The World Health Organization (WHO) has declared the novel coronavirus outbreak a pandemic. As businesses, schools, and universities move toward online operations and travel plans get canceled, we are facing massive disruptions to the daily rhythms of our lives. For many couples, togetherness organically alternates with separateness, as they bid farewell to each other in the morning and reconnect in the evening. When this pattern is disrupted, what gets highlighted is how much we rely on cycles of closeness and distance to keep our relationships happy and healthy.
Our romanticized notions of love tell us that if we love each other we should always want to be together. Our lived experiences of love teach us that togetherness and separateness are an inhale and an exhale. They coexist and each enhances the other.
While we (hopefully) relish round-the-clock time with our partners when we are on vacation, this is radically different. It is unplanned and open-ended. Further, it is filled with uncertainty and fear about what lies ahead. Here are five ways to take care of yourself and your intimate relationship during this time of upheaval.
Practice Empathy for Different Coping Strategies
Consider this quote (source unknown): “The first thing you should know about me is that I am not you. A lot more will make sense after that.”
Based on an infinitely complex recipe of gender, temperament, life experiences, family dynamics, and personality, we develop a wide range of responses to stress and uncertainty. The chances that you and your partner will be coping with the pandemic in the same way at the same time are quite slim. Because responses can be plotted on a spectrum from calm to panicked, in any given moment, the calmer partner might say to the more frightened one, “Stop freaking out! You’re being neurotic” and the more concerned partner may fire back, “You don’t get how serious this is! You’re in denial.”
In the best of moments, however, different coping styles can enhance how a couple responds. The more grounded one can bring an element of play and levity, and the more concerned partner can make sure that everyone is doing what needs to be done to stay safe and healthy. When you strive to practice grace in the face of difference, you can capitalize on your varying approaches rather than shaming each other for them.
Be Apart Together
You can both love someone and need space from them. Let go of the story that if we don’t want to spend this time in a perpetual snuggle, we are doomed. Take space when you need it—lovingly and gently. And accept that you and your partner might need space at different times. You might find it helpful to make a plan for when you’ll be in different parts of your home and when you’ll spend time hanging out together. When we are not intentional about taking space when we need it, we risk growing irritation that leads us to take space by snapping at our partner and storming off.
Cultivating a happy and healthy intimate relationship begins as an inside job, by taking care of ourselves. It’s really difficult to relate to our partner with kindness and patience if we are not practicing fundamental self-care. Emotions are bodily states, so taking care of your body is a powerful way to nurture your relationship. During this time of crisis, get back to the basics:
- Choose nourishing foods
- Move your body each day
- Get the amount of sleep that works best for you
- Limit alcohol and drugs
Anticipate Flare-Ups in Mental Health Challenges
It makes sense for those of us with preexisting mental health challenges like anxiety and depression (and those of us who love them!) to anticipate a worsening of symptoms during this time of upheaval. Knowing that might happen can go a long way toward helping us cope if it does. Use these prompts to develop an emotional first aid plan:
- When my symptoms worsen, something my partner can do to support me is….
- When my partner’s symptoms worsen, something that helps me feel more patient is…
Remember that you’ve gotten through mental health challenges before. Don’t forget to validate your suffering. Offering yourself some compassion can help you tap into your resilience.
Speak With Kindness. Or Just Don’t Speak.
Because we are social beings, emotions are contagious. All of us are susceptible to emotional contagion, which Elaine Hatfield defines as the “tendency to automatically mimic and synchronize facial expressions, vocalizations, postures, and movements with those of another person and, consequently, to converge emotionally.” At a party or festive celebration, emotional contagion helps us amplify the fun. But under stress, we are all at risk of regressing, meaning that we revert to less healthy ways of coping. You might feel irritable and critical. You might feel somber and cynical.
Remembering that emotions are contagious can motivate you to step away for the sake of your relationship. This is very different from withdrawing or retreating. Consider saying something like, “I am feeling really cranky right now. I love us too much to risk-taking my icky feelings out on you. I’m going to step away for a bit.” Use that distance to shift yourself from upset to calm. Here are two strategies that can help:
- Write down three things you are grateful for. Research has found that gratitude journaling can improve mood and support a sense of well-being (Emmons & McCullough, 2003).
- Write about what’s happening between you and your partner from the perspective of a neutral third party who has both of your best interests at heart. Research has linked this simple intervention to relationship satisfaction (Finkel, Slotter, Luchies, Walton, & Gross, 2013).
Be gentle with yourself and your partner over the coming days and weeks.