4 Ways to Pandemic-Proof Your Relationship

Simple strategies to maintain connection and minimize conflict during COVID-19.

Originally published on my Psychology Today Blog, Mindful Relationships

Our lives are nothing like they were a year ago. COVID-19 has thrown out our usual way of working, recreating, and relating. The professional and leisure impacts of the pandemic are clear to all of us. Widespread social distancing guidelines have us working from home and limiting or avoiding our typical past-times.

But how has the coronavirus impacted our intimate relationships? As a marriage counselor and relationship therapist, I can tell you the scary news doesn’t stop at the CDC.

Divorce and domestic violence have seen huge upticks in the time of the pandemic. According to the New York Post, it only took a week of quarantine to double divorce inquiries and experts are only predicting more divorces post-pandemic when courts open. A study by researcher Xin Qin and colleagues found that increases in confirmed cases of COVID-19 have caused domestic violence cases to surge in the United States.

Usually, a myriad of distractions can keep us from directly addressing the problems in our relationships. When we’re confined to our homes, we can’t escape from them. Add on a cocktail of stressors including worries about illness, un- or under-employment, increased childcare responsibilities, loss of usual sources of entertainment, and social isolation, and you’ve got a problem that can complicate even the happiest of relationships.

Science by John Gottman and colleagues shows us that all couples fight, but couples who end up having satisfying, enduring marriages communicate differently than those who end up divorcing or dissatisfied. Here are some communication tips for pandemic-proofing your relationship that are effective in my practice:

  1. Avoid criticism. “You are such a control freak!” When you’re angry or irritated with your partner, you may feel the urge to throw out a judgment of their character. Criticism only causes us to try to defend ourselves against the insult or fight back. Instead, make a specific complaint about the situation, using the formula, “When you did X, in situation Y, I felt Z.” This way, your partner is clear about what they did and how it impacted you, in addition to being given a roadmap for how to make it better.
  2. Stave off defensiveness. When we don’t take responsibility for our contributions to conflict, we get trapped in a game of “Whodunnit” instead of constructively working toward solutions. Really listen to your partner and put yourself in their shoes. Own up to your own errors and validate how your partner might be feeling. We all make mistakes, and that’s ok.
  3. Don’t stonewall. If you ever turn into a brick wall during a disagreement, you know it’s not really helpful. We need to be actively, yet constructively, engaged in conflict to work through issues in our relationships. People who tend to stonewall do so because their bodies are overly biologically stressed, causing them to shut down. If you find yourself being overwhelmed, pause the interaction and practice self-soothing techniques. Deep breaths, visualizing a comforting place, and practicing progressive muscle relaxation (tensing and then relaxing parts of your body) can help you get to a place where you can participate and problem-solve.
  4. Don’t communicate contempt. The biggest predictor of dissatisfaction and divorce is contempt, meaning intense disrespect that comes out as hostile sarcasm, eye-rolling, or belittlement. Make sure to increase the positives in your relationship by showing appreciation and gratitude. If you put your partner down, they will feel helpless to work on anything. The more opportunities you take to show how much you cherish and admire your partner, the more they will feel rewarded and keep up the good work.

The pandemic is hard on all of us. Following these communication tips can help you and your partner move from destructive conflict to conversations that help you connect in this time of need.

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