How to manage your relationship with your spouse during COVID-19
By: Megan Richardson, LMFT, NCC
There is no doubt that COVID is putting a strain on a lot of aspects of our life, one of them being our relationships. While some couples may find that spending extra time with their spouse is creating additional problems in the relationship that once did not exist, many couples are also finding prior relationship concerns are now being placed into a spotlight that may have been easy to avoid or ignore before.
I am a strong believer in the fact that the goal of relationships is surprisingly not to feel happy all the time, as it can be easy to blame unhappiness on a partner when there may be other contributing factors. Instead, it is important to acknowledge what you may be feeling in your relationship so that you can take action to address your emotional reactions.
Aside from being in a relationship where you or your children’s safety is at risk, unhappiness may not actually be a good reason to end a relationship. Our partners were not created to make us happy, just like we should not be expected to make our partners happy. Couples often find relief in learning most relationships go through seasons where they do not necessarily feel happy but can still have a satisfying experience in the long term if they remain committed and work on their relationship concerns. Happiness can be worked on. Couples who end relationships because they are unhappy often continue to find themselves unhappy outside of the relationship, as well.
So while it can be easy to blame your unhappiness on your partner, it may not be all of their fault.
If you find yourself feeling especially irritated with your spouse since the start of the quarantine, you are not alone. But it also may not be their fault.
Often times in relationships, it can be the EXTERNAL stressors that lead to conflict. It can be easy to place the burdens you carry on your spouse and almost experience your stress as a result of their actions when they are inherently not to blame. It is reasonable to feel frustrated in the increase in responsibility or feeling as though an imbalance is occurring (as it inevitably happens with any kind of new normal or shift). We are, as a world, going through what could be a clinical diagnosis of adjustment disorder.
Once a couple can be more aware as to how external pressures may be impacting their relationship, the good news is this is something you can work on. Couples can engage in an intervention where external stressors actually offer the opposite impact – they bring couples closer together instead of further apart. Using your spouse as a source of stress relief instead of seeing them as the source of stress is the trick.
This intervention is typically offered in couples counseling implementing the Gottman Method. Drs. John and Julie Gottman have outlined a shift to the traditional daily “how was your day dear” conversation to one that can have a significant benefit to your relationship, especially if used on a regular basis.
The Stress Reducing Conversation
It is common for problems, fears, and anxieties to creep into relationships fueling conflict without couples being aware. The intention of this conversation is to help each partner manage the stress that is not caused BY the relationship, but the stressors encountered in life OUTSIDE of the relationship – including the impact of COVID19.
The stress reducing conversation is recommended so that these outside triggers don’t seep into the relationship creating more conflict than it should.
Couples who are drowning in stress who do not talk about it with each other tend to see their emotional attraction to each other fade, and subsequently experience suffering IN the relationship unnecessarily due to these outside stressors.
The emotional attraction is largely determined by the ways in which a couple regularly communicates, so using this technique may cause a decrease in conflict and help increase feelings of attraction toward one another.
The main rule that is critical to follow in having a stress-reducing conversation is: it can only be about stress OUTSIDE of your relationship.
This does not work when discussing areas of conflict within the relationship. It’s an opportunity to offer support – which does not mean it is a time for creating solutions or fixing things. It’s being a support even if you have the answer! It’s attuning with your partner IN SPITE OF your magical solution that you think will resolve everything.
Dr. John Gottman often shares that understanding what your partner is going through should always precede offering any kind of advice.
Offering understanding looks like this: reflecting back what you hear your partner saying in terms of both feelings and content. It is making sure you have captured what they were trying to convey, and truly understanding their position before ever responding.
If these conversations aren’t even about the relationship, how could it possibly improve things?
The stress reducing conversation allows you to connect to your partner on a more intimate level and intensify your feelings toward one another. Emotional attraction – and ultimately sexual attraction – develops when a partner feels they are being listened to, when they experience respect, when they feel accepted, and when they sense genuine caring from their partner. Research shows emotional attraction is equally as important as physical attraction in a relationship.
How do I do it?
The Stress Reducing Conversation has 7 rules to guide the discussion towards success in building intimacy in your relationship.
- Take Turns. Each partner gets to be “the complainer” for fifteen minutes, so identify who gets to go first, and focus solely on that issue.
- Don’t offer advice. This is not the time for solutions or problem solving. Many partners are trying to be helpful by offering advice, but it is often not received that way. It is very important to convey understanding to your partner – as this has to come first before a partner may ever be open to receiving any kind of advice.
- Convey genuine interest. Stay focused on what your partner is saying, ask questions to better understand what they mean, maintain eye contact, show your partner that you care what they are talking about.
