I recently read an article in The New York Post that gave harrowing statistics about the impact of COVID-19 on relationships (Rosner, 2020). I found it shocking to learn that this year has seen a 34% increase in sales for divorce agreements compared to 2019, with newlyweds being hit the hardest (Morric, 2020). What began as one of those classic late night trips down the rabbit hole of the internet (thanks COVID-19 for increasing my screen time by 40%…) really got me thinking about how quarantine has negatively affected relationships. I started asking myself questions and figured I couldn’t be the only one wondering these things. So, what is going on here and what we can do about it?
What is this pandemic doing to us emotionally?
COVID-19 has been called a “collective trauma” (Cherry, 2020); We are all going through a traumatic experience on par with something like a war or natural disaster. These types of disasters usually follow specific phases: pre-disaster phase, impact, heroic, honeymoon, disillusionment, and reconstruction. Based on where we are in the pandemic at this point, I would say we are in the disillusionment phase, characterized by exhaustion, and stress, and discouragement (SAMHSA, 2020). We are trying to make ends meet financially in an economic crisis, homeschool children, and maintain our relationships on top of trying to regulate ourselves emotionally in the midst of a collective trauma. So, if you find yourself feeling overwhelmed, exhausted, apathetic, unsafe, irritated, unloved, lonely, depressed, fearful, or anxious, you are not alone! All of these are normal reactions, and to be expected. However, sometimes those feelings make connecting with your partner quite difficult.
Why are our relationships being negatively impacted?
Sometimes when we feel overwhelmed, exhausted, fearful, or something similar, it is hard for us to express those emotions with our partner. In fact, when the fear center of our brain (the amygdala) takes over during a trauma response, stress hormones start surging through our body, taking over the logical part of our brain (the prefrontal cortex), essentially turning it off (Cuncic, 2020). This is why you might find yourself saying or doing something in the heat of an argument that you later regret. We aren’t acting out of logic, we are acting out of fear! So, in the midst of the collective COVID-19 trauma, you might consistently find yourself in this overwhelmed state. It’s no wonder you are struggling to communicate and connect with your partner. But, not all hope is lost. Even though these are hard times, there are many ways for us to reconnect and save our relationships from becoming one of those terrifying statistics.
What can we do to help our relationships?
One thing to know is that we can’t help our relationships until we help ourselves. We can begin to do this by naming our experiences in order to self-regulate. Here are 5 questions you can ask yourself to begin to unlock the experiences you are having:
What am I feeling?
Am I experiencing any discomfort or unpleasantness in my body?
What do I find myself doing when I feel this way?
Am I blaming others, shaming myself, trying to control everything or withdrawing?
What do I need right now?
When we take the time to slow down and check in with our bodies and minds, it allows for the stress hormones in our bodies to dissipate. Once we are in a calmer state, the logical part of our brain turns back on and we can work to express those feelings, thoughts, wants and needs to our partner more clearly. We can say “I feel unloved and unseen when you get off from work and go straight to watching TV without asking me how my day was. I want to connect with you before you watch TV.” Do these statements sound way better to you than what you might say in the heat of the moment? Once we are calmly expressing our feelings and thoughts with our loved ones, we can make a plan together to keep connecting. Here are 3 things you can do to connect with your partner:
1. Schedule a daily time to connect
Even in the midst of working, taking care of children, and surviving the pandemic, it is important to schedule time to connect for 20-30 minutes each day (Benson, 2016). It may sound rigid but it can be so rewarding to designate this special time. This is a time where you put away your phones, look in each other’s eyes, and affirm and encourage your partner. You can spend this time checking in about your day, supporting each other through listening and empathizing, or asking random questions to get to know your partner better (here are some question ideas: https://www.mysweethomelife.com/fun-questions-for-married-couples/).
2. Plan some dates
You can also plan a date night where you recreate some of those fun dates you did at the beginning of your relationship, or try something new! There is no reason to believe that all of those creative and spontaneous ideas from the