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Love in a Dangerous Time

How to pandemic-proof your relationship

By Stephanie Bailey, '10 BA(Hons)

April 06, 2020 •

Within the span of a week, I went from an independent woman in a long-distance relationship to quarantined in a shoebox apartment with my partner. He flew across the country to be with me shortly after COVID-19 hit Canada, which was romantic. Now we're in mandatory self-isolation, which is arguably less so.

Of course I feel lucky to reunite with my one-and-only during a global crisis. Of course! But also, if I'm being honest, I'm a little nervous about how we'll score on this relationship test.

And I know I'm not the only one.

The coronavirus pandemic is having a radical impact on love, dating and relationships around the globe. So much so, it has even generated its own lexicon. With partners spending more time at home, we can expect a wave of "coronababies," who will become - wait for it - "quaranteens" in 2033. Others are choosing to practise "spousal distancing" in an attempt to avoid a "covidivorce."

Couples are struggling to adapt to this new normal, and we're desperate for help to avoid a too-much-of-a-good-thing scenario. In search of guidance, I called U of A relationship expert Matthew Johnson, associate professor in the Faculty of Agricultural, Life & Environmental Sciences.

"Now is the time to do the best you can to cut each other a whole lot of slack - acknowledging that different people are going to cope with this in different ways," says Johnson, who researches the development of couple relationships. "It's important to be sensitive to the ways your partner copes with it and support them in the way they need."

Here are Johnson's other tips on how partners can stick together in sickness, health and close quarters:

Tip 1: Practise gratitude

It's easy to focus on things we've lost, from jobs and child care to dining out and the freedom to touch our face whenever we feel like it. The list is long. But, for Johnson, it's not the only list we should be keeping.

"Focusing on what we can be thankful for is a key coping mechanism that can help people in their relationship," Johnson says.

These challenging times include perks we shouldn't take for granted. For Johnson, working from home means that he and his partner now have lunch together every day, which is something they haven't enjoyed in years.

To appreciate these little things, we have to notice them first. Take time to acknowledge the unexpected benefits of this unprecedented situation - whether it's cooking together or having more emotional energy for one another at the end of each day.


Tip 2: Pick the right time to talk

Without work or social obligations to distract us, those relationship issues we've been casually sweeping under the rug for months (or years) will soon make themselves known.

"A lot of things are going to be brought to light that can't be ignored," says Johnson. "If there are important things that need to be addressed, I think couples should approach those things at a time when they're most likely to have success."

And when exactly is that? For starters, never begin a conversation after you've been drinking. (Liquor sales are up; keep this tip in mind.) And choose a time when both of you are well-rested and calm, Johnson adds. If now is not the right time, consider taking a solo walk to cool off and gather your thoughts.

Tip 3: Face the challenge together

Not all kinds of stress are bad for relationships. Take, for example, "discrete stressors." These have a relatively clear onset - like the death of a family member, moving for a job or a natural disaster.

"Discrete stressors present couples with opportunities to face the challenge together, overcome it and reap the benefit," says Johnson. After the stressor has passed, couples can say, "Look what we did together. We faced this thing, we surmounted it." It gives couples an increased confidence in their relationship.

And living through a pandemic is no different. So, next time your partner chews with their mouth open or clips their nails in bed, just remember: you're on the same team. If you learn how to navigate this situation together now, chances are your relationship will be better in the long run.

Tip 4: Reinvest in your relationship

With time and close quarters, researchers predict the number of divorces will rise. Spending your days together, you become keenly aware of just how many hours there are in a day: it's a lot. Johnson recommends investing some of that time developing your relationship skills.

You could start by reading some books on the topic, Johnson suggests, such as Fighting for Your Marriage or The Seven Principles of Making Marriage Work. Or if you're interested in something a bit more involved, you could sign up for an online relationship skills course. Just make sure the approach of the online course is evidence-based. And if you've been talking about it anyway, now might be a good time to finally go to couples counselling - virtually, of course.

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