I think it’s safe to say no one saw this COVID-19 pandemic coming, and when the pandemonium hit, it was like staring at a tidal wave while standing on the beach. Our normal daily lives changed overnight, and with that came rising levels of panic, depression, and general stress levels. Kids came home and so did our jobs.
Welcome to spring of 2020, folks, where your kids, partner, and pets are stuck in one house and not allowed to leave except for essential situations. I think everyone reading that sentence would say that, in and of itself, is an essential-to-leave-my-house situation. Spring 2020 just became a crash course in family therapy.While the vast majority of couples did not rejoice at this news, some couples especially were filled with dread over the realization that they would be stuck inside with their partners for months. Others may have gone into the scenario confident their relationships were healthy enough to not be impacted by the circumstances. Other couples mourned not being able to travel to their significant others.
In the past weeks, I have sat with individuals and couples struggling to cope with the close quarters of quarantine. The combination of high anxiety and depression, a decrease in accessibility of certain coping mechanisms, and literally being in each other’s spaces 24 hours a day is wearing on people, to say the least.
Relationship Advice: Letters from a Therapist to Different Types of Couples
Below are some letters of love with relationship advice from a therapist to every type of couple out there during this pandemic:
To Struggling Couples
To those whose stomach dropped at the thought of staying home with your partner:
Breathe, dear ones. God is with us in our fear. This too shall pass. It may not pass quickly, it may not pass easily. It may be like swallowing a pill much too large to swallow, but it will pass.
If there is one thing that is certain in these uncertain times, it is that the sun will continue to rise and set and time will continue passing, slowly, steadily, but surely.
In the meantime, pass the time well. What does that look like for a couple whose relationship was already on the rocks before this storm hit?
1. It looks like learning how to be a team again.
Think of this as a time to dive into an intensive crash course in marriage counseling. That might sound entirely impossible, but hear me out.The work you put in now will be ten times more impactful than if you were working on your relationship when the seas were calm (that is not to say there aren’t benefits to marriage counseling when you and your partner are in a healthy spot).
For example, anxiety treatment, such as exposure therapy, is most effective when done when anxiety is present. Someone overcoming a bird phobia is going to make a lot more progress if they face scenarios that bring up more anxiety than not. And facing that anxiety is an empowering experience.
Quarantine is like being exposed to whatever your fears are around your relationship. If you’re worried your partner doesn’t love you, if you’re worried about arguing, if you’re worried about whether your relationship will last, if you’re worried about simply being roommates instead of romantic partners, then this quarantine is forcing you to face your biggest fears. And in facing your biggest fears together, you may find you are overcoming your biggest fears together.
2. It looks like leaning into self-care individually.
First and foremost, this means you assess for safety. If you do not feel your home will be safe for yourself or your children, this is the time to contact police, reach out to a counselor, or call a shelter, such as the YWCA, to get you to a safe location.
If safety is present, start tapping into all the self-care methods you’ve ever learned. Start your day slowly, do your devotionals, take the baths, go for those long walks, use that forgotten mindfulness app (like Headspace or Stop, Breathe, Think), sit in silence, read those books on your nightstand, start the crafts you’ve been putting off, watch that cheesy show on Netflix. Whatever speaks to you and heals you, do it, and leave feeling sorry for it behind.
When anxiety and depression levels are high, it’s more important than ever to take time for yourself. Two healthy people will be much better equipped to start working on their relationship than those not taking time to pour into their own health.
3. It looks like ceasing to avoid those conversations.You know the ones I’m referring to. The ones you’ve shoved under the rug, hoping they wouldn’t come back to haunt you. The ones that make you question the strength of your relationship but that you’ve avoided having for fear of the outcome. Now is the time to hash things out (in a healthy, conversational way).
These conversations are scary and hard, so establish rules ahead of time. Use “I” statements, such as “I feel [blank],” rather than “You’re being so [blank].” Avoid criticisms and attacking your partner’s person. And finally, establish the pause rule. If at any point one partner becomes flooded and overwhelmed, he or she can call for a pause in the conversation.
They then can walk away for 5 minutes, 20 minutes, 30 minutes, whatever they need to process. However, the most important aspect of this rule is that they inform their partner that they will be back. This could look like a partner saying, “I need a break. I’m going for a walk and will be back in a half hour. Then I’ll come find you and we can talk more about this.”
