As a psychologist in the D.C. area, I’ve noticed a marked increase since last spring in how often my patients want to discuss relationship issues, as well as an uptick in the demand for couples counseling. In addition to changes in how households function, societal restrictions, economic troubles, isolation from extended family and friends, diminished opportunities for pleasurable and fun activities, and fears of exposure to the coronavirus have all pushed some relationships to the brink.
One in 5 married or partnered Americans surveyed in July reported fighting more than before the pandemic, and 30 percent said they were more annoyed with their partner. Almost 10 percent said they are likely to separate, at least in part because of issues related to the pandemic. Similarly, a German study found that about 40 percent of couples in their sample experienced negative changes in relationship satisfaction. (About 20 percent reported positive changes.)
Although external stress tends to increase discord, hostility and withdrawal within couples, there are proven ways you can weather this crisis successfully — and possibly even improve your relationship.
Accept your differences
We often are attracted to people who differ from us in terms of personality, temperament, background and habits. But the contrasts we initially find exciting and enticing can cause frustration when our partner doesn’t think, feel or behave as we do.
“Every person’s traits have pros and cons. If you find your spouse to be too rigid during the pandemic, it was probably their reliability and dependability that attracted you in the first place,” said Erin Bell, a clinical psychologist in Alexandria, Va., who specializes in couples therapy and relationships. “It’s unrealistic to expect that you’ll change their personality, so acceptance goes a long way.”
Acceptance is an active process; it is crucial for maintaining and improving relationship quality and, as such, is a key ingredient of several evidence-based couples therapy approaches. But it should not be confused with giving up. “When you start letting go of specific expectations of your partner, you might be surprised to discover that they will be more likely to listen and change in a positive direction,” said Miranda Morris, founder of True North Therapy and Training in Bethesda, Md.
How partners deal with stress, uncertainty and loss, or handle anxiety and sadness — all of which have increased during the pandemic — also can vary. One might want reassurance and emotional support when distressed, while the other might prefer to decompress and process feelings alone. The key is to respect each other’s ways of coping (as long as they are not clearly destructive, such as excessive drinking) and, when possible, offer support that matches the other person’s needs.
When partners’ needs conflict, finding an out-of-the-box compromise might do the trick. Sabrina Greene, a 26-year-old reservist, has worked 12-hour shifts in a military hospital emergency room in Norfolk during the pandemic. She and her husband, who works in an ICU, barely overlapped at home. “When we did, our relationship was very strained, because we were so physically and emotionally exhausted,” Greene said.
Both found different creative outlets. “He converted our garage into a painting studio,” Greene said. “Sometimes I just sit and watch him paint and see all these emotions expressed on the canvas; even in silence, we feel connected. He, in turn, supports my creative outlet as I produce podcasts from my closet turned office.”
Rein in your anger
When stress becomes overwhelming and emotions are running high, it’s easy to lash out toward the person who is nearest to you. Research shows that anxiety can quickly turn into anger, leading to some temporary relief. But by losing our heads, we end up damaging our relationship and worsening our anxiety in the long run.
“When you get upset with your partner and are about to criticize or complain, wait 10 minutes before saying something, and then give them the benefit of the doubt,” Morris said. “Maybe there’s another explanation beyond them trying to hurt you or not caring about you.”
Some good news is that about 70 percent of problems between couples aren’t issues that need to be solved; they just need to be talked about, according to Howard Markman, a professor at the University of Denver and author of the book “Fighting for Your Marriage.” He suggests couples pay attention to their emotional state, and when their conversation turns into a fight, take a timeout, which can be requested by either party, as in sports. It is crucial that they commit to returning to the discussion later, when both partners are calm and can talk without yelling or insulting each other.
Jonas and Rosalind Bordo of Los Altos, Calif., have learned that working on good communication each day is paramount during this stressful time. The co-founders of a home rental listing start-up had to adjust overnight to working together in a tight home office while raising three children. During a phone interview that included them both, Rosalind said the couple tries to be “psychologically present and to talk it through, no matter how hard it gets.” And they strive to adhere to the maxim to never go to bed angry.
Whenever you have an urge to attack your partner, remind yourself that the two of you are a team and should be united against the problem, not against each other. “Teamwork is our word of the year. My husband and I tag-teamed and supported each other throughout this,” Nguyen said. “I cook, and he does other household chores. When one of us needs to be on a work call, the other makes sure to be there for the kids.”
Praise your partner
One of the most powerful strategies for saving or improving your relationship is to not take your partner for granted. Although most of us intuitively know this is important, it’s often difficult to remain grateful for all your partner is and does, especially during challenging times.
After 25 years of successfully running her own business, Tracy Chamberlain Higginbotham, 56, a public relations professional in Syracuse, N.Y., lost 50 percent of her work and revenue during the pandemic, while her husband’s job got busier. Chamberlain Higginbotham was accustomed to sharing household responsibilities equitably with her husband and found it difficult to renegotiate their roles at home. “But I’ve taken over the yard, running errands and other duties. What helps a lot is that he’s very appreciative, complimenting me and thanking me frequently.”
Being grateful can have a positive ripple effect: Research shows that being appreciative of your partner makes them, in turn, more appreciative of you, more responsive to your needs and more committed to the relationship.
Her husband’s appreciation had this effect for Chamberlain Higginbotham. “I’ve started asking my husband what he needs from me as he goes through his busy day,” she said. “I feel good that I’m able to contribute, and by taking on new chores, I’ve discovered I actually like doing yardwork.”
To improve your observation and recollection of your partner’s positive actions, Bell recommends “noticing and writing down something nice about your partner each night to share it with them. You’d be surprised how far being seen and appreciated goes.” It will also remind you how your life is different (and hopefully better!) with your partner in it.
Jelena Kecmanovic is a founding director of the Arlington/DC Behavior Therapy Institute and an adjunct professor of psychology at Georgetown University. Find her @DrKpsychologist.