Seclusion is punishing. It strips us of our identities, the ways we recognize ourselves. Many of us have lost jobs — or at least the collegiality jobs bring — and our usual run of errands to do. No more school drop-offs, baseball carpools and dinners out; no more trips, parties or March Madness over beers. Spring Break is broken, and our points of reference have evaporated.
Without those we float, homebound but restless. The only person we dare approach is that partner of ours who’s stuck at home, too. But sometimes he, she or they annoy the hell out of us.
Many of us have less-than-ideal intimate relationships. We may relate more to “Marriage Story” than “Sleepless in Seattle.” A month ago we could escape the bickering and blowups and just go to the gym, but now we’re stuck in our four-walled pressure cooker — and hot steam is thickening by the day. With coronavirus shutting off our normal escape valves, how do we release the lid and turn off the heat before our relationship has all but melted down?
As psychologists, psychotherapists and academic researchers, my husband John and I have studied and treated distressed couples for nearly five decades. By analyzing partners’ conversations, emotions and physiology second by second, here is what we’ve learned:
Successful couples — those who remain happily together for decades — live by consistent guidelines. They look for what their partner is doing right, not what they’re doing wrong, and they say “thank you” a dozen times a day, even for something as simple as making the wake-up coffee for the umpteenth time. They look for beauty and positive traits in their partner and lovingly call them out. They work hard to ban criticism and contempt from their vocabulary — they almost never call each other nasty names or roll their eyes and scoff; instead, they express what they do need, rather than what they resent. As listeners, they first ask questions to plumb the depths of their partner’s needs before responding — questions such as “Why is this so important to you?” or “Is there some background or childhood history behind this?” They create fair compromises: each partner first identifying those closely held values and dreams that they cannot negotiate, then together finding ways to concede in areas where there is some give. Last but not least, they cuddle and touch each other often — with affection, not just eroticism.
These habits of communication prevent poisons like criticism, contempt and violence from toxifying the air a couple breathes. They create warmth, safety and nourishment instead, so partners can relax and grow individually and together.
In the 1990s, another relationship researcher, Neil S. Jacobson, analyzed his own interventions for helping distressed couples. He learned that most of the couples he treated relapsed in no time, except for one strange group that didn’t. These couples maintained a practice different from what he taught them. Every night they had a “stress-reducing conversation,” in which each partner downloaded the highlights and lowlights of their day and shared their external worries, the ones emanating from outside the marriage. Contrary to the norm, listening partners didn’t try to solve anything. They simply asked for more detail, especially about the speaker’s emotions, while listening and nodding empathetically. These couples remained happier in the long term. We integrated Jacobson’s work into our own and found his findings valid.
Guy Bodenmann, a Swiss researcher, cultivated “coping-oriented couples therapy,” a different style of marital counseling that emphasized couples talking together to reduce their stress. It worked beautifully — and no wonder. Biologically, we humans are pack animals. We depend on each other the way wolves and primates do. Bodenmann’s and Jacobson’s work — along with our own — suggests that couples need each other intensely, especially during times of stress. They don’t need help from their partner to solve their own problems. They each need help to feel less alone.
So why do we still think there is such a thing as “too needy” or that solo self-reliance is the ideal? These ideas are nonsense. In the face of this new pathogen, we need each other more than ever — especially that person we live with. Let’s cultivate a little more kindness between us.