By Erin Wiley, MA, LPC, LPCC
A global pandemic. The world shuts down. With only essential workers leaving their homes, the rest of us try finding a new rhythm for Life-in-Quarantine. For the first time, couples and families have been forced to bunker down with each other, with next to zero reprieves from the constant togetherness. Some family members have found great joy in this, but most struggle. People are tired, worried, overwhelmed, angry. Disappointed and stressed.
For couples in a healthy place, this is a time for greater connectivity, and for meeting new challenges together. For couples already in distress, COVID just adds more strain on an already tenuous relationship. Regardless of where you and your partner started back in March, there are things you can do now to help you find meaning and deepen connection during these difficult times.
With the combination of financial instability, work-from-home stress, managing childcare over summer break, and predictions of a second wave, people can use ideas to strengthen the relationships that are most significant to them. Making your romantic relationship a priority takes time, dedication, and commitment.
Here are three suggestions that I use with the couples I treat in therapy that will help you come back to each other despite all the struggles in the world, helping you reconnect in a meaningful way.
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My first suggestion for connecting during stressful times is spending time walking together. As simple as it sounds, there is a great benefit to getting out of the house and spending time with loved ones while moving our bodies together. Having a change of scenery and getting away from the distractions of a home gives us time to clear our minds and have conversations that count. Even simple talk about your day and what plans are in the near future will help strengthen your bond with each other. Whether you are taking a stroll in the park, or a heart-pumping walk through your neighborhood, walking together signifies that you are both willing to take time out of your busy schedules to prioritize time with each other. That kind of commitment of time and energy speaks volumes to your partner about the importance of your relationship. That, plus the conversation and stress-relieving chemicals in your brain from moving your body, all add up to a simple yet effective way to connect.
Speaking of getting away from distractions at home, how about spending less time engaging with electronics over people? We are all guilty in one form or another: news followers, social media addicts, recipe hounds, text warriors, video game aficionados, streaming media binge viewers, or constantly accessible workaholics.” Electronics can be a fun way to pass some free time, or they can become a maladaptive coping skill that we run to as a means to escape reality: that we are stressed, overworked, overwhelmed, dissatisfied, exhausted, and disappointed with life. Start to track your use. Rather than insist upon strict parameters for use right away, observe how often you are using electronics, and at what times you find yourself reaching for them. Maybe instead of zoning out together in front of the television, you have a conversation. Maybe instead of sitting in the same room with each other scrolling through staged pictures of other peoples’ lives, you go make some memories of your own. Take that walk, I just suggested. Cook a meal together. Plan a new project for your home. Just talk. Read. Or just BE in the same space, in the quiet. We are not used to living without constant stimulation but, practicing slowing down and getting away from the screens and games and shows gives us a better chance for the deeper connection we all long for.
My third and final suggestion is to spend some time processing your feelings and sharing them in conversation with each other. Being healthy emotionally is the key to having a great romantic relationship. People are often dysregulated when upset or irritated, and we need to learn how to get ourselves back into a healthy headspace when we are upset. The way we do that is to share our feelings openly. You are able to tell your partner that you are sad or upset about something that builds connectivity. Being open to hearing what your significant other has to say about their own emotions is just as important as sharing yours. Validating the emotions that someone expresses, even when they don’t align with the listener’s, completes the cycle of sharing. I advise my couples to spend specific, scheduled, purposeful time discussing emotions together. The format I have found to be most helpful is first to identify the emotion you are experiencing, then share why it is you believe you are experiencing the emotion, and process why this is significant to you. The last step in this format is to identify our needs in response to that emotion, and, if fitting, ask your partner for help meeting those needs. This type of high-level, emotionally intelligent skill is fundamental skills for weathering hard times together, and thriving rather than surviving,
Undistracted time together. Intentional time together. Meaningful time together. As a couples’ counselor, these are the simple, yet highly effective objectives that I have my clients working toward in therapy right now. Growing closer in times of stress can be done. Consider sharing these suggestions with your significant other and scheduling some time to try them. I wish you the best moving forward in your relationships through this year. Here’s to all of us deepening our meaningful relationships during this unprecedented time of world-wide strife.