A Pandemic Relationship Survival Guide

Peter Douglas, LCSW-R December 29, 2020

Many of us are stuck at home, sequestered with our loved ones, due to this pandemic. Being in such close quarters without much of a break is bound to produce tension in a relationship. What can you do about it?  

Many of us are stuck at home, sequestered with our loved ones, due to this pandemic. For some people, that’s great; for others, not so great. However, for everyone, being in such close quarters without much of a break is bound to produce tension. What can you do about it? Here at Humantold we want to help equip, empower, guide, and support you in cultivating the life you want, which includes navigating these pandemic times with your partner knowledgeably. 

Perhaps you are feeling bored in your relationship because the fire has gone out? Belgian psychotherapist Esther Perel discusses this topic extensively. She says everywhere romanticism has entered, there seems to be a crisis of desire. It’s tough because, on the one hand, humans need security, predictability, and safety. On the other hand, humans also need adventure, novelty, and mystery. Watching Netflix with your boo every night may provide security and predictability, but it doesn’t provide adventure or novelty. In that instance, desire often takes a nosedive.

How do you bring desire back? One of the elements of desire is space. Remember, anticipation is the better part of desire. Perel found in her research that people are most drawn to their partner when they are apart and then reunite. Uh oh. There is not a whole lot of reuniting happening due to the no separating happening. 

Tip: Turn the TV off and engage in an activity that is separate from your accomplice. Read separate books or articles,  and then share your interest. Along those lines, take notice! If your partner has been eyeing a favorite muffin recipe or mentioning an author or cause they are passionate about, show them that you have been paying attention. Surprise them with an action that lets them know. 

Poet David Whyte writes, “Attention is the hidden discipline of familiarity.” How can you look at your partner with new eyes? Perel found that people are drawn to their partner when they are in their element, engaged in something they are passionate about, and where they can shine— an entirely possible scenario during COVID-19.  This scenario can foster a revived view of the familiar. Additionally, Perel found people are drawn to their partners when they get surprised or when they laugh together. Telling each other jokes can go a long way right now to cultivating desire. 

With all of this, the most important element for reigniting desire in a relationship is imagination, and it doesn’t take much to spark the imagination. As Marcel Proust says, “Mystery is not about traveling to new places but about looking with new eyes.” 

It is also important to note that passion waxes and wanes like the moon. Just because it fades does not mean it’s gone forever; passion and desire can be resurrected.  Key questions Perel recommends asking yourself to learn more about desire are, “I shut myself off when ___” and “I turn off my desires when ___” because desire comes with the ability to stay connected to yourself in the presence of another. If you’re feeling shut down it matters what you ask for from your partner. For instance, “I shut myself off when the world feels like too much. Can you remind me the weight of the world doesn’t rest on my shoulders? That I’m not alone?” 

If lack of passion is not your problem or the problem is driven instead by the four horsemen of the relationship apocalypse (criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling), there’s an answer for that, too. 

Vanquishing the Four Horsemen

The counterpart to the four horsemen of the relationship apocalypse are the four avengers: empathy, respect, ownership, and pausing.

For instance, take the first horseman: criticism. An example of where it could show up is with punctuality. A critical response to running late is, “You’re always late! You never think about anyone other than yourself! You’re so selfish!” Criticism is an ad hominem attack on a person’s character. To counter criticism use “I” statements like, “I think” or even better, “I feel.” If you discuss how you are feeling, the other person no longer becomes “bad” or “wrong,” and instead, you become able to share what is happening for you internally.

In the example of tardiness, an empathic response is, “I was scared when you didn’t show up on time and didn’t let me know where you were. Can you call or text me next time, so I don’t worry?”

As Terry Real, founder of the Relational Life Institute and a couple’s therapist for more than 30 years, says, “Every complaint has a request at the center of it.” An exercise he gives couples is to take a sheet of paper and write a complaint on one side, flip it over, and write the request on the other. In the empathic response to lateness, one partner is asking the other to communicate their whereabouts. 

Remember you are on the same team as your partner. You’re not in a tit-for-tat battle. If you’re struggling, Real has an oft-used question for one partner to ask the other related to their request: “What can I give you to help you give me what I’m asking for? How can I be of service to you?” Framed that way, requests become much more manageable. 

For the second horseman, contempt, a contemptuous response to running late is, “I learned how to tell the time in elementary school. When are you going to do the same?” Contempt implies moral superiority and includes behavior such as mocking, name-calling, mimicking, eye-rolling, and scoffing. Often times this occurs when negative thoughts are allowed to simmer over a long period of time; it is also the greatest predictor of divorce, according to the Gottman Institute.       

To drive away contempt, treat your partner with respect. Build a culture of appreciation and remember the person you are talking to is someone you love and care about.  If you regularly express gratitude, affection, and respect for each other, you will create a buffer for the negative feelings when they arise.

The third horseman is defensiveness and involves making excuses for behavior. “I was running late because the traffic was bad, and you should have known that. Why didn’t you anticipate I would be late?” 

Defensiveness is understandable when a person feels attacked, but unfortunately, it usually results in an escalating argument. To counter defensiveness, take responsibility for your behavior. For instance: “I’m sorry I’m late. I should have left earlier to account for traffic. I didn’t mean for you to worry about me, and you’re right, I could have called. I’ll do that next time.”

Real advises men, in particular, to let go of their male pride and instead be compassionate. For heterosexual relationships, he tells men in a Thriving Launch podcast to “reference her dissatisfaction. You want her to feel better, not valid. Lay down your arms and let go of your pride.” That means admitting when you are wrong and have made a mistake. It is also important to change behavior and not live on empty promises. If you want to engage with life as your fullest self, that means making an effort. It also means celebrating progress. “Celebrate the glass at 15% full,” Real said. Even if the changes are minimal and subpar at first, celebrate the effort your partner has made because positive reinforcement goes a long way.

The fourth horseman of the relationship apocalypse is stonewalling, which is withdrawing from a conversation without resolving anything. It results from feeling psychologically flooded or emotionally overwhelmed. Real says stonewalling happens if love is lost during communication and instead is harsh in nature. If you notice stonewalling happening in yourself or your partner, take a break for 20 minutes to calm down. Do something soothing like reading a book or taking a walk. The point of this is to come back to a centered state, not use the time to think of more ripostes! You are not trying to build a case against your partner, but rather give your mind and body a chance to relax.

If you find you are struggling with any of these suggestions, or you want extra support, we can help. One technique I recommend is emotionally focused couple’s therapy; however, there are numerous techniques that can help couples with their relationship concerns. We know that asking for help can be difficult; at Humantold we take the stress out of finding the right therapist, so you don’t have to worry about that. Reach out to us today so we can help guide you on your unique journey to personal growth.

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