About six weeks into the mandatory shutdown of cities and states across the country, many people have hit the wall. Hitting the wall has been described as the moment where you are sick of Zoom, sick of walks around the block, and sick of the one person you have to share every blessed moment with - your partner. It is the moment when you really are “just over it” but still have no control over what comes next. While the folks in charge (or not) argue/debate/blame each other and struggle to find a way to bring us back to “normalcy,” how do you help your relationship survive?
As I transition to an online therapist, I notice I have some couples who are thriving, some that are calling it quits...and lot’s of couples in between that are “hanging in there”.
Here are five key things I’ve learned from couples that are thriving:
Whatever relationship problems they had before the pandemic hit, they can put difficult discussions about issues on the back burner. It doesn’t mean that the problems are going away, just that in this moment - they both have chosen to focus on them and are waiting on “times getting better” before they revisit the most stressful conversations. Usually, as a therapist, I would not advocate for the “head in the sand” approach, but in this moment, when there is no escape hatch, they might be onto something.
They focus on what they do together well. If one person is good at managing stress in crazy logistics, that is the person who goes into the store masked and gloved up and does the shopping. The other may be the driver or the list maker, or the one that puts things away. Again, the thriving couples are not seeing one position as more important than the other, and they are willing to pick up the slack in the other places without being asked. This decision is critical. These couples understand everyone has a part to play, and they play it without complaint. It has been a surprising situation for some couples who argued about “roles” before the pandemic.
They understand the necessity of giving each other “space’. That space could be a night where they watch TV in separate rooms, or one goes to an online “happy hour” with friends, while the other reads a book, escapes into gaming, or does something else without fear of being labeled “selfish”. Human beings need connection, but also have a NEED to have some time alone. Just because you are stuck in a living space with the same person all the time does not mean that you must spend every waking moment joined at the hip, when either is not working.
They do some shared activities together that they enjoy, such as cooking, binge-watching Netflix or Hulu, and they are willing to explore some “new” things. They may dust off that old scrabble game, break out a deck of cards, or find an online “wine tasting” site to explore. They are willing to use this unexpected time together to do some of the things they always said they wanted to do - but didn’t have enough time.
They keep each other accountable for shutting out doomsday naysayers. This kind of accountability can limit exposure to fear-mongering news, conspiracy theorists online, or even well-meaning family and friends that want to keep them “informed” of what is going on - in every conversation. In a sense, these couple’s worlds have become smaller, and they are carefully building a protective bubble to keep negative influences to a minimum. Limiting your exposure is not the equivalent of burying your head in the sand, but it is a healthy way to protect your mental health from the barrage of doom and gloom that seems to be almost everywhere.
The thriving couples are often surprised at how well they are doing, especially because some did not come into this situation in a healthy relationship space. They fear that once the world opens back, they will return to old behaviors and forget how well they are connected right now. However, the pandemic has forced everyone, literally all over the world, to live in the moment, and to realize that the present moment is all we ever really have. That is the lesson I’ve been trying to teach all of the couples I work with. You get to decide what you do with it.