By James Barber, MDiv, RP, RMFT, CCFT
The COVID-19 pandemic has hit us all very hard. For most of us, the health crisis has seemingly come out of nowhere, and has quickly upended our lives in many real and tangible ways. Brené Brown has awesomely identified the pandemic as “a massive experiment in collective vulnerability,” one which has left us all left dazed and insecure about an uncertain future.
If you’re like me, you’ve probably seen a variety of emotional responses to COVID-19, and especially, the collective impact of “social distancing” on our physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual health. Responding differently to a crisis is, of course, completely normal. After all, we’re okay with the idea that there are many ways to express grief, so why should this be any different? But what happens when these contrasting responses seem to be driving a wedge between you and your partner?
A crisis can bring up familiar struggles in an unfamiliar way
This current situation can amplify struggles we are already having. In my work as a couples’ therapist, I see hurt and loneliness, bitterness and resentment…but what I also see lots of is longing. Longing to be heard and understood, for closeness and to feel connected. That’s even more true now.
As we navigate through these uncharted waters, we are being reminded of the things that mean the most to us, values like love, connection, work, family and friendship. We are figuring out new ways to keep these values present in our life, and people are experiencing deep emotions. Emotions we may have already been carrying but are now much harder to hide or ignore.
Stuck together, but worlds apart
If any of these statements sound familiar to you as you’re seeking to explain yourself to your partner, or understand where they are coming from, you’re not alone:
“Just relax! There’s no point worrying about things we can’t control.”
“How can you be so calm right now!”
“Can you at least pretend to take this seriously?”
“Your worrying is stressing me out!”
“Sex is the last thing on my mind right now.”
“Sex is the only thing on my mind right now!”
“Really? You’re cleaning again?”
In a lot of ways, we’re exploring new territory with this pandemic. It feels strange and unsettling, and we’re all doing our best to cope with it in our own ways.
This unnerving feeling has a way of weaving itself into our closest, most intimate relationships. When we feel shaken or disconnected from our partner, emotionally isolated, unsure of our partner’s love for us - our brain interprets it as a genuine threat and we experience distress.
But when your partner really gets you, there’s no greater feeling. When you feel confident and connected to each other on an emotional level, it brings a sense of calm and security that soothes us, grounds us, and becomes a source of strength during a time of struggle. If you’re starting to feel like social distancing is bringing up pre-existing relationship worries you had before - or maybe it’s creating new ones you haven’t been aware of - here are five strategies to help you and your partner find opportunities for emotional connection:
1. Find Small, Simple Ways to Be Present With Each Other
Many of us are feeling anxious. But think of anxiety as the emotional expression of a loss of control. It’s most often accompanied by lots of “what if …” thoughts based around an uncertain future. These thoughts will race together and feed into each other. While they may be normal and understandable right now, it’s a good idea to try to resist them and slow them down when you can.
Finding ways to be present in the moment can help us shift our gaze from an uncertain future back to the here and now, where we can find that sense of control again.
Remember, your relationship is here and now. Your partner is here and now. If you’re living under the same roof, ask yourself how all this quantity time together also can involve quality time? Watch a movie together or listen to an audiobook, and then discuss it. Get out the board games. Cook together.
Be intentional about this, and you’ll start to feel yourself moving away from “I feel alone” toward “we’re in this together,” and that can make all the difference right now. 2. Lean In To Communication
Most couples I’ve worked with, at one point or another, identify communication as something they’d like to improve. I always ask: “Is communication a problem in any other of your relationships, say with friends or co-workers?” The answer is usually, “Not really, no.”
I have a theory about this. We tend to say things like, “communication is key to a successful relationship.” But in reality, most of us act like communication in relationships is a bad thing. A sign that you’re not truly meant to be together. We think to ourselves, “If I have to explain it to them, do they really love me?” We buy into this idea that “being in love” is when you and your partner are so totally in sync with each other you know each other’s every thought, need, or feeling.
This is magic thinking at its best, and I think we all fall victim to it at times because we really want to believe that our closest relationships should also be our easiest relationships.
Of course, this isn’t the case. We need to tell our partners what we need and take the time to really tune in to what they are saying – not just to listen to their words, but to understand and respond to the emotions beneath the words. If you’d like to strengthen your communication skills as a couple, this may be the right time to take advantage of Online Therapy with a relationship-focused psychotherapist who can help you and your partner sharpen your communication when it’s emotionally heavy.
3. Identify Your Needs for Physical Closeness as well as Space
For those who are now spending all day with each other, you’re keenly aware of your need for healthy, clear, and defined personal boundaries. Setting boundaries with someone you love is still a negotiation, albeit one that maybe requires a little more intentional kindness. Express your own needs for touch or space, and how they might differ or change throughout the day. Then invite your partner to do the same.
If you’re both at home right now, it’s better to be proactive about having this discussion before it leads to hurt feelings or conflict. We all have different needs for physical closeness and space. Just keep in mind that you can still feel emotionally close and connected to your partner even when you’re in different rooms doing your own thing.
4. Find a Common Interest or Shared Purpose
Couples who make a habit of connecting with each other around a common interest or goal often have a leg up when tackling difficult circumstances together. Bringing a spirit of collaboration to your relationship helps you feel like you are teammates with a shared sense of purpose, something you own together.
This could be as simple as sitting down to a puzzle together or as complex as perfecting a skill or learning a new language. Get creative with your own ideas and see where a collaborative spirit can take you.
5. Be Gracious With Each Other
Being gracious is about adopting a mindset of patience and kindness towards your partner, even when it’s hard to do. Right now, this is particularly important as we each process in our own way what the pandemic and social distancing mean for us.
Take a deep breath (literally and metaphorically) when your partner is showing you their fear or stress in a way you don’t quite understand. By extending grace to your partner, you are saying to them, “I know this is really hard for you right now. I want you to know that I get it, and that I’m here with you.”
Keep in mind as well, the reality is that, sooner rather than later, you’re also going to be the one who needs to be shown grace. During times of crisis and uncertainty, it’s critical that we give ourselves permission to not be perfect. And we need to give our partners the space to not be perfect either.
The new normal isn’t ‘business as usual’
As social distancing becomes our new normal, our need for emotional closeness with our partner will increase. Right now, in our relationships, we must try harder to be present with each other. To turn toward each other when we feel scared or alone and to be more patient and kinder with each other. If you can do this, your relationship will make it through this crisis and come out stronger than ever.
BeWell Health Clinic offers convenient and secure Online Therapy services. If you and your partner would like to speak to a Certified Couples & Family Therapist to help strengthen your relationship or navigate any issues during this time, please connect with us. Click here to book your online session today.
Stay safe. Be well.