How To Get Through Isolation With Your Relationship Intact
Illustration by Mr Ilya Milstein
When lockdown was announced in the UK 384 days ago – sorry, I’m hearing through my headset that the actual figure is 23 – we collectively mourned trips to the pubs, dinner with our friends and cuddles with parents and loved ones. Social-distancing measures forced us to learn how to connect in new ways, via video apps and – sorry millennials – over the phone. But as many settled into new routines, I couldn’t help but wonder: what about the couples?
After all, even the most connected, communicative couples fight once in a while – and that’s with the daily distractions of work, commutes and gym time. Money, housework and sex (or lack thereof) are three of the most common triggers for couples. These issues are universal. And now? During a global pandemic? When job security is tenuous, we’re spending hours staring at the dust bunnies we’ve never noticed before, and even more time cooped up with the partners we’re supposed to miss a little during the day? Surely, this is a recipe for disaster.
As if to confirm my fears, in March, The New York Times ran an op-ed by Ms Jennifer Senior entitled “Welcome To Marriage During The Coronavirus”, with the subhead stating simply: “Remember: Both of you are right”. The piece referenced a study from over 15 years ago in the Journal of Family Psychology that looked at couples in the aftermath of a natural disaster. To paraphrase the results: the fallout of a devastating hurricane had an effect on marriages. More people in affected counties divorced the following year, but also more couples got married, and there was an increase in births. For a lot of people, the trauma of an external force outside of their control was make-or-break time for their relationship.
“I don’t believe it,” says Dr Orna Guralnik over the phone from New York City on 22 March (I note the date as things seem to change day by day). While the couples therapist – who became famous last year through her Showtime docuseries Couples Therapy, which allowed the viewer to sit in on sessions with real-life couples – was reluctant to make predictions about the impact that Covid-19 and isolation, in particular, would have on our relationships, she did express some doubt that we should be worried. “People are not stupid,” she says bluntly. “People are very much aware that we’re living in very unusual circumstances.”
Running counter to my own experience of banishing my husband to another room for, ahem, eating too loudly (and don’t get me started on his proclivity for tinned fish in a confined space), she suggested that, rather than working each other up, couples are being kind: “At the moment, people are cutting each other slack.”
Ms Simone Bose, a relationship counsellor at Relate, a UK-based relationship charity that offers counselling and support to couples around the country, echoed Dr Guralnik. As she continues to see couples via videochat or over the phone, she’s not noticing an increase in isolation-related issues, rather that relationships are adjusting to the new normal. “The issues they came in with haven’t gone away,” she explains. “But what happens is that they’re more focused on trying to get through this situation.
Of course, as individuals in relationships, we all have different ways of coping with the unusual level of stress this unique situation has brought us. For example, while I’m normally an extremely high-information follower of the news and politics, I have stopped listening to podcasts about the political situation in the US (formerly my favourite form of torture) and have brought my Twitter-scrolling habits down quite considerably. Instead, I check the Johns Hopkins coronavirus-tracking map once a day and let the news trickle in (if it must) through other sources. My husband, on the other hand, seems to thrive on a constant, unending stream of information and news. For two people living in a small flat with not particularly soundproofed walls, the disparity between our desire for information has proven challenging.
Ms Bose puts it down to differing coping mechanisms, suggesting that even watching the news ad nauseam can be one person’s way of sifting through the muck of this moment. “We’re learning things about how our partners cope, and you have to be empathetic towards that,” she says. If hearing death tolls or confirmed case updates gets too much for one person, she has a fairly simple remedy: space. Go into a different room, take some time to yourself.
“It’s important to take a pause from dialogue. Go back to your own corner, think your own thoughts.”
“We lose our common sense when we don’t come back and centre ourselves in our own thoughts,” says Dr Guralnik, underscoring the importance of creating time apart when you’re locked in with a partner. “It’s important to take a pause from dialogue. Go back to your own corner, think your own thoughts.” But finding time for yourself can be difficult when suddenly it feels like time doesn’t really matter any more. Whether we’ve held on to our jobs or not, most of us have lost the structure of our former lives. “One of the things that the outside world does for us,” says Dr Guralnik, “is offer us a lot of structure. Now people have to manufacture an artificial structure for themselves.” She offers the same advice for couples that veteran work-from-homers have been offering to new-timers: make sure your day is held to a schedule – and stick to it.
And while both counsellors underlined the need for space, Ms Bose also suggested that partners who are suddenly finding themselves with unprecedented time on their hands, this could be a moment for healing. While your friends are nurturing a sourdough starter, you could be taking advantage of extra time to face issues in your relationship head-on. “At no other time in life would you be in a situation where you’re in lockdown with your partner,” says Ms Bose. “What meaning can you get from this? What can you do with this time? This is an opportunity.”
For those who struggle to communicate, or feel distant from partners, she recommends fun, silly talking exercises, sitting on the couch and getting to know each other again. Quiet moments could be used to discuss issues that would normally only be brought up in heated, emotional blow-ups. Couples who normally struggle with division of labour might use this time to appreciate what one partner does on a daily basis and step up their level of support in the household. And speaking of labour, childcare during a pandemic has, for many, become a second, more stressful, full-time job. For parents, they’re not tackling a newfound abundance of time, but whatever free time they had in 2020 BC (before coronavirus) has dwindled to almost nothing. Schedules, as much as they can be managed, have never been more important for maintaining sanity.
“I think it will be one of those things where it might make some relationships stronger because they realised how strong they are, that they stood the test of it,” says Ms Bose. “Or at the end of it there will be a lot of break-ups,” she chuckles. But she thinks this might be the case for early-stage couples, not long-timers.
“If you’ve been married for 10 years, you’re not going to break up after a few weeks in isolation,” concurs Dr Guralnik.
“It’s about supporting each other,” concludes Ms Bose. If you feel overwhelmed and need extra help, reach out. Most therapists and counsellors have moved online like the rest of us. And for the therapy-averse, maybe dipping your toes in with a Zoom or phone session is just what you need. Remind yourself that this, too, shall pass. Once you’re back on your commute, you might miss squabbling with your partner about who should clear the breakfast dishes, or maybe you won’t. We probably won’t know the relationship fallout of Covid-19 for years to come, but in the meantime, take care of yourself and each other.
The Communication Game
(courtesy of Ms Simone Bose)
Get to know your partner better through playful questions.
Try the following questions first:
- Tell me something weird about yourself.
- Tell me which character in a movie you relate to the most.
- Tell me a wonderfully random childhood anecdote.
- What do you most fear?
- If you could be anywhere in the world right now, where would you be and why?
- Which song truly speaks to you?
Then move on to more personal questions:
- If there was one thing that I could do that would really help you at this time, what would it be?
- If there was something you feel you could do to help me, what do you think it would be?
- What trait do you most like about me?
- Tell me about how you remember us meeting?
Share gratitude: at the end of each day, tell each other three things you are grateful for from your day together.
Relate has increased the availability of its highly trained counsellors to support everyone’s relationships during this unprecedented time. More details about telephone counselling, webcam counselling and LiveChat services can be found here. And see Relate’s advice and tips for keeping relationships healthy during self-isolation and social distancing here.