Whether it’s through marriage or cohabitation, it’s a safe bet you have chosen your partner because they’re the person you want to spend your life (or at least an extended amount of time) with.
Granted, that was with the understanding that at least one person in the house might be allowed to occasionally leave here and there. In a world that has shrunk to include only the walls that surround us and those who live inside them, the togetherness that once seemed like a blessing can now seem more like a prison sentence. It’s now that many couples suddenly realize they committed to someone who chews too loudly or, given the opportunity, will never change out of the same pair of pajama pants.
But the forced closeness of coronavirus containment doesn’t have to be a time of painful realizations, says Wilmington relationship counselor Dr. Debra Laino (who, incidentally, was doing her own part for social distancing by conducting videoconference therapy sessions the day of our interview). Instead, it can be a great time to work on what can help make the relationship stronger.
“In a time of fear, we can go the way that’s conflict-oriented or we can go the way that’s connecting.”
But first, she says to remember that despite all the stress of social distancing, it doesn’t help anyone to be testy with a partner. To that end, she recommends couples keep the concepts of grace and courteous goodwill in mind. “We should all be leading with grace at this time, not just with our partners but with ourselves,” she says. “If we can understand that concept and what it means, at least we have a direction.”
That means staying away from bad habits like shaming or name-calling, and if a fight does develop, understanding how to allow a partner to vent their feelings fully without defending yourself, then following up by trying to understand where they’re coming from.
That said, the extra togetherness can serve as a perfect opportunity to reflect on what you and your partner enjoy about being together. “This can be a really great time, in the face of this crisis, to do things like giving each other massages or playing games together—even basic card games—and learning new things about each other,” she says, noting that another way to foster closeness is to tackle “all that stuff that should’ve been done but didn’t because we never had time to do it.”
“Cleaning can be really stress-reducing for a lot of people, so really learning to take advantage of the time is important,” she says. “In a time of fear, we can go the way that’s conflict-oriented or we can go the way that’s connecting.”
If there are children in the mix, this is also an excellent time to foster connections as parents. “Kids need to know that parents are on the same page, and this can be a good time to get an alliance going [with your partner] that may not have been there before and come out stronger,” Laino says.
She also advises against focusing on the immediate present, but instead visualizing the future. “Sit down and list five things you’d like to work on in the relationship. Look at the things you have to be grateful for rather than focusing on the anxiety,” she says. “Think about what you want to be doing in July.”
Through it all, each partner needs to also remember to care for themselves. Even though solitude might be hard to find, take some time away from each other, whether just to breathe, take a walk or text with a friend. It’s not a bad idea, she says, to set up some scheduled alone time throughout the day, such as a videoconference happy hour with friends or relocating to a separate room alone.
“The self-care piece to quell the uncertainty is really important,” Laino says. “If you don’t have the energy to care for yourself, it’s going to be that much more difficult to be present for your partner.”
Published as “Just the Two of Us” in the May 2020 issue of Delaware Today magazine.