumstances? Learn to do that better. There are many ways to learn how. We have one that you can start learning on YouTube.
  • Cut your partner and your children some slack. React less. Listen more. More margin, less edge.
  • Get good at some form of time out.
  • Hug more (observing proper social distancing, where appropriate).

This is an unusually direct suggestion that some of you may find useful, and I freely announce my conflict of interest in making it. If you have a little extra time, and you want to learn some strategies for strengthening your relationship right now, we have an online version of our program for couples at lovetakeslearning.com. It’s not expensive. It’s an option. One among many.

Consider this the moment in your life where you have the opportunity to raise your game as a couple and a family. Three keys. You might need only one to get through the gate.

References

[i] For example, in our books such as Fighting for Your Marriage, and our relationship education approach for couples, PREP (the Prevention and Relationship Enhancement Program). I am a research professor at the University of Denver but my colleague, Howard Markman, and I also own a business that disseminates adaptations of PREP. I note this as a conflict of interest statement.

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