As families around the country hunker down at home to practice social distancing or even adhere to shelter in place orders, couples are increasingly at risk of butting heads. Here's what you can do to safeguard your relationship, according to experts.

By Maressa Brown
March 18, 2020
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As if tensions over the mental load, child care challenges, and the general stresses of everyday life weren't enough for couples, the coronavirus crisis is already provoking increased conflict between partners.

"Right now, everyone has a lot of underlying stress, tension, fear, and anxiety, and people are out of their regular routines and rhythms with their partner," says Stephanie Macadaan, a Los Angeles-based licensed marriage and family therapist and creator of The Happy Couple Plan. "Everyone's a bit more on edge, so it's easier to get triggered. It’s almost like your glass is full, and it doesn’t take much else to make it overflow."

The combination of fear, uncertainty, and nonstop living on top of one another is the perfect storm for a split—or, at the very least, major relationship issues. But this bizarre time doesn't have to lead to what the internet has already deemed "quarantine divorce." Here, seven moves you can make to keep your relationship not just afloat but thriving through the constantly changing state of life with coronavirus.

Credit: Getty Images

1. Come from a place of curiosity.

Many couples are struggling to see eye-to-eye on best parenting strategies for talking to kids about what's going on or social distancing. "We tend to disagree about the way in which we explain the current events to our kids," notes Kelly Kamenetzky, a mom of three in Los Angeles, California. "We agree that we should we should be honest with them and give them facts, but I think my husband has a way of phrasing things so that it sounds more frightening than is necessary for a 7- and 10-year-old."

Typically, having opposing views can create balance in a relationship, but in this moment, fear and anxiety only serves to heighten the moment and cause both partners to dig their heels in and become adversarial.

The fix: "Try to move from trying to make your own point to a place of being curious and open with your partner," says Macadaan. "When you’re set on changing their mind, it just turns into a power struggle, so really what you’re wanting to do is understand where they’re coming from."

This also means avoiding statements that include the word "should." "That is nothing but judgy, pressure-packed, critical," she notes. "It'll also put your partner on the defensive and feel like a command."

Instead, you can say, "I feel XYZ..." and then ask your partner why they feel differently. This curious take can make for more productive communication.

2. Get to the root of the conflict.

Macadaan explains that she's seeing parents butting heads over plans to take the kids to the park or to a friend's house. In cases like these, one parent is deemed controlling, and the other is seen as reckless.

She suggests asking questions to drop beneath what's going on at the surface level. "Perhaps the 'reckless' parent doesn't want to make the kids scared and nervous, or they're wanting to relieve tension, and the controlling parent is feeling something bad is going to happen," notes Macadaan. "This is life and death really. But if we can try to go beneath the content of the argument to the underlying fear that is making us take the position we are, then we understand what it’s really about."

In turn, this can foster empathy, compassion, and understanding between partners as opposed to defensiveness and anger.

3. Know when to call a time-out.

If tensions are high and you're having an especially tough time getting on the same page, perhaps arguing in a back and forth way in which you aren't hearing the other, Macadaan suggests taking a break.

"One thing I tell my couples a lot is to slow everything way down," she notes. "The hardest thing in the world can be to hit pause, but if we can do it, it's the most effective way to resolve arguments." That's because it allows both partners to absorb the situation, one another's position, and get into a cooler headspace before coming back together to hash it out.

4. Give each other space.

Even when the world isn't facing a pandemic, it can be tough to find space and time to address your individual needs as a parent. But forced family isolation is only making that situation trickier, says Macadaan.

Jeny Mils, a mom of one from Chicago says she and her husband are trying to figure out how they can both work from home and juggle child care duties. "My son is 2, so he needs lots of attention," she says. "Luckily, I only work part-time, and my job duties aren't as time-sensitive as my husband's, but trying to get us each the time we need is difficult."

