Thanks to the pandemic, you're stuck with your significant other for an indefinite amount of time. How do you make it through without breaking up?
I’m officially in the fourth week of social distancing in a tiny Manhattan apartment with my boyfriend of almost two years, and it feels like the world’s longest sleepover in the twilight zone.
Coronavirus has taken its toll across the United States, hitting our state of New York the hardest, and it’s safe to say we’re feeling a lot. We’ve had the livelihoods of our friends and families put on the line, and and our fast-paced, hypersocial lifestyles are on hold indefinitely. We’re learning to adapt to our new way of life while learning a lot more about each other in the process: how we deal with our emotions, how we prioritize cleanliness, and now, since we're both working from home, how we behave with our co-workers.
Through disagreements, difficult conversations, and extended periods of seeing each other’s faces, I’m wondering how we—and other couples—intend to manage time in such close quarters. According to Bloomberg News, Chinese marriage registration offices are reporting an increase in divorce filings, now that the country is coming out of extended quarantine. Does this serve as a warning to the rest of the world?
New York City-based divorce lawyer Scott Orgel, of Eiges & Orgel, PLLC, says that he’s seen a significant rise in family dispute consultations (via the internet or phone calls) since mass quarantines began. “More people are accepting that the person that they thought they enjoyed being with just isn’t the one for them anymore,” he says. “When you're stuck with someone you don't want to live with, three weeks can feel like a lifetime.”
Hoping to get a more positive take on how self-isolation is affecting couples, I reached out relationship experts. In their view, quarantine doesn’t have to mean doom for your marriage or relationship. Here’s what I learned about “coronavirus-proofing” your love in uncertain times.
Create some structure for yourself and each other
“Most people are simply not together all day, married or not,” Gail Saltz, MD, clinical psychiatrist and voice behind the Personology podcast, tells Health. So when you're suddenly thrown together and forced to upend your usual separate routine and habits, it can lead to unease and potential conflict. “Creating some semblance of structure and individuality in your daily schedule can help,” says Dr. Saltz.
If you’re used to waking up, exercising, and making a cup of coffee, do it. Stick to your regular day-to-day as much as possible, or develop a routine that feels uniquely yours in this time of change—and give your partner the freedom to do that as well. Structure lends a sense of order to your time together, and that helps you feel productive and positive.
Talk out your anxieties and fears
Between scary headlines about hospital shortages and fears for loved ones who are more at risk of COVID-19, we're all in a heightened state of alarm. “Anxiety is driving a lot of people's irritability right now and creating a crucible for the worst of what’s occurring in your relationship,” says Dr. Saltz. Recognizing the specific anxieties that are fueling interactions with your partner—and then talking about them—can help diffuse the panic.
However, stick to talking out your anxieties during a specific time of day. “These kinds of conversations can definitely permeate every hour of the day and take a toll psychologically on your relationship,” says Terri Orbuch, PhD, author of 5 Simple Steps To Take Your Marriage From Good To Great and professor at Oakland University in Michigan. “Setting aside time to talk about it daily keeps it from spilling over into other parts of your life and causing more stress.”
Embrace that you and your partner may be more different than you thought
You like to watch the latest news about the virus every morning, but your partner absolutely hates it. You wash dishes after every meal, but your partner lets them pile up until the end of the day. Does realizing you don't share the same TV or kitchen cleanup habits mean you’re over? Not exactly. “Differences can bring excitement to relationships, and we can share those passions with our partners,” says Orbuch. “Those differences doesn't mean your relationship is doomed. What’s mainly important is that your underlying core values are similar.” If you’re curious about your partner’s core values, now is the time to really pay attention and talk about them.
Carve out time to have fun together
Studies show that laughter can help reduce stress, so why not turn on your favorite Adam Sandler movie or play your number one childhood board game? “Consider this a time to get to know and appreciate your partner again,” says Orbuch. Do things that you enjoy together, anything that will get you smiling and relieve stress. Having fun or just relaxing helps you remember why you fell in love with your partner in the first place.
Give each other space, physically and emotionally
Social distancing as a couple means a lot of face time. That's tough for even the tightest couples—and leaving the house for a walk or grocery store run isn't always enough of a break. Alone time is healthy and ncessary, but you may have to ask for it.
“Don't say ‘I need space,’ that's a confusing message,” says Orbuch. Privacy and space can occur in the same house, or even the same room. “Say instead ‘I need some time to do XYZ,’ or ‘Can I have two hours to read a book on the sofa this afternoon?’ A specific request doesn't send a confusing signal. Enjoy your me-time and don't feel guilty about it.”
When things get hard, take a breather
No relationship is perfect, and we’re all stressed right now, so conflict is inevitable. “People are looking for solutions to how they feel, and they may think it means getting away from the people they were with when they felt this,” says Dr. Saltz. “When you feel your anger or anxiety spiking, take a beat for yourself before you say or do something that’s hard to take back.”
Go to another room (or even just the corner of the room your sharing) and listen to soothing music, write out your emotions in a letter or text message to your partner and don’t send it, or sit on your fire escape or front porch if you really need some air. Always remember to come back to the catalyst for your feelings when negative emotions are high. “If it's much more difficult now, that doesn't mean it will be more difficult when this is over,” she adds.
At the end of it all, remember that there can be positive outcomes for relationships that make it through quarantine—like learning to appreciate the little things about your partner. For example, “waking up with each other and saying ‘I see you,’ ‘I love you,’ and ‘thank goodness I have you,’” muses Orbuch. “Because of the outer world, the stresses and people dying and getting sick, we'll come out of this more appreciative.”
Another positive is using the quarantine as a way to build or even rebuild your bond to your partner. “There is something life-affirming about connecting or reconnecting with someone,” says Dr. Saltz. “That life can go on.”
The information in this story is accurate as of press time. However, as the situation surrounding COVID-19 continues to evolve, it's possible that some data have changed since publication. While Health is trying to keep our stories as up-to-date as possible, we also encourage readers to stay informed on news and recommendations for their own communities by using the CDC, WHO, and their local public health department as resources.
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- By Taylyn Washington-Harmon