The couples I work with have shared concerns about how this pandemic will impact their relationship, especially for those people who were already struggling before all this started. Even the strongest of couples are dealing with increased conflict, managing competing needs, sharing in a vulnerable way, and trusting that everything will be ok.
This pandemic can shift and shape a million aspects of marriages, likely for the better. In fact, I believe marriages can be saved as a result of what we’re going through.
In marriage counseling, couples seek to place blame on specific events as the reason why the relationship is struggling. While there are events that are distressing to the relationship, like loss of a job, moving, infertility, having a baby, a mental health diagnosis, an affair, etc., the events themselves aren’t the only cause of the relationship problems; they bring the existing relationship problems to the surface and if not addressed, the issues are exacerbated.
Instead of accepting the idea that this crisis will negatively affect your marriage, use this experience to save your marriage and connect in a more meaningful way. Quit sweeping your stuff under the proverbial rug, the issues are out there anyway; take control of finding ways to make your marriage better.
I’ll share a few of my ideas to get you started.
1# Stop Ignoring the Marital Issues this Crisis is Exposing
Even with being stuck at home and spending nearly 24 hours a day together, there are many couples out there choosing to ignore the problems that are popping up in their relationships. In some ways, I get it.
With all the other stressors and tasks we need to attend to, it feels like some of those issues are things we can put on the back burner and deal with when life gets back to normal. Unfortunately, that’s not the best strategy if you want to save your marriage.
It’s scary and overwhelming to open the pandora’s box of messiness that’s happened over time in your relationship. Ignoring the problems or pretending that they don’t exist will not help your marriage, and continuing to engage in a process that’s caused conflict and pain are working against your goal of making your marriage better.
If you’re not ready to dig into your marital problems, I can understand and respect that; it may be too much. What I do want you to do is acknowledge what’s going on in the present moment in your marriage. You may not have the bandwidth to fix everything or anything, and that’s ok.
You have control over changing one small thing, and that’s bringing attention to your hurt, conflict, and pain. Saying something like “our fight really got out of hand” or “I see that I was being defensive” can be incredibly powerful in itself. Your instinct may be to push the uncomfortable moments away and deal with them later, but will you?
2# Engage in a Real Partnership
If you and your partner haven’t always operated as a team, you’ll be getting a lot of practice during the pandemic. With all the changes that have been taking place and ongoing adjustments every day, it will be imperative that you discuss a plan with your partner and that the two of you find ways to work together to care for your family, your relationship, and yourselves.
Working on common goals as a team also promotes the idea of “we-ness” which is important for marriages. You want to feel like you’re able to tackle the unexpected things that come up in life, like a pandemic (who knew?), with your partner.
It can leave you feeling more secure not just in your relationship but also in life. It’s easier to embrace the vulnerable and scary stuff if we feel confident that at the end of the day we’ll be ok with our partner by our side. Coming through this experience being able to say “we worked together to figure this out” is a really good way to benefit your marriage.
3# Gain a Better Understanding of How Your Partner Deals with Stuff
One of the biggest sources for conflict during crises surrounds is partner’s having different coping styles.
Everybody deals with things in a different way, and it’s important to remember that there’s no right or wrong way to cope. Some people may want all the information and be constantly plugged into the news and giving updates every hour on the hour, whereas others may think that people are overreacting and be more lax about recommendations or making decisions.
You’re probably passionate about your own thoughts and opinions, especially on topics that tend to be complex and dividing. It can be hard when your partner sees the situation so differently from you, and you may find yourself getting triggered or activated when you have conversations.
The key is to not judge your partner for thinking about something differently than you, or accusing them of being wrong.
Instead, look at this as an opportunity to understand your partner better. When we have strong opinions or you feel yourself getting upset, it’s likely because you have an underlying fear. And if your partner is getting triggered, guess what? They also have an underlying fear.
Ask them why they feel so strongly about the subject and what comes up when they hear your opinion. Validate their feelings and point of view, and share your own worries and concerns. This approach will de-escalate conflict and help you feel more understood and empathetic towards your partner, which is never a bad thing for marriages!
4# Master How to Express Your Needs & Listen to Your Partner’s Needs
Much of my work providing couples therapy revolves around helping partners express their needs in a way that the other person can hear them. So many of us have no idea how to ask for our needs, and we communicate in unclear and convoluted ways, then hold it against our partner because they didn’t do what we wanted them to do.
That’s a really good way to find yourself caught in a cycle of disappointment and resentment.
Instead of relying on mind-reading and making assumptions, use this time to master how to express your needs. Instead of saying “I’d really love to have some alone time this afternoon” and expecting our partner to understand exactly what you need, make specific requests.
“Are you willing to help the kids with their school work from 2-3 so I can take a bath and read a book by myself?” is more likely to result in getting your need met. It’s not that your partner doesn’t want to help you get what you need, they probably have no idea how to do that for you until you tell them.
The need to be specific doesn’t mean that your partner doesn’t love you enough to know how to take care of you. In fact, I often hear that partners feel inadequate because they understand their partner needs something but feel helpless in meeting that need, and then interpret it that they’re not good enough or aren’t doing enough.
All these uncomfortable feelings and misinterpretations can be avoided the more clearly we present ourselves and our needs. Slightly different approaches can help you feel more connected, understood, and important in your marriage. What could be better than that?
5# Figure Out What’s Really Important and Re-Prioritize
I can’t think of a better time than during a pandemic to evaluate what’s most important in life. Nobody has time to engage in tasks, conversations, or decisions that hold no significance. Don’t get me wrong, you may find immense value in small talk or playing games on your phone, in which case that would be important even if it seems unimportant.
For couples who were already facing rocky times, this is a good time to evaluate what was causing so much distress and tension in the relationship. Some of it may not be as important as you previously thought.
What are the values in your marriage?
What set of principles defines who you are as a couple?
These are some questions that you can start with to figure out what the heck is really important for your marriage. Is it truly important who was the last person to take out the trash? Probably not. Is it crucial to feel respected and seen in your marriage? Absolutely.
What’s the quickest way to save your marriage, even during a pandemic? Figure out what really matters to your relationship, and focus only on those things. I imagine all the specific incidents that pop up will go away when we are intentional about the underlying stuff that’s happening between you and your partner.
At the root, you’ve both lost sight of what makes your marriage great and meaningful. Do you really want to have a 3-hour fight about video games, or are you ready to start addressing the devastating loneliness? Be grateful this pandemic has given you the time and opportunity to re-evaluate what’s most important.