How to Keep Your Relationship In Check During COVID-19

As a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, couples around the world are having to navigate uncharted and choppy waters. While some couples are rising to the occasion, others are struggling with increased tension in their relationship, while others are looking for ways to stay connected and better manage the internal and external pressures that COVID-19 has placed on the relationship. Here are some tips to help keep your relationship afloat, and perhaps even grow stronger as a couple.

Create and respect personal space

Whether you live in an apartment, semi-detached, or rural home with five-acres of land, being isolated for an extended period of time may have you feeling confined (and dare I say a little trapped) with the one you love, with less time and room for personal space.  Because the space you are used to is likely not possible at this time, finding ways to create and respect modified versions of personal space is an important part of keeping your relationship in check during COVID-19. Firstly, it’s important to appreciate that the amount and type of space you need may differ from your partner, and that both of your needs are valid; so it’s important to talk about what this looks like. If you are both working from home, try setting up dedicated work times and spaces, along with times to come together during or at the end of the day.  For example, designate separate spaces in the home as your work space, whether it’s an office, desk, kitchen table, or favourite chair, along with an actual or artificial partition (like using headphones) that allows you to maintain these boundaries.

Many couples are also balancing working from home and caring for children, which makes personal space and time even more challenging to find. Talk to your partner about creating space for uninterrupted alone time, whether it’s taking a bath, reading a book, taking a walk, watching TV, exercising, meditating, or simply being with yourself for a few minutes.  Figure out what times work best for scheduling pockets of solo time, and how each of you can give each other this important gift. I also appreciate that, logistically, alone time feels like a luxury you don’t have right now. Remember that no amount of time is too small.  10 minutes a day? 30 minutes per week? Communicate about what you need, and how to make this happen. Be deliberate and intentional in creating personal space, and take note: alone time doesn’t just mean sitting on opposite sides of the couch lost in your devices. Give this a try and you’ll find yourself feeling appreciative, recharged, and more present when you come together as a couple.

Communicate and (re)negotiate roles

A second challenge couples run into is the division of roles and responsibilities around the home, including child care, household chores, preparing meals, going to the grocery store, etc. With one or both partners, along with a little army of mini-me’s, suddenly finding themselves at home, couples are having to make changes and accommodations to their routines, including the roles and responsibilities they have become accustomed to as a couple. The good news is that the strategy for this is not all that different from how you would negotiate roles and responsibilities in a pre-COVID world. Chore charts and schedules are a great way to coordinate what each of you will be responsible for, both individually and together. It’s also a great way to get the kiddos involved. 

A good way to start is to sit down and talk about what makes your household and family run; and to make a list. Is one partner entirely responsible for preparing meals? Or do you take turns doing this? How you divvy things up depends on your lifestyle and what works best for you as a couple. Draw on each other’s strengths and your strengths as a couple when deciding who is responsible for what. I also recommend setting aside some time at the beginning of each week as a check-in to see how things are going, and to plan for any modifications that might be needed from week to week.  

Coping with and talking about COVID-related stress

COVID, COVID, COVID; it seems like it’s all anyone is talking about these days. In addition to being inundated with information on social media and the news, the pandemic has likely become a regular part of your conversations with your partner. The impact that COVID-19 is having on our lives, combined with the uncertainty of what’s to come in the future, have become a source of stress and anxiety for many of us, which can take a toll on your relationship. You and your partner might also be affected in different ways or stressed out by different things, and you may experience guilt or hesitation when it comes to talking to your partner about what you are going through. While it’s important to talk about these things and to lean on each other for support, it’s also important to not to make COVID-19 the sole focus of your conversation. To help manage this, I suggest scheduling a dedicated and contained COVID-19 talk time, where you can share your concerns and discuss these issues with your partner. Keep in mind a few things on how to make these conversations productive and helpful:

1) Create space for these conversations into your daily routines; use a timer to keep you in check, knowing that you can come back and revisit the conversation at your next scheduled COVD-19 debrief time. I suggest no more than 10-20 minutes or so each. 

2) Think about and express what you need from your partner during these discussions – a supportive listening ear?  Practical advice? A long hug? What do you need your partner to say or do during these conversations? 

3) Listen to understand – while you may be facing similar struggles, your partner might be experiencing stress that is different from yours. It’s important to listen to and validate your partner’s feelings, and to ask how you can support them. 

4) Take turns as speaker and listener – this means giving each of you a dedicated time in the speaker role, and then transitioning to a listener role. 

5) Create a ritual for winding down the conversation and shelving it for the next meeting.  Most importantly, create space to talk about OTHER things. When you find yourself feeling tempted to engage in COVID-related talk during the day, ask yourself if it can wait until tomorrow? What type of self-care can you engage in to reduce any stress you are experiencing in the meantime? Can you use this as an opportunity to engage your partner in non-COVID conversation?

Be mindful of criticism and show appreciation

Let’s face it, being confined together for days on end also means that your partner’s “quirks,” shortcomings, or habits that you previously found mildly annoying but tolerable, may be starting to drive you a little nuts.  Does your partner’s chewing seem to have amplified a few hundred decibels? Do you find yourself picking up after your partner more often than you would like? Are you frustrated that they aren’t washing their hands exactly the way you would when they get home? 

You are not alone, and this is totally normal! You are spending more time together, which creates more opportunity to notice these things. Increased stress also lowers our tolerance for these annoyances, and makes us less skillful at managing them. From an evolutionary perspective, our brains are also hard-wired to notice disruptions in our environment in order to address threats to our well-being. That is, we are more inclined to notice “what’s wrong” than “what’s right.” The problem is that factors like isolation, stress, and evolution can increase our hyper-vigilance to what’s wrong with our partner, and create blinders to what they are doing right. So, what can we do? 

