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Strategies for Healthy Couples During Quarantine

Four ways to protect your relationship during the COVID-19 crisis.

"We are at each other's throats," a client told me via tele-coaching this week. "We're together all the time, he lost his job, we have three kids trying to do schoolwork, and I have to cloister in the bedroom to work from home. We are in constant conflict."

Another client via telephone downplayed his conflicts with his partner (I will use "partner" to mean marital spouse or mate in any committed couple relationship), but said, "We need help figuring out how to navigate this new, constantly-close 'normal' in our relationship."

Here are four strategies you can use right now to stay emotionally healthy through relationship conflicts. Each of these strategies directly impacts your brain's ability to cope, including the movement of signals from your highly stressed amygdala to your prefrontal cortex, where you can best protect your relationship and yourself through this crisis.

Angie and Frank

Let me ground the strategies in a case study you can use as a foundation for analyzing your own couple stress. Please modify this as needed to fit your relationship.

Angie, 38, and Frank, 41, have been married 14 years and have three children. Raised in a chaotic, alcoholic home, Angie is relatively rigid in the area of rules and structures. This rigidity was her survival mechanism; meanwhile, she married Frank, who is more spontaneous.

This couple is now under great stress, so each person's deepest fears have risen to haunt the relationship: The things they loved about each other when they married no longer set them free as individuals. She fears his spontaneity and lack of rules at a primal level; he feels oppressed in the face of her rigidity.

Many of our conflicts during quarantine will be about trying to change the other person's character—Frank trying to get Angie to stop being so rigid, Angie trying to control and reshape Frank into what feels safer for her, while she simultaneously feels powerless and afraid. When the other person does not change, both people feel betrayed.

The Four Strategies

This "big mistake" in relationships—trying to change the other person—is the source of much of our conflict in close quarters. No one is immune to this "mistake." Gail and I, both mental health counselors (for 30 years), married 34 years, still find that we make this mistake with one another.

1. Re-frame your relationship into a psychological mirror. This kind of re-framing adds upper brain-based logic to the emotion-based process of a relationship. Keep mindful of your partner as a mirror that shows you, generally unconsciously:

  • Your own deepest fears
  • What you dislike in yourself

Frank is gaining weight, and Angie picks at him about it. Angie is also gaining weight, and this scares her. To some extent, she is picking at Frank, because she dislikes the weight gain in herself. Even deeper down, her father was overweight and alcoholic, and among her deepest fears is one that says Frank will become that father.

To cut back on harmful conflicts, Angie needs to practice re-framing of the relationship into a mirror. She needs to study each conflict she and Frank have for her own "deep fear" and "dislike of myself."

Frank does, too.

"I created that conflict because …." Angie sees. "I criticized her because …" Frank sees. As they compare notes, they move more of their conflicts out of the amygdala and mid-brain, where they can't apply much personal control over their fears, to the upper brain's prefrontal cortex, where they can.

2. Compliment one another at least five to 10 times per day. Re-framing will decrease a lot of conflicts if well-practiced, but it needs concerted help from appreciation and valuing.

Frank is a musician, highly verbal in the areas of his profession, but not in the social-emotional. Now quarantined with Angie and in our couples coaching, he is seeing how difficult it is for Angie—and what a stress-causer for her—that he does not verbally appreciate or value her enough. He is now complimenting her 10 times per day; Angie, who finds paying compliments easier than Frank, is not only appreciative but even more complimentary of Frank.

"I haven't told you before, but you are such a great mom (dad)."

"You kicked butt on that phone call with your boss."

"You're so smart, so organized; it's beautiful to see."

"I need you, and I'm so proud of you for who you are."

This kind of deep appreciation, like all soulful praise, is critical to the survival of any relationship, especially one in crisis, and one in close quarters. Appreciation and valuing not only show our partner that we love them, but also that each person believes in the other person—for who we each are.

3. Have as much sex as possible. Sex produces oxytocin, a bonding chemical that is essential for couple bonding in the short and long term. Generally, the more oxytocin you have circulating within yourself and your partner, the better. Few things bond us or create as much oxytocin as sex.

Angie and Frank have both enjoyed sex during their relationship, but lately, their sex life has waned—somewhat before the COVID-19 quarantine, and especially during it.

"We're too exhausted," they lament. "The kids are always around."

True words for most people these days, but still, sexual bonding creates more bonding, which creates more bonding. Generally, this is good. If you need to schedule sex later at night or early in the morning when kids are asleep, work towards that goal.

It is also important to remember that some people do not bond verbally in the same way their partner does; they may especially bond through sex, and the relationship benefits from that kind of bonding, too.

4. Take very little personally in these conflicts and, thus, forgive your partner and yourself generously. Especially when thrown together in close quarters, we may not realize it, but we will be bonding through conflict when we pick at each other, bicker, critique, and generally create tension.

Angie has close friends she bickers with—their friendships go back to elementary school. When I mentioned "bonding through conflict" to her, she recognized the phenomenon. She and her friends create fights they resolve soon thereafter, taking nothing too personally (for very long) and then forgiving one another. This process enhances her bonds with these friends.

When I mentioned this to Frank, he recognized the phenomenon among athletes who constantly "diss" each other, bonding that way, but he was never athletic, he said, and "I was a pretty sensitive, geeky kid who got bullied. I don't see it as bonding." Frank has only one male friend with whom he does practice some dissing, but not much.

Yet Frank is open, now, to understanding "bonding through conflict" as he and Angie study their new tensions. He is working to see the quarantine as a time of resilience-building, of taking things less personally (especially because when he takes things personally, he tends to withdraw from Angie, which feels like abandonment to her), and of forgiving Angie and himself for their flaws.

Battling Our Own Fear of Inadequacy

To some extent, all of us need to forgive ourselves and our partners for our common, hidden "flaw": our fear of inadequacy. It is built into each of our brains from an evolutionary standpoint; our successes in life often rest on this fear's power to mold us, so it is not always a flaw. Yet it can debilitate intimacy, and even more so as we lose jobs, find ourselves angry more than we wish, and feel inadequate to cope with constant tension and stress.

Focus on this fear of inadequacy in yourself and your partner. Forgive both yourself and your partner for acting out of this fear more than you realize.

As you apply these strategies, I hope you will find soulful evidence that each of us is a potential source of relationship stability, resilience, and new empathy we did not fathom before.

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