I’m worried about my relationship as we spend so much time together during the lockdown. Any tips on getting through this?

Jasmine Bajwa, psychologist with UAlberta Counselling and Clinical Services, shares some advice on relationships in the time of quarantine.

Jasmine Bajwa - 25 May 2020

Whether you are living together or separately from your partner, the effects of COVID-19 can undoubtedly put pressure on your relationship. Couples who live together must now spend extended periods of time together in close quarters. Additionally, financial woes, public health orders, cancelled plans, and an uncertain future can result in rising tensions. Not surprisingly, these additional stressors can trickle down to our partners and create strain in our relationships. Some pundits predict this self-quarantine is going to result in divorce spikes, whereas others anticipate a baby boom! With all these riveting and reliable (or not) predictions, it does make me wonder – what the heck is going to happen to our relationships? 

Research suggests that our romantic relationships can help buffer the negative effects of life stresses, so there is good reason to invest in them (Afifi, Merrill, & Davis, 2016). Just as individuals are capable of being resilient in the face of adversity, so too can relationships. Some couples are using the extra time together and slowed down pace to re-connect, suggesting COVID-19 doesn’t have to spell out a relationship disaster and may even result in a stronger partnership. Here some ideas to help each other and your relationship through this pandemic. 

Spend time apart 

Time apart is important even when you’re isolating together. Each partner may have different expectations for how to spend time during quarantine, so be sure to speak up if you need some space and don’t take it personally if your partner needs more alone time than you. In pre-quarantine days you likely spent hours of time apart and now that it’s not possible, carving out an hour here and there is important for letting the heart grow fonder. Of course, how you physically separate from your partner depends on the space in which you’re living. It could include working in separate rooms, spending time outside, reading/watching a show separately, or even taking extended bathroom breaks. If you must be in the same space for most of the day, consider working in separate corners or facing away from each other. 

Schedule meaningful interactions

Spending time on the couch with a device in hand may not be hitting the mark for a memorable connection. Don’t get me wrong, sharing space and just existing with one another can be a relationship win on some days, but rarely does it enhance our relationships. Giving one another undivided attention that is free from distraction helps to strengthen emotional bonds. This can involve listening to one another, doing a shared activity, or working on a DIY project. Want to shake it up? Download the Gottman Card Decks app or take a quiz to find out your love languages and discuss your results. Try scheduling a weekly date night and have each partner take turns planning the details. Moonlight walk, anyone?

Check in with one another

You may have noticed how people handle the pandemic in different ways. Sometimes the most surprising reactions come from someone only a few feet away. Perhaps you came home to a mountain of toilet paper or maybe you’re losing your mind every time your partner touches their face – either way, it’s best not to assume you’re having the same experience as your partner. Furthermore, with a tidal wave of information and constantly changing public health restrictions, people will be uniquely impacted. It’s important not to assume your partner is experiencing the pandemic in the same way you are. Take time to talk about the changes and discuss any unexpected impacts. It may reveal important insights about your partner that can shed light onto your relationship. Allow space for each of your perspectives and find ways to support one another. If you are concerned by your partner’s unusual behaviours such as increased irritability or distancing the relationship, it’s important to state your concerns directly without blame or judgement. 

Be generous, be kind, be team players

We’re coping with a brand-new situation so we can anticipate making a few mistakes along the way. It’s important to practice humility and patience during this period of transition. What does this look like? Catch the urge to yell or criticize your partner and take a deep breath instead. Immediately correct any harsh tones or strongly worded language and replace it with a softer response. Make a daily concerted effort to find the good in your partner and in your relationship. Be gracious in your interactions (say please and thank you). Take your partner’s side (at least in your initial response - even if you disagree, trust me). Prominent couples’ therapists and researchers’ Drs. Julie and John Gottman have found that master couples (i.e. those who remained together and were happy in their relationships) tend to view their partners in a positive light and not take things personally during a conflict. In comparison, disaster couples (i.e. those who break up or stay in unhappy marriages) tend to overemphasize their partner’s negative qualities and miss the positive interactions from their partners. Research has also shown that when partners attribute external causes for their troubles (e.g. economy, government) rather than blame their partners, they tend to report greater satisfaction and happiness in their relationships (Diamond & Hicks, 2012). 

Diversify your support base 

When we’re spending every moment together, well… it can start to wear on our relationship. Stay connected and seek support from other people in your life rather than relying only on your partner. You are likely not alone in your experiences so reaching out to others can provide validation and potential solutions while reducing feelings of isolation. 

Cherish the present & envision the future 

Many people have been musing that the pandemic is giving society a chance to reflect on what’s important and return to a simpler time. Staying at home can be challenging but it has also led to some benefits. Families have been able to spend quality time together, there may be reduced stress from less packed schedules, and there are more opportunities for shared activities. My hope is that some of these positive outcomes will carry forward to our post-pandemic world. But hope alone is not enough, we need to create a planned action bring it to fruition. As a couple, what kind of things do you want to retain moving forward? What are some aspects of the current situation you would miss and how can you practice savouring them now?

Isolating together is an opportunity to unite and use the unique strengths of your relationship to get through this pandemic. Wishing you the best in your love lockdown!

Need more support? There are many student services available that can help you navigate these challenging times.

Written by Dr. Jasmine Bajwa, Satellite Psychologist with Counselling and Clinical Services at the University of Alberta.