The other day, I was talking with a dear friend about how she and her husband were handling the experience of working from home and being together 24/7 during quarantine. As she shared with me how their love has felt more diluted than usual, it felt as if she had been listening in on my own conversation with my husband from just a few days before.
For those of you who are living with your partner and in the fortunate position to be able to work from home, you’ll likely know what we’re talking about.
The temptation to wear sweatpants all day, to interrupt your partner while they’re working to show them a cool video, to work on your laptop from bed or curled up in that particularly cozy corner of the couch, to chat here and there all day with your partner because, well, they’re there. These things may sound attractive, perhaps even enticing at first, but they also have the potential to erode any sense of differentiation and novelty in a relationship.
As I reflected on the experience that I, my friends, and many other couples I suspect are experiencing, I was reminded of the paradox of our needs in long-term committed partnerships. That is, for many of us, we have contrasting longings for familiarity and novelty, security and adventure.
I don’t know about you, but in recent weeks, I’ve found myself experiencing far more familiarity, and less novelty in my marriage. On the one hand, spending ample time together and experiencing a strong sense of familiarity feels really good (safe, comforting, and reassuring). On the other hand, I have also found myself wanting to explore ways to create some novelty amidst being in quarantine.
One of the challenges that couples in long-term committed relationships experience is learning how to navigate our contrasting desires for individuality and togetherness, for a sense of novelty and familiarity. I’m finding that for many couples (myself included), this has been somewhat enhanced recently as a result of COVID-19. If you’re finding that you’re presently faced with similar challenges and want to enhance your sense of self and your romantic partnership during this time, consider exploring these five strategies.
Create Boundaries Around Time With One Another
Just because you’re both working from home doesn’t mean that you need to be talking all the time. One of you might want to check in every five minutes, whereas the other person may prefer to have headphones on and be in full focus mode during work hours. Explore what each of you need, and find compromises that work for you. Even if you live in a small apartment, discuss how you can create physical or conversational boundaries around personal or work time. While it may be very tempting to share whatever’s on your mind with your partner when it comes up, consider making a list of things that you want to share with them that you can explore together during a break, or over a meal. If you make a bid for connection while your partner is focused on they’re computer, try your best not to be offended if they choose not to drop everything to talk to you at that moment. Likewise, if you’re focused on your work, explore turning towards your partner’s bid while maintaining the boundaries you need. You can say something like, “Honey, I’d love to hear all about that thing you want to share, but I’m right in the middle of something. Can we talk about it over dinner tonight?”
Support One Another With External Stressors, but Keep it Contained
In his research, Dr. Gottman discovered the value of having stress reducing conversations with your partner, which is a particular type of dialogue where you take turns being the speaker and listener, and share about stressors outside of the relationship (e.g. work, events, COVID-19). While the speaker shares openly about their stress and emotional experiences, the rules for the listener are to (1) suspend any judgment, (2) side with your partner, (3) validate and empathize with your partner’s experience, and (4) no problem solving. When you have these dialogues, try to create some containment around them (e.g. set a timer, keep it out of the bedroom), so that the stress doesn’t spill into every part of your relationship and home. Also, be sure to reach out to friends and family members for extra support, so that your partner isn’t the only one carrying the weight with you.
Take Time to Reflect On and Prioritize your Individual Dreams and Goals
Another key area to focus on is strengthening your relationship with yourself. For some of you personal development gurus, this might be easy. For others, this might be more challenging. Set aside some time to meditate on and explore these questions: Who am I as an individual? Who do I want to be? What are some of my personal dreams and longings? As you discover answers to these questions, begin to prioritize those individual dreams or projects you’ve been longing to explore as best you can while in quarantine. Pursuing the things you love and strengthening your individuality is a powerful way to bring more interest into your relationship.
Use Your Imagination to Create Some Novelty at Home
While going out on the town for dates is clearly more challenging during quarantine, your imagination is limitless. Get creative and explore how you can bring some novelty into your relationship at home. Create a romantic atmosphere and candlelit dinner for your partner. Give each other space to spend time on individual pursuits. Get dressed like you’re going to work. Write each other a love letter. Try a new activity together at home. You get the gist. Tap into your imagination and find ways to bring some novelty into your relationship.
Carve Out Time to Discuss your Individual and Shared Goals
After you’ve taken some time to re-examine who you are as an individual, carve out some space to share your individual and relational dreams and longings. In his research, Dr. Gottman also discovered that couples in satisfying relationships purposefully support one another’s individual dreams, and create shared meaning together as a couple. They explore life goals, rituals of connection, and who they want to be as individuals and as a family. Set aside some time after work or on the weekend to ask one another these bigger life questions, and explore where and how you may want to grow as individuals and as a couple.
If you’re feeling the challenges of being cooped up at home with your partner, and are looking to enhance your relationship during this time, I hope you’ll try out these suggestions, and share with us how it goes on Facebook and Instagram.