Finding a resolution here is important, notes Macadaan. "Our individual life really breathes fresh air into our couple life," she says. "When we’re more enmeshed as a couple, that can feel suffocating. Sometimes we can have the expectation that if we’re in the same space, that we should be sharing it together, and it can feel like something's wrong if we're not. But it's actually a positive sign if you can have time apart and then come back together in a way where there's not anger and resentment around it."

For that reason, she advises paying attention to whether or not you're giving each other adequate space to have some semblance of an individual life. "I am telling a lot of my parents to take turns when watching the children as much as possible, giving the other parent some time to recharge," attests Jessica Baum, founder of the Relationship Institute of Palm Beach and creator of the Self-Full™ method.  "You don't both need to be on parenting duties all the time and together. Take turns, and create a schedule so that you know when you will have time to decompress."

5. Strive for mindfulness.

No, this doesn't have to look like sitting on meditation pillows and doing Ujjayi yoga breathing (although, that couldn't hurt). Instead, it's about doing your best to focus on the present moment to manage anxiety.

"If we zoom out and think way into the future, that’ll increase stress, and we catastrophize," says Macadaan. She tells her patients to try to take things week by week, or even day by day, if you're feeling especially anxious, as "that's all we can really do right now." Partners can really help each other with this by noticing when the other is zooming too far out and rein them back in to the moment, she notes.

This technique can be especially helpful if you're finding yourselves concerned about finances. "Parents, more than ever, might be concerned about money," acknowledges Baum. "Unless you don't have what you need right now, it’s best you don't worry about the future too much, and, instead, you focus on the day. Keep things simple, and be mindful that too much projecting isn't helpful."

6. Assume self-responsibility when appropriate.

Whether you need more quiet when you're working from home or you wish your partner would lend a hand with prepping dinner or working on math homework with the kids, be sure to speak up.

"Do not expect your partner to read your mind," says Macadaan. "You, each as individuals, are responsible for knowing what you need and communicating it and asking for it. There is a self-responsibility and advocating for what you want. It’s not selfish; it's more selfish to not ask for what you want, because then your partner has no idea, and you're setting them up for failure."

Lauren Cook, MMFT and a doctoral candidate of clinical psychology at Pepperdine University, agrees noting, "We need communication now more than ever. This means sharing honestly about your needs. If you need some quiet time or some time alone—even though you may be in a shared space—express this. While we want to be respectful of one another, this is not the time to 'play nice' and passively resent your situation. Clearly state what you need and ask the same of your partner."

7. Prioritize connection.

To be fair, making a romantic gesture or having sex might be the last thing on your minds right now. But finding even small, subtle ways to connect with your partner is crucial to getting through this as a team.

"Feeling emotionally safe with each other, as though we can share what we are thinking and feeling, and our partner will hear and respond and value that, is what makes us feel connected with them," notes Macadaan.

To bolster that feeling of emotional safety, she suggests couples try the following:

  • Daily physical contact (could be just a kiss, a touch on the shoulder, or sex)
  • Being responsive when your partner reaches out (e.g. texting them back in a timely way or setting aside time after the kids go to bed to talk through anxieties)
  • Trying one new thing together (a book club, working on a home decorating project)

8. Remember You're in it Together

While it might not seem like it in the moment, the challenges you're currently facing with your partner could be an opportunity for growing and learning together.

"If anything, reaching your highest stress level is going to highlight the key areas of a relationship that can be improved," notes Macadaan. "The number one mistake couples make is waiting too long to get help. Most people think you need to be in crisis to go to a therapist, but by then, you’ve had so much anger and resentment, we have a big hole to dig out of."

More passive options include a self-guided online program like Macadaan's Happy Couple Plan or reading a book like Hold Me Tight by Dr. Sue Johnson.

No matter what type of support appeals, you'll do well to preemptively take steps to bolster the foundation of your relationship. As Macadaan points out, one of the silver linings of this crisis is that it's offering couples a chance to do just that.

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