by Lisa Brookes Kift, MFT
This is a very hard time; our emotional health and physical well-being are being challenged in pandemic life. We are trying to figure out how to be safe, care for our children and for many, assure even basic survival needs are met like income to pay for food and shelter.
Marriage and long term relationships are also taking the brunt of the stress of COVID-19. Some relationships have benefitted from the additional time together but many have been pulled tight, especially if there were unresolved issues between the couple before. Anxiety can strain an already tense relationship. For many holding things together for themselves and their families, the marriage is not being prioritized.
During this time, couples need to feel as secure as possible to weather this storm. If your marriage feels disconnected or otherwise in jeopardy, find time to stabilize it now, as it is the foundation under which your entire family rests.
14 Ways to Strengthen Your Marriage
- Put your oxygen mask on first. When life is crazy but particularly during the emotional strain of a pandemic, those closest need you to practice self care so you can be the optimal version of yourself. If you are chronically stressed, anxious or otherwise preoccupied, your partner will feel the impact whether you try to hide it or not. Learn tools to stay calm and emotionally regulated during this difficult time.
- Re-open the communication lines. Now more than ever you need to talk to each other. Do you know how the other is faring with everything? Have you asked? Do you have a sense of how your partner feels about the relationship? Are they ok? No matter how much is going on in your lives, schedule a weekly check-in with each other allowing the opportunity to get a read on the emotional status of your marriage. This also provides an opportunity to process any hiccups that might have occurred before resentment has a chance to build.
- Set boundaries. Households are spending more time than ever together which is understandably leading to tension. Allow for “me time” within the marriage, even if within the home. Identify what this time is for each of you. For example, you like an hour of uninterrupted reading time, online yoga class, a run or home project. Whether in or out of the home, validate each others choice of activities (ideally healthy) for overall mental health.
- Repair the relationship when needed. If you have inadvertently hurt your partner in some way, own it. When things are tense it’s easy to misstep by not choosing your words carefully or using a tone that sounds more harsh than you meant it. If you feel hurt by your partner, let them know to allow for the opportunity for relationship repair. Sweeping things under the rug can ultimately be more damaging.
- Know your partner’s world. One of the things that creates attunement in marriage is a sense you both are interested in what’s going on in the individual life of the other. Do you know how your partner feels about his/her work? What hobbies or activities bring them joy? Asking questions and curiosity shows you matter to each other.
- Address differences in approaches to the coronavirus. The divisions in the country around COVID-19; mask wearing and fear/no fear of virus are showing up in relationships when opinions diverge. Couples conflict is increasing around these variances in opinion of how to “be” in the world. Virus fear vs virus fatigue sometimes needs to be addressed to keep your marriage as emotionally safe as possible.
- Date night. This is not a “news flash” but needs to be stated repeatedly as it’s so easy to let it fall off the wagon and the next thing you know, you’re both feeling totally disconnected. You don’t literally need a “date night” and obviously with COVID, things are a bit limited for activities but marriage time spent together (without the kids or your social group) remains no less critical. Take turns planning even a little time together like a walk in the neighborhood, dinner at an outdoor restaurant in town or a special breakfast on the porch before the kids are up. It doesn’t need to be lavish to have meaning. The meaning is in the effort you both make to spend “date night” time together.
- Allow each other to “be.” If you’ve been married for some time, hopefully by now you’ve learned that your spouse is who they are and there’s probably not much changing that. You married them this way! As intuitive as this sounds, many still resist and lament this. Just because you can’t imagine how he can be perfectly content staying home and puttering around on weekends (hello, introvert) while you are desperate to mask up and see people (hello, extrovert), I’m suggesting you’ll both find much more peace together if you relax and allow the other to be. In that example, if you need more social stimulation, perhaps you can connect with your girlfriends while he tinkers in the garage at home?
- What are you grateful for? The news has not been particularly positive for a long time which can exacerbate the negativity bias for you individually and in your marriage. Rather than finding faults about each other and the relationship, agree to share aloud things you appreciate about each other and your relationship. Don’t underestimate the power of even the smallest things that happen throughout the day. “I really enjoyed the time we spent talking last night when the kids went to bed. It was nice to finally connect.”
- Understand how you each feel loved. Couples can get tripped up on this as they often have totally different “love languages.” And it can be hard to understand the other’s way, let alone remember to try to meet that need. For example, one might get a lot of fulfillment from physical touch and affection where the other needs words of affirmation. Other ways people feel loved are through time spent, gifts or even cleaning the kitchen (acts of service). The key is to know how you both feel loved. If you’re not sure, ask!
- Be reliable. One of the most important aspects of emotional safety in relationships is trust. The more you believe the other has your back and you can safely turn towards each other, the stronger your marriage will be. This includes loyalty and follow through.
- Give each other a break. Especially now with stress levels being chronically higher as people worry about so much, mistakes will be made in your marriage. Missteps will happen. Not only is it important to practice self-forgiveness and avoid beating yourself up, but also to forgive each other. If it’s hard for either of you to forgive, it can be helpful to look at this.
- Know when you are in trouble. When resentment builds and disconnection occurs it can be disastrous. Unfortunately it can also sneak up on your marriage. There has been extensive research around the four most negative relationship behaviors; defensiveness, criticism, stonewalling and contempt. If any of these are occurring in your relationship, it’s time to address the underlying causes.
- Seek help if needed. Sometimes you might simply be stuck and find that no matter what you try to do to make improvements in your marriage, it’s not working. If things have gone too far or neither of you have the tools to do this work, couples therapy can be very helpful. Video therapy sessions are becoming the norm (as for many others in other work settings) so help is available. A good resource is the Psychology Today Therapist Directory to find someone in your area. If you’re not quite ready to tackle therapy or it’s not affordable, check out The Marriage Refresher Course Workbook for Couples , my ebook to help couples reset their marriage.
Emotional safety and relationship health between the walls of your home are more important than ever, especially when “home” is where many of us are spending so much time. If you’ve lost sight of your marriage during this crazy time, you’re not alone. But you can put it back into focus now.
Lisa Brookes Kift, MFT
Lisa Brookes Kift, MFT is the creator of LoveAndLifeToolbox.com with emotional and relationship health articles, guides, courses and other tools for individuals and couples. She is a frequent consultant for the media having appeared in CNN.com, HuffingtonPost.com, MensHealth.com and others. Lisa has a private practice in Marin County, CA and offers Emotional Health and Relationship Consultations via email, phone or video conference.