4. It looks like rekindling your spark.
Often, time tends to make roommates out of romantic partners. Use this time to date your partner. Flirt with them throughout the day. Leave them notes. Have a movie theater style date night. Download Gottman’s Card Decks and learn about your partner again. Make time for physical intimacy and try out something new. Most of all, spend time with your partner even when you don’t necessarily feel romantically inclined to do so.
5. It looks like knowing when you need time to yourself.
Anyone is going to get stir crazy and irritable being cooped up all day every day, and who else are you going to take it out on but your quarantine partner? It’s okay to spend some time in the bathroom by yourself or go for a long walk. You have permission.
To Confident Couples
To the couples confident, and dare I say, excited, about this quarantine together:
God is with us in our joy. I commend you for your joy in the face of difficulty. The very fact you are content with the idea of spending the following months inside with your partner says so much about the strength of your relationship, a strength that likely comes out of putting a lot of work into your connection as a couple. Your peace indicates a secure attachment, and this time offers you the chance to continue to pour into your relationship and really enjoy it.
1. Take care of yourselves.
As with the first couple type above, my advice is to take care of yourselves. Tap into the self-care ideas listed above and work on equipping yourself for the months ahead.
2. Continue enjoying each other.
This is going to be easier said than done, as it is entirely natural to eventually become tired and weary of the daily sameness and the only person physically around to help you cope with that stress is your partner. Remember that it’s normal to have rough days and conflicts and be irritated at each other. What’s important is how you come back together.
3. Make time for each other.
This is especially difficult when work and kids have come home, as there are no clear boundaries of work time, kiddo time, and couple time. Working 12 hours a day is not going to make you any less stressed. Your kids are never going to complain about their parents being too close.
Prioritize each other and make time for things you wouldn’t normally do. Take the 5 Love Languages test online and try to fill each others’ love tanks. Leave notes around the house. Ask the deep questions. Relive your first date. Play games together. Cook a new recipe. Make a list of your strengths as a couple as well as areas you’d like to grow in. The quality time will continue to strengthen your relationship even after quarantine has ended.
To Separated Couples
And finally, to all the couples separated from your partner:
My heart hurts for you. To face the stress of these months without your partner is painful and can compound the anxiety of these times. Remember that God is our ultimate comforter, and trust that He will find ways to comfort you despite the lack of the presence of your significant other. God is with us in our grief. You are not invisible.
1. Validate your own emotions.
It is all too easy to cast your emotions aside, especially when they are related to an unfixable problem. However, honoring your sadness over not being stuck inside with your partner is important. It is healthy to mourn and vent about your jealousy of other couples.
Talk with your partner or a friend, pray about them, or journal them. The worst thing you could do is isolate yourself due to shame over your feelings. They are valid, important, and worth being heard.
2. Communicate with your partner.In any way you know how. FaceTime when you miss them, tell them about your day, express your emotions to them, plan activities for when you get to see each other, have movie nights via video calls, take personality quizzes and share your results, bake using the same recipes and see whose turns out better, mail cards the old fashioned way, play online games, pray together.
Time can still be quality even when you are physically apart and arguably will improve your ability to communicate. The one caveat here is to insure that the deeper and potentially more sensitive subjects should not be texted about. However, video calls can be a great way to address the important subjects, and phone calls are a good plan B when video is unavailable.
3. Connect with your community.
Lean into your friendships and family relationships. Plan phone calls and video chats. Reach out to people you haven’t spoken to in a while. Join an online support group. Even though we can’t be physically connected for now, there are so many ways to connect with people even more so than we might normally in our day to day lives.
4. Practice self-care.
Spend your days comforting yourself with activities that fuel you. On the harder days, treat yourself gently with a bath and on the easier days celebrate with a mini dance party.
My wish for all of you is that one day, you’ll look back on this quarantine as a gift to your relationship. Until then, press on.
As always, for those of you feeling the need of some help in bolstering your relationship, feel free reach out to me or another counselor today.
“Happy Together,” courtesy of Annette Sousa, unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Hold On,” courtesy of Elahe Motamedi, unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Breathe,” courtesy of Tim Goedhart, unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Searching,” courtesy of Atharva Tulsi, unsplash.com, CC0 License