By Carrie Jones, LCSW
As wonderful and beautiful as they are, relationships can sometimes be challenging even in the best of times. In times of stress, the challenges and difficulties often are magnified. As we all well know, the Coronavirus outbreak is a tremendously stressful time period in many different ways. Thankfully, we have seen many good articles on how to protect our physical health, the health of our family and loved ones, our own emotional health, and the emotional health of our children. It’s also important to think about how to protect our marriages and keep them healthy.
We’ve all been faced with difficult decisions as the situation changes and evolves day by day. Some couples may be in complete agreement about what they feel they should do, but others may be unsure, or even have opposing viewpoints. How strictly should we quarantine ourselves? Should we stay in China? Should we leave temporarily？Should we leave for good? Should one spouse stay and the other leave with the kids? How worried should we be？Circumstances vary widely from couple to couple and making the choice about what is best for the family isn’t necessarily simple and easy. Each possible scenario comes with unique challenges and stresses that can take a toll on a marriage if not handled carefully and thoughtfully.
Regardless of what decisions we ultimately make, we are all facing significant change and adjustment as life currently feels anything but “normal.” Some couples may suddenly find themselves with much more time together with normal work and travel schedules on hold. Of course, increased time together generally is a good thing, but it also requires adjustments to typical schedules, routines, and ways of doing things. Other couples may suddenly be apart for an extended period, which clearly has the potential to put strain on the relationship.
Given all these changes, challenges, and stressors, how can couples keep their marriage healthy and even use this unique time period to strengthen their relationship?
1. Support each other
Even if you and your spouse have diametrically opposing views, it is vital to listen to each other, understand each other, and support each other. Accepting your spouse’s viewpoint doesn’t mean you have to agree with it, but rather that you recognize and acknowledge it and make an honest effort to understand how they feel about an issue and why they feel that way. Psychologist John Gottman uses the term “perpetual problems” to refer to issues that couples disagree on and likely will always disagree on. One partner sees it this way, the other partner sees it that way. For example, facing Coronavirus, perhaps one partner tends to be more cautious or have a higher degree of anxiety while the other spouse tends to be more risk-tolerant or less worried. In these cases, it is important to have open and ongoing dialogue and respect your partner’s position even if you don’t agree with it. This helps reduce criticism, contempt, defensiveness and other obstacles that stand in the way of productive communication and that are destructive to a marriage.
If you are able to communicate openly and in a positive manner, it will be much easier to work through the difficult decisions that have to be made. Sure, it is possible to bulldoze over your spouse or to wear your spouse down insisting that your perspective is the “right” one so that you get your way in any given situation, but ultimately these tactics will also bulldoze and erode your marriage too.
Once you do come to a decision as a couple, commit to it and support each other through it without lots of second-guessing or blaming and criticizing one another for the choice during the rough patches. It is important to be united as you face times of intense stress like the current situation and if you have children, it is especially important to present a united front for them.
2. Find new and creative ways to connect
Life is changing quickly these days and we are all scrambling to adjust to our new circumstances. Make sure you are considerate of your partner’s needs as well as your own. Working spouses who are now at home more need to be included and feel like a significant part of home life and daily routines. For couples with children, it can be especially challenging if one or both partners are working from home and quite possibly with less than convenient hours given time differences. Try to find a balance and routines that work for everyone in the family as much as possible.
Whether you are together or living in different countries for the time, make it a priority to find meaningful and enjoyable ways to connect. Spend time listening to each other’s fears and anxieties, but also be sure to have significant time together doing pleasurable activities and focusing on things other than the Coronavirus and associated issues.
Yes, without a doubt this is an incredibly difficult and stressful time, but it also can be a time of growing closer together. Marriage is a tapestry made up of shared experiences, both the pleasant ones and the more difficult trying ones, woven together. Be intentional about recognizing that this time is one of those shared experiences that becomes part of the fabric of your marriage and think about how you can make it a healthy and positive experience as possible even in the midst of the unknown and uncertainty that we all currently face.