Firstly, COOL IT WITH THE CRITICISM!  Not only is criticism unlikely to change your partner’s behaviour, it has the potential to make your partner feel bad about themselves and get defensive, which can lead to arguments. Basically, criticism is a lose-lose situation. Ask yourself “Why am I bothered by this (is it more about my stress than the behaviour itself), and is it something I really can’t live with?”  If you decide that you do need a behaviour to change, keep these things in mind: 1) Avoid big words like never and always. For example, “You never clean up after yourself.” 2) Focus on the behaviour itself and avoid making personal judgments like “You are such a messy/loud/irresponsible person.” Instead, address your partner’s behaviour by asking for what you need.  For example, instead of “You’re always on your phone; it’s like you care more about that thing than me,” try expressing your wish as “I’m feeling a little neglected and would love it if we could spend more quality time together; let’s schedule device free dinners together this week.” 

Second, SHOW APPRECIATION. While more time spent together increases our exposure to less than desirable behaviours and traits, it also creates more exposure to things we appreciate about our partners. And, although our brains are hardwired to notice the “what’s wrongs,” we can actually retrain our brains to notice the “what’s rights” more readily; but like any new habit, it takes intention and deliberate action. Make an active effort to tell your partner TWO things you appreciate about them every day. Nothing is too small!!! For example, “Thanks for keeping the kids occupied so I could take a work call;” or “I really appreciate that you get the coffee going every morning. What a great way to start the day;” or “I love the way your nose gets wrinkly when you’re concentrating; it’s adorable,” or “I’m so lucky to have you by my side during all of this.”  Not only will your partner appreciate these expressions of appreciation, it will also make you more attuned to the things you appreciate about your partner. In a nutshell, appreciation begets appreciation! Another way to show your appreciation is by doing something nice for your partner. Once again, nothing is too small and it’s the accumulation of gestures that really makes a difference. 

Remember that while criticisms will inevitably come up (we are human after all), accumulating expressions and acts of appreciation will help to cushion the blow, and preserve our connection to our partners. Think of it this way – when it comes to your “relationship wellness bank account,” criticisms deplete the account while acts of appreciation are like making a deposit. 

Make room for emotional and physical intimacy

Carving out time for your relationship is an age-old challenge, and likely something you’ve encountered at different stages in your life together. You’ve probably noticed that when balancing schedules that prioritize work, children, and other responsibilities, it’s easy for emotional and physical intimacy to fall by the wayside. Major life changes like starting a new job, the arrival of a new bundle of joy, an illness in the family, and, more recently, a global pandemic, can put additional strain to your relationship. So, how do we stay romantically connected to our partner in the face of COVID-19 related obstacles? 

1) First thing’s first; while I would love to tell you that emotional and physical intimacy magically ignite when the time is right, it helps to keep ourselves accountable in making this happen. In other words, we need to be proactive and stoke the fire. The good news is that with accountability comes empowerment! Although it might not be possible to connect in the exact way you would like to at this time, it’s important to draw on your strengths as a couple and remember what you’ve done to (re)connect in the past. Think about what drew you to each other in the first place and the things you already do that make you feel close. 

2) Be deliberate and intentional. Schedules and routine are a helpful and often necessary part of managing our busy lives, perhaps even more so in these unstructured times. But schedules aren’t just meant for work and daily to-do’s; now more than ever, it’s important to pencil in quality time together, including sexy time. For example, even though you can’t go to your favorite restaurant, plan a night to have a nice meal at home together. Do you take on a new cooking adventure? Or do you order your favorite take out? Make a point to get out of those sweat pants and get dressed up in the same way you would for a date night; add some candles and music for ambiance. In addition to spending time together, your relationship will benefit by adding variety and mixing things up. It’s also important be mindful of the day-to-day expressions of affection we sometimes take for granted. Make an active effort to regularly engage in physical touch like kissing, hugging, holding hands, and cuddling.  

3) Be flexible and get creative. This means modifying old ways and finding new ways to connect. Does travel and the outdoors bring you together? Read a travel blog or watch a travel show together; have a conversation about your fantasy travel destination. Feeling too tired to have sex when you had planned? This doesn’t mean the night has to be a bust. Have a bath or shower together. Set the mood in the boudoir and enjoy some sensual pillow talk. 

Struggling to come up with some ideas?  Here are a few to get you started.  

  • Tackle a household project together that’s been on the back burner
  • Start a new activity together
  • Play games together
  • Play your favorite song and enjoy a slow dance together
  • Reminisce about the past to connect in the present.  Talk about your favorite times together.  Look at old photos together.  Talk about what attracted you to your partner, and when you knew they were the one for you.  Ask your partner about their favorite childhood memory or what they wanted to be when they grew up.
  • Take the guess work out of sex.  Make a list of sexy and sensual things you’d like to do with your partner.  You can take turns choosing off the menu, or put the ideas in a jar and let fate decide for you.
Looking for more advice about sex and cancer? Click here to read on.

Relationships and COVID

Dr. Kim Cullen, PhD, C.Psych (supervised practice) is a psychologist and researcher with a passion for helping couples experiencing difficulties with emotional and physical intimacy, particularly in the context of illness, chronic pain, and altered mobility/ability. Dr. Cullen is frequently invited as an expert guest speaker on the topic, has delivered several workshops for breast cancer survivors struggling with body image and sexual difficulties, and served as a reviewer for the Canadian Cancer Society’s section on sex, intimacy, and cancer. Through her work and public appearances, she hopes to empower couples to enhance and reignite the spark in their relationships.

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