- Communicate that you understand. As your partner is expressing themselves, let your partner feel you share in their feelings and understand what they are saying. When you feel the urge to give advice, instead say something like:
“I can see why that would make you feel upset.”
“That sounds very upsetting”
“It’s so reasonable for you to feel that way”
“I’d be angry too.”
“That would have hurt my feelings too.”
- Be on your partner’s side no matter what. This is usually the most shocking rule for couples. By adopting a “we against others” attitude, your partner feels the two of you are in this together. And yes, this means conveying understanding EVEN IF you might disagree with your partner’s perspective. If the goal is to reduce stress/enhance intimacy in your relationship, that goal is likely more important than your opinion on the situation. It does not mean you never bring up any concerns you may have in the future, but if your partner is being vulnerable with you about what is stressing them out, it is not the best time to teach a lesson. This is not a teachable moment. It IS the best time to be a source of support.Remember, all emotions have value and it’s your job to step into and understand what your partner is feeling and why before offering any kind of advice or making assumptions about what you think might be going on even if you feel differently.
- Show affection. Physical touch (with your partner’s permission) can be a great way to convey your affection. Hold your partner’s hands while talking, rub their feet, put an arm on his or her shoulder, and/or say, “I love you.”
- Validate your partner’s emotions. Make your partner feel their emotions are reasonable. You can do this by simply naming the emotions you see: “you feel mad” or “that makes you feel sad.” Tell your partner their feelings make sense to you.
Set Yourself Up for Success:
It can help if you set up a time that works for the both of you to regularly have the conversation, as you may find some partners want to immediately talk when they get home and others may want some time to decompress. Allow for 20-30 minutes of uninterrupted or dedicated time to each other, which can feel difficult especially with children in the home but is ultimately worth it. Modeling this for your children ultimately could be healthy for them in the long run.
Remember these issues have nothing to do with your marriage, so do everything you can not to bring issues with your marriage into the discussion. And honor all emotions that arise.
You may find yourself feeling uncomfortable if your partner is expressing fear, sadness or anger, so it may be important to check with yourself as to why that may trigger you so much. Some people have been raised to think expressing negative emotion is bad, however all emotions have value and should be welcomed into this conversation.
Sometimes this conversation is easier said than done, and it can be helpful to practice in a controlled setting such as a counseling room. Many therapists have now switched to an online telehealth platform, and couples counseling is more accessible to you than ever before.
So the next time you’re feeling stressed about an event or something outside of your relationship, practice this technique to deal with your stress, and feel closer to your partner.
What if I want to bring up concerns IN my relationship?
Focus on the small things often. Even if nothing else changes, there is evidence to suggest if you add some gratitude or positive moments of connection – it can help. Drs. John and Julie Gottman speak about it in terms of an emotional bank account. In the emotional bank account, you are either making withdrawals or deposits. Dr. Gottman found that couples in satisfied relationships have positive interactions to negative interactions in a ratio of 20:1 in day to day life and 5:1 during conflict. The positive is always outweighing the negative regardless of the type of interaction. A therapist once shared with me that he encourages clients to work towards becoming emotional millionaires. When your emotional bank account is in the positive, the “withdrawals” don’t seem to have as big of an impact.
Find ways to work on your friendship. It’s possible you are experiencing tension in your relationship because there may need to be some work required in the friendship. Even while you are stuck at home, focus on finding and engaging in shared interests. Date each other – ask questions to learn about who your partner is now. We tend to be great at getting to know our partner while we are dating each other early on and forget that people change, our partner’s may change, and getting to know each other again can and should be fun for the two of you.
Use “I Statements” It can be easy to place blame on our partners when feeling frustrated. Sometimes our concerns can be much better received if we change “You statements” to “I statements.” As you find yourself making “You statements,” try to check in with yourself and focus on what you are needing in that moment. Then overtly express it. It does not diminish the good deed if you had to overtly ask your partner for it and then they do it. Instead of saying something like “You never do the dishes”, you could say “I need help. It would mean a lot to me if you would do the dishes for me.”
Take Care of Yourself Don’t forget the impact this pandemic may be having on you. If you’re having to learn how to work, find new work, while also learning how to teach your children at their grade level, search for household products to keep things sanitary and are worrying about people in your life that you love…that is hard! Be kind and gentle with yourself and remember to offer yourself some grace.
Megan is a Gottman-trained Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist primarily working with couples in her private practice in the Tampa Bay Area of Florida. She specializes and most enjoys working with growing families who are navigating the shifts in their relationship with the transition to parenthood. Megan particularly enjoyed writing this blog, as it provided some helpful reminders to her as she is also navigating the new normal of being safe at home with her husband and 2 children. For more information, you can find her at www.thrivetherapyflorida.com .