Like most of you around the world, I am currently "practicing social distancing" and "sheltering in place" in my home. Despite feeling a bit restless in this confinement, I am motivated to take these socially uncomfortable precautions because they help us care for ourselves and our loved ones right now.
Nevertheless, no matter how loving or caring the intentions, we humans are still relationship-oriented creatures and prefer to keep our usual routines with others. At the moment then, it is challenging to be unusually disconnected or constrained together—and have our typical relationships and routines changed as well.
So, how do we cope? How do we manage our relationships in such unusual circumstances of crisis, concern, and quarantine? What are the solutions, when we find ourselves stressed by being apart from those we love—or all of a sudden working from home with them (in a house full of bored and scared kids, too)? How do we stay strong and committed, to work and cooperate with each other, until times get better around us?
Fortunately, these are not new questions. Past generations figured out how to cope with similar hard times—and we are all alive now as proof of their success. In fact, many of their relationships stayed strong for a lifetime, due to the lessons they learned and the strength they found to answer the questions above.
In general, they made their intimate relationships strong by focusing on being companions to one another and being willing to meet each other's essential needs. That is because such companionate love and willingness helps to build a more enduring and caring connection beyond the superficial passions that initially bring people together.
Given that, if you find yourself with relationship challenges right now, creating more companionship and willingness with your loved ones can help. Below are six steps to guide you in doing so—and better manage the difficult times together.
1. Re-prioritize Needs and Goals
In times of crisis and difficulty, our basic needs for food, safety, love, and connection with others become much more important. As a result, focusing on relationship goals and interactions that serve to support basic physical and emotional well-being is vital during difficult times. In essence, by meeting each other's needs for health, safety, and emotional connection right now, throughout daily relationship exchanges, you and your loved ones can create a deeper and more satisfying connection.
For example, an individual taking the time to pick up something a loved one needs while running essential errands, or taking some time to listen to a partner's stresses and fears, becomes more valuable than grand romantic gestures when times are tough. Furthermore, beyond the immediate challenges, showing such care, competence, and dependability are among the top 10 characteristics of a great romantic partner and keep relationships running smoothly at any time, too.
2. Maintain Connection and Conversation
During stressful times, emotions can run high. Therefore, it becomes even more important to maintain and increase the positive emotional connection and communication within your intimate relationship. To do so, focus on being genuine, empathetic, and warm to one another during your interactions. Non-verbal behaviors like smiling and good eye contact can help to build a sense of connection—and copying a partner's body language can increase their comfort at times, too.
To keep the conversation going, you can make statements and tell a personal story, along with showing enthusiasm and appreciation for what a partner shares as well. Overall, this self-disclosure of thoughts and feelings helps to create more intimate and satisfying communication between you both.
3. Rely on Rewards and Positive Motivations
In general, punishing a partner at any time leads to bad results and relationships based on such coercion should be avoided. Instead, strong and satisfying relationships maintain a "healthy relationship ratio" of at least five positive interactions for every negative one—and avoid criticism, contempt, stonewalling, and defensiveness.
Therefore, to create a relationship full of companionship and willingness to help, rely on rewards such as loving attention, affectionate touch, and kind words to motivate a partner's positive behaviors. Rewarding a partner in such a way when they act out of love and consideration toward you, helps to show them you noticed, gives them something satisfying back, and increases their motivation to act positively in the future too.
After a while, if you explore these points of positive motivation and agreement more deeply, you will begin to notice patterns in what each of you finds motivating and rewarding as well. Relying on these shared and positive motivations help to keep your "healthy relationship ratio" and satisfaction high—especially during stress and crisis.
4. Highlight the Sacred and Special
Intimate and rewarding interactions, which satisfy our essential needs for food, safety, love, and connection, are often not flashy or exciting. As a result, they can be easily overlooked, especially as we get absorbed by daily tasks, work, and stress.
Nevertheless, in reality, those relationships are both sacred and special, as the very foundations for our ability to cope, function, and survive in the world. Therefore, make sure to take time to be mindful and grateful to one another for what each of you brings to the relationship—both the everyday efforts, as well as the unique and special traits.
Sharing such gratitude improves everyone's mood and motivates future positive relationship behaviors. Highlighting the sacred and special within your relationship has other benefits as well, including reducing stress, improving emotional support, and increasing relationship satisfaction. Given that, setting aside some time each day to connect, share gratitude, and focus on your special connection with a loved one can make a big difference.
5. Build Trust and Commitment
Sharing essential goals, connecting in a positive way, and being grateful will help lead to two other vital aspects of companionship and willing relationships—trust and commitment. A relationship where partners trust one another and are committed to shared goals is a relationship that lasts. Ultimately, trust is developed when both partners behave in ways that are best for the relationship and discontinue actions that are selfish or only serving themselves. This helps to create a more equal and fair relationship and may increase readiness for a deeper commitment.
Beyond that, during times of crisis and quarantine, many of the conflicts and distractions of daily life that create commitment issues are absent. Given that, many of us have plenty of time to connect and commit to those we love right now. Even those who are quarantined apart can improve their relationship commitment by making things "Facebook official" and connecting through social media too.
6. Engage in Problem-Solving and Forgiveness
Even with the best of intentions, problems are going to spring up. When people get upset, they do not think clearly and mistakes happen. Therefore, the last step in maintaining positive intimate relationships, especially during difficult times, is learning how to handle problems and arguments in a healthy way. Focusing on maintaining positive communication and motivation, from the steps above, can help to calm a romantic partner when you are arguing. Using various "softening techniques" can help settle down and argument as well.
Specifically, when tempers flare, take a moment to calm yourselves, highlight the positive aspects of each other and the relationship, acknowledge each other's point of view, and communicate optimism for solving the problem in a way that satisfies you both. From there, additional steps can be taken to find that compromise and change the problematic behavior too. If some action or mistake was particularly hurtful, steps can be taken toward forgiveness and healing the relationship as well.
Overall, these are not ideal times. Nevertheless, with the right mindset and efforts, tough times can make relationships stronger. By focusing on pulling together, we can all be healthier, safer, and more functional. I hope the steps above can aid you in those efforts—and that you and your loved ones stay well.
© 2020 by Jeremy S. Nicholson, M.A., M.S.W., Ph.D. All rights reserved.