With mandates and restrictions still varying from place to place, the effects of the pandemic drag on. As a result, many couples are experiencing a “COVID relationship dip.”
Increased stress, which bombards couples daily, can make carving out time and energy for relationships challenging. Ironically, it is precisely in these moments of personal struggle, that you long for your partner’s support, welcoming arms, and compassionate empathy. But what happens if your partner is distracted by their own issues or they don’t know how to give you the support you need? This “dip” may feel more like a sinkhole.
Partners in Pandemic Stress
A few months ago, that’s how Marlena and Danny (not their real names) were feeling. Marlena was a corporate attorney and Danny ran an international business team, which meant spending long hours managing staff around the globe. Though they could work from home during the pandemic, they still grappled with two energetic toddlers, a part-time babysitter’s changing schedule, and a rambunctious dog.
When I met them, Marlena and Danny felt completely overwhelmed. I asked them how much time they spent simply enjoying each other’s company and discussing things unrelated to their household. In response, they both laughed out loud. Most of their conversations ended in bickering. They no longer felt important or valued by each other. Over time, they grew critical, often keeping tabs in their heads of who was doing what for whom. Both were feeling short-changed.
The Cure for the COVID dip
Marlena and Danny did three things to get themselves out of this dip.
The Stress-Reducing Conversation
Though they tried discussing workday stresses, it never ended well. They felt frustrated if their ideas were dismissed or rejected. In our work together, we redefined the purpose of the Stress-Reducing Conversation. Moving forward, their goal was to share their emotional journey. What happened that made them feel stressed or sad, hopeful or proud? It was also a wonderful way to show interest, support, and acceptance. Through daily dialogue, they came to feel valued and fully known to one another.
Here are the simple rules that turned their conversations around:
- Only discuss topics outside the relationship, not anything between you, including the kids. These latter topics can be addressed in a different conversation.
- Listen and empathize, offer emotional support, validate their feelings as understandable based on how they experienced the situation—even if you’d feel differently if you were in their shoes.
- Ask questions to help them explore their feelings.
- Avoid giving unsolicited advice. Unless asked for your opinion, your job is not to solve their problems.
- Don’t side with the enemy! This is not the moment to play devil’s advocate. You are on their team.
By implementing these guidelines, Marlena and Danny created a reliable way of sharing their lives with each other and feeling validated.
Rituals of Connection
Before reaching out for help, Marlena and Danny slipped into survival mode. They focused only on the tasks at hand and lost track of, well, each other. The good morning hugs and chatter over coffee had gone missing. The nightly kisses and snuggles, even the daily affirmations of “I love you” had become a distant memory. Marlena’s eyes grew misty when she tried to recall the last time they even held hands.
When you are under stress, it’s natural to put your own needs and perhaps even the relationship on the backburner. But when you do this for an extended period, like the duration of a pandemic, you have a recipe for disaster. The easiest remedy is establishing Rituals of Connection. These are things you do on a regular basis that tell your partner, “You are loved, valued, cherished.” Rituals can be quick and easy, but at the same time, impactful.
Marlena and Danny returned to their practice of sharing morning hugs. They also arranged to have a weekly “date.” Since they only had childcare during the workdays, they actually set aside an hour each week to go for a walk, have a picnic, or order sushi and have private lunch in the den. One of their biggest struggles was finding a way to connect at bedtime. Though exhausted, Marlena still longed for some physical closeness before sleep, while Danny preferred making a beeline for his nest of pillows and checking out. After talking it through, they reached a compromise. Before going to sleep, they’d spend a few moments cuddling. Just that brief contact and caring seemed to help them both sleep well.
Rekindling Romance and Intimacy
Rekindling that relationship spark can sometimes prove challenging. In Danny’s mind, romance led to sex, and sex meant meeting his wife’s expectations. In his experience, sex was often stress-inducing. As their daily conversations and rituals of connection brought them closer emotionally, there were opportunities for him to share his concerns and for Marlena to respond with compassion. By creating comfort with holding hands during a walk, spooning before sleep, and exploring some early-morning sensual touch, they slowly set the stage for more. In our most recent session, Marlena appeared to be bursting with joy. She put her hands to her heart and reported, “I’ve been smiling all day! We had this amazing time in bed and… I just feel alive!” Danny had a shy smile pinned to his face. “Yes, it was good,” he said.
They went on to describe an upcoming romantic beach getaway. It was the first time they’d be vacationing without their kids. “Because we work long hours, we always felt too guilty to go away without them. Now we see that it’s important. Having parents who are happy together is healthy for them too.” Danny’s eyes were smiling. He reached over and gave Marlena a quick hug.
Stress-Reducing Conversations, rituals of connection, and rekindling romance worked for Marlena and Danny. If you’re in a “COVID dip,” grab your partner and give them a try.
Are you currently looking for a Certified Gottman Couples Therapist to use research-based approaches to help your relationship? The Gottman Institute is seeking couples to participate in an international outcome study on Gottman Method Couples Therapy. Learn more here.