A relationship survival guide for couples in isolation together
If you are cohabiting with your partner during this pandemic, already you have probably spent more time together in the same space than ever in the history of your relationship. This experience will be different for every couple but will involve some challenges for everyone, especially if either of you are feeling anxious.
What follows are some thoughts, based on my experience as a counsellor and relationship therapist (and as a married person!), on how to take care of your relationship during lockdown.
Your primary relationship is with yourself – your wellbeing is your responsibility. This doesn’t mean you’re on your own, quite the contrary, but it does mean you need to take ownership of your thoughts and actions. Be mindful of co-dependency – if you feel you need your partner to help you feel calm and struggle to do this by yourself it might be time to learn how to self soothe. This is something that can take practice but is worth doing; being able to take care of yourself empowers you and takes pressure off the relationship.
Communication, communication, communication!
This is absolutely key to a healthy relationship. Here are my top tips:
- To assume makes an ass out of you and me! – Don’t assume your partner knows what you need, or what you think they should/shouldn’t do. Pointless and hurtful arguments can be avoided by checking things out in advance: saying ‘can you buy me that chocolate I like, the Lindt one with raspberries?’ as they head out the door to the shops is much better than ‘why have you bought this chocolate and not the one I like?’ later on. It’s common to think that our partner ‘should’ know what we want and need and then get upset when they don’t get it right, but actually the responsibility is on you to communicate well rather than on them to read your mind.
- Deal with the ‘molehills’ regularly. Letting little resentments build up can be a silent killer of relationships, leading to a blow up that is hard to recover from because neither party is really sure what’s gone wrong. My Nanna, on her golden wedding anniversary, gave me the advice to ‘have an argument every day’….not what I was expecting! But what she went on to explain was about not holding on to the little things that bug you – let it out. I’d add that we need to be gentle when we do this, else our problem is unlikely to be heard in a constructive way. You could say something like: “I felt anxious earlier when you did …X… because …Y... it would mean a lot to me if you could do …Z… in future”.
- Show your appreciation – practicing gratitude for your partner has a soothing effect for both of you. For you, the intention to point out at least one good thing a day helps you notice all they do that pleases you, heightening your positive emotions towards them. For them, it reassures that they are loved and appreciated. Positive statements and actions like this are contagious - in a good way! The more you do them the nicer it feels and the more you are both encouraged to take good care of each other.
Deal with it
Spending an unprecedented amount of time together in a confined space is going to bring up issues. You can choose how to handle this – each situation will be unique – but if you can, see this as an opportunity to deal with things you have been avoiding. Whilst this can create short term discomfort it can have the result of strengthening your relationship in the long run. You might want some support with this – resources such as the Gottman website, School of Life couples workbook or relationship counselling can help you navigate these challenges.
Don’t suffer abuse
All relationships have their ups and downs, but if you feel unsafe or that your relationship is regularly having a negative impact on your mental health please get some support as soon as you can.
Domestic violence information and help https://www.nationaldahelpline.org.uk/
Make sure you have some alone time – ideally before you get to the stage they are getting on your last nerve! During lockdown it’s wise to think carefully about the when/where/how of this especially if you are limited on space. Maybe you want to go for a solo walk or cook by yourself for a bit – as above, communicate clearly about this and don’t assume your partner knows that’s what you want. Saying “this evening I’d like an hour to read in the lounge by myself” is much more helpful to both of you than “can’t you see I’m reading – go away!”.
Plan quality time together
If you’re together a lot right now it would be easy to forget completely about date nights and quality time, but it’s actually more important than ever. You might be working, co-parenting, doing the housework together a lot at the moment, which is why that personal space and alone time mentioned above is vital. Creating clear boundaries around work/play is very helpful for our wellbeing and this includes in our relationships – talk to your partner about when you can have some fun and relaxation together. This might be a movie night, making a special dinner and dressing up for it, massage or a long walk where you don’t talk about chores/the news.
I’ll leave you with a quote from relationship therapy guru Ester Perel, that seems very apt for couples in quarantine at home together:
“Mystery is not about traveling to new places, it is about looking with new eyes.”