The COVID-19 pandemic is keeping many Americans stuck at home, which is a good thing: Social-distancing will help flatten the curve of this disease and minimize its toll on the nation’s health care system. But this sudden surge in self-isolation means many couples are now suddenly spending an awful lot of time together—like, all the time—and that can be stressful for even the most solid partnership.
Share fondness and admiration, and share it out loud
Sheila Addison, a licensed marriage and family therapist in Oakland, California, tells PopSci that she finds the Sound Relationship House especially helpful in times of stress and change. Designed by psychologists and veteran relationship specialists John and Julie Gottman, the model aims to help couples create strong friendships—bonds that provide a sound foundation for everything else.
“It’s based on their research about what makes a healthy, long-term relationship,” Addison says, “and the best foundation is a gentle, intimate friendship.”
Some of the key components of this friendship are especially important when couples are stuck together in close proximity, Addison says. The model’s emphasis on sharing fondness and appreciation is a great place to start.
“This is something we often do upfront at the beginning of the relationship,” Addison says. “We find things to compliment them on, talk up their good qualities, and let negatives slide. We do a lot of please and thank you, and that declines over time.”
But Addison encourages her clients to recommit to vocalizing positive things about one another as a way of fostering the friendship their romantic relationship sits on top of.
“I encourage them to do things like catching their partner doing something good—saying, ‘hey, thanks for unloading the dishwasher,’ or, ‘it really means a lot to me that even with everything going on, you’re making sure we have our favorite foods in the fridge,’ ” she says.
The Gottman model suggests that these small moments of fondness fill up our “emotional bank account” and make it easier to deal with day-to-day frustrations. If you feel seen and appreciated, you’ll be less stressed—and less likely to take out what stressors you do have on your partner.
Look for signs that your partner is seeking social connection
Another aspect of the Sound Relationship House that Addison hopes couples will keep in mind: the idea of turning toward bids for attention instead of turning away from them.
When your partner starts a conversation, don’t ignore them. This might sound obvious in practice, but Addison points out that when you’re stuck together all day, every day without other friends to hang out with, you might find your ice breakers turning pretty banal.
“Your partner might say something very minor, like that you’re out of eggs or they slept poorly,” Addison says. And while you don’t have to wax poetic on which eggs to buy to be a good partner, she says it’s important to acknowledge any attempt at socialization during times like these.
“It’s all about being mindful,” Addison says. “Something as simple as saying, ‘oh, you’re right, when do you think we should go grocery shopping,’ or, ‘I’m sorry to hear you didn’t sleep well, is there anything I can do to help?’ ”
Ignoring these small attempts at connection can leave you both feeling increasingly isolated and lonely. But it’s even more important not to “turn against” your partner by responding in a crabby fashion (snapping that they were the one who ate all the eggs, or that their tossing and turning kept you awake, too).
It’s not your job to be a constant source of company for your partner, no matter how much you love and support them. But there’s a big difference between suggesting they go buy eggs on their own because you could use some quiet time, and simply scowling and stomping off to another room.
Create space for yourself and allow your partner to do the same
It’s probably obvious to anyone who’s spent more than 24 hours cooped up with their loved ones, but having a few moments to yourself is important. If that only happens incidentally throughout your day—when one of you makes an emergency grocery run or the other takes a shower—you might find yourself running low on that much-needed alone time.
“Everyone needs time by themselves, and it can’t just be when you use the bathroom,” relationship coach Rachel Wright recently told the online therapy service Talkspace. “Take time to be alone, whether that is to just breathe, masturbate, text with a friend, take a nap, read … whatever. The important thing is to take time to be with you, yourself, and just you.”
Building more structure into your daily lives can help facilitate this, as well as help cut through some of the malaise of an extended quarantine. Schedule a standing FaceTime appointment with a friend so you have someone other than your partner to talk to. Plan separate workouts to give yourselves room to think. No matter how well you feel things are going and how much you miss hanging out with other people, don’t let yourself slip into the habit of spending every moment in the same space if you can help it.
Talk things out before conflicts escalate
Figuring out how to fight in a way that’s not hurtful or destructive is always important to building a healthy relationship, but Addison emphasizes that it’s particularly helpful when people are cooped up at home together. This is a stressful time—jobs are in jeopardy, people are worried about their health and that of their loved ones, and routines are more than disrupted—so even without the added pressure of constant close proximity, conflict is inevitable.
“It’s about having conflict that’s effective and doesn’t escalate,” Addison says. “It’s easy to tell people to be nicer in conflict when they’re sitting in a therapy session, and a lot harder in practice when they’re out in the world and they’re upset.”
One key strategy is to pick your battles—and understand what’s really got you worked up. Try not to start fights over easily solvable quibbles, but also don’t assume you should ignore your strong reactions to minor issues.
“Differentiate between a surface and real interest,” Elaine Yarborough, a conflict-resolution consultant, recently told WIRED. “For example, you may get angry that another has not taken out the trash. The real issue is that you feel ignored and unimportant. Express the latter.”
When conflict does come up, Addison says, all that fondness and admiration you’ve been vocalizing will come in handy.
“It provides a kind of reservoir, an emotional bank account, filled up by little moments of admiration and turning toward your partner,” she says. “If it’s filled on the regular, it becomes a buffer against conflict. If we’re already feeling good about our relationship and our partner, it’s easier to look at them and say, ‘I don’t want to clobber this person.’ ”
“It’s hard in these tough confined times to be on our best behavior,” Addison adds, “but now is the time to be really gentle and friendly.”