The pandemic has forced impossible tradeoffs. As fragmented parents search for hidden bandwidth, the strain on couples has grown. Maintaining spark through the happy chaos of life with kids is difficult. But to completely revamp home life and face Covid as a team, often under the watchful gaze of children, is a herculean effort.
Over 1,200 parents shared their pandemic stories since March. The majority are Mothers (95%) who are either married (85%) or live with their partner (7%.) And lockdown continues to challenge relationships.
In the spring (March – June 6th) about a third (36%) felt they were doing ‘terribly’ or ‘not as well as usual’ as a spouse or partner. By the summer, it jumped to almost half (48%) and by the fall (September – November 6) it climbed to 52%. Dr. Yael Schonbrun, Clinical Psychologist, Author and Couples Therapist, shares strategies for the most commonly cited relationship trials of Covid.
Be Generous with Self-Compassion
Yael explained, “Self-compassion offers a raft through the roughest life waters and is available to each of us, even when nothing else is. It involves three components: mindfulness (making space, nonjudgmentally, for whatever your experiences are,) self-kindness (offering yourself the kind of kindness we easily offer to our loved ones), and common humanity (remembering we are all in this pandemic soup together.)”
Negotiate. Negotiate. Negotiate
Yael said, “Marriage is about lots of things, but one central ingredient to a healthy marriage is the ability and willingness to engage in negotiations. All good marriages involve some negotiation, and constant re-negotiating of old contracts. Effective negotiation involves both partners showing up with respect for one another’s differing views and a willingness to concede something to get something.” Sigh. Yes!
Yes. Even on Pandemic Protocols
Some surveyed parents expressed that differences in following the Covid protocols have been a source of strain. Yael said, “Many of my couples don’t see eye to eye on pandemic precautions. Even more challenging are the partners who are no longer together but share custody of children.” She uses the following approach in her work with couples. She said, “Begin with an invitation to have a conversation about how to negotiate as a team. The joint goal is an approach that can work well enough (albeit imperfectly) for each partner. Start by sharing what feels most important from each perspective, taking the time for each partner to be in the speaker role while the other is in the listener role. Then trade roles.” Wise!
Yael explained that once both parties feel heard, this can be successful. She tells her couples, “In the brainstorming phase, put down all the ideas, even ones that seem outlandish. Then, go through each item, one by one, and discuss the pros and cons. Choose something, even something small, that you are both willing to try as an experiment. Agree to give it a real try for a period of one to two weeks. I’ve had some couples come to agreements that looked like: Partner A will travel but will get a Covid test before returning to the house. Or, the family will agree to see extended relatives who don’t wear masks, but only outside in a socially distanced way.”
Communicate, Communicate, Communicate
We all know a healthy partnership involves communication. But everyone’s worn down and few have private time. Yael shares options, “…The idea of having a meaningful conversation feels completely unavailable! It isn’t unavailable, though. Rather, the obstacle is that we need to get both strategic and creative.” A challenge when feeling depleted. But Yael’s suggestion is as practical as it is familiar. She said, “Schedule time. Literally putting it on the calendar to connect or communicate weekly is a good place to start. Experiment with what time of day works. If you are too exhausted at night, try morning, a mid-day phone call, emailing, or an early-morning-before-the-kids-get-up meeting of the minds. Be flexible knowing that life will happen. Even though it’s on the calendar weekly, count hitting 2 weeks out of 4 as a success.”
Schedule Fun. That’s Right, Fun
Yael advises, “Similar to scheduling in time to communicate, schedule in time to have fun together. Yes, I know it seems bonkers, and believe me, as a mom of 3 with several jobs, it feels a little unrealistic in my own mind. And yet…amidst the chaos, having fun with our partners falls off the weekly to-do list for most of us. But without some positive connection time, our appreciation for our partner and our relationship shrivels. Popular marital Researcher and Author, John Gottman, writes about the ratio of positive experiences a couple needs to have “banked” for the negative ones not to dominate. Don’t freak out, but the ratio of positive to negative is 5:1.” Yikes. She added, “In stressful times, that ratio will inevitably fall and so we need to be willing to put in some thought on how to raise it back up.”
Reimagine Date Night
Many surveyed parents shared that they want their date nights back. Yael said, “Of course, in-home date nights when we are spent from our weeks, is not as fun as going out used to be. So have some compassion for yourself as you grieve the loss of a night out of the house. Then turn towards getting creative about what can be fun in your current circumstances. Consider board games, a glass of tea (or wine,) a streamed movie, a shower together, reading the same book and discussing it, taking on online class together, doing a juice cleanse together, listening to the same podcast, going for a walk or anything else you can do with your partner.
But it isn’t going to happen on its own, so you need to think about how to carve out time (as in, where/who you’re going to steal time from) to make it happen.” This is essential because there isn’t ‘extra’ time for anyone. And it’s difficult when the kids are young. Yael said, “Yes, young children make this exceedingly hard. They wake up just as you’re getting in the mood for intimacy, they wear your nerves thin with their insane demands, and they are unpredictable in their timing. This is all true. So, to get some time connecting with a partner in, you need to be creative and flexible. Schedule time weekly knowing that some of the time, the chips won’t land in your favor. Your baby is a crafty card shark!”
Let. The. Guilt. Go
Yael said, “Couples can also practice shedding the guilt of neglecting their kids so they can tend to their relationship. After all, a healthy relationship is important for our kids and healthy relationships require care and attention. Plus, a little neglect of our kids — not unsafe neglect, of course — is good for them, too. So, feel free to put your kids in front of an electronic babysitter, let them be bored while you make dinner together, or allow them to sort out their fight on their own while you and your partner renegotiate who does the laundry or sneak in that extra-long hug you’ve been craving for months.”
Remember our lives weren’t static before pandemic. And once we mastered any expectation, inevitably our children, partners, parents, siblings or employers would need something new. Healthy relationships adapt to this variability. And each couple needs to adjust its rhythm to manage the onslaught of new Covid commitments and stressors.
If you missed part 1 from this two-part series on Coupled life in the pandemic, read Social Distance Does not Make the Heart Grow Fonder.
Share your experiences of how life has changed during social distance, it’s quick and the results from this study will be used to advocate better support for parents.
Employers, let us help you transform your workplace into an environment where caregivers thrive. Learn about Allies @ Work.
Many thanks to the talented Dr. Yael Schonbrun!
Yael is a licensed clinical psychologist, assistant professor at Brown University, podcast co-host, and writer about parenting, work, and relationships. Follow her great adventure including news about her upcoming book, Inside-Out on her website, and on Twitter. To listen to her podcast exploring how ideas and strategies from psychology can help you flourish in life, visit the Psychologists off the Clock Podcast webpage. She draws on scientific research, clinical experience, and her real life experiences with three small superheroes who provide her with constant inspiration (at the times when they aren’t providing an ulcer).