A few weeks ago, I cried at my husband (oh yes, you can cry at somebody), saying, “You’re the only person I’m allowed to hang out with and you don’t even want to do anything!” What can I say? I’m a peach. I’m also not alone when it comes to dealing with relationship struggles right now. Thanks to the complete and utter chaos we’re all dealing with, some of the happiest couples I know are on edge. Whether or not to go to a new park versus an old park has become a red-alert conflict. Small daily tasks turn into tempting opportunities to snip at each other. Sound familiar?
To be fair, not all couples are having a rough go of it. Vagdevi Meunier, Psy.D., master trainer for the Gottman Institute and licensed clinical psychologist at the Center for Relationships in Austin, tells SELF that the stress of the pandemic has actually brought many of her couples closer.
And, well, good for them. For the rest of us mortals who are having a hard time with relationships right now, SELF spoke with three couples therapists for the advice they’re handing out regularly these days. These are by no means the only tips that might strengthen your relationship right now, but they’re the ones these therapists find themselves giving time and time again. And, honestly, let’s say you are in a relationship that’s thriving during the pandemic—these tips might make things even better.
- No surprise: The biggest advice is to communicate.
This is especially true when it comes to feelings about the pandemic. The pandemic has ripple effects in nearly every part of our lives, whether you’re coping with it relatively well or feeling completely underwater. So, as a couple, you need to talk about the feelings the pandemic is bringing up, Robert Allan, Ph.D., LMFT, emotionally focused therapy trainer and assistant professor of couple and family therapy at the University of Colorado, Denver, tells SELF. Maybe that’s the boredom and monotony so many people are experiencing—it’s what day? month? season?—as well as any fears.
It’s worth noting that Allan emphasizes communicating the feelings the pandemic stirs up. It might feel like venting about daily case numbers or the latest governmental blunder is communicating, but dig deeper to determine the feelings underneath your venting—then talk about those. This level of vulnerability and understanding can create a real sense of safety in your relationship, which is especially critical given all the uncertainty we’re dealing with. “I’m more focused on how do you each feel safe with each other and [ensuring] that connection is secure,” Allan says.
New and established couples can take this time to get to know each other deeper in other ways, too, Allan says, like learning more about each other’s hobbies and interests, emotions related to the renewed outcry for racial justice, relationship likes and dislikes, and what your dreams are for the future.
- Try to stay in the present, especially when voicing relationship concerns.
Getting on each other’s nerves more than usual? Meunier says that arguments often start because complaints go into the future or past, like if you look at the dishes and think, “This is the 10th time I’ve had to do dishes this week!” Arguing, or at least resentment, ensues.
That problem feels bigger, but it feels bigger because I brought in the past,” Meunier says. Instead, try to focus on the present: “Hey, you left dishes in the sink, can you clean them up?”
- Set boundaries around COVID-19 preventive measures.
Laurel Steinberg, Ph.D., psychotherapist and assistant professor of sexology at the American Academy of Clinical Sexologists, suggests setting ground rules for what you’re comfortable with in regard to COVID-19 risks. “Honor those family rules by setting boundaries with everyone else,” she suggests, like agreeing on which venues or circumstances are acceptable to see friends or family.
- Try to find a “normal” rhythm if you can.
Okay, clearly nothing is normal. But maintaining as many “normal” habits as you can that helped you feel good in pre-pandemic times is key. Steinberg recommends things like keeping up on “romantic adventures” (interpret that how you like), exercise, getting outdoors together, and protecting your non-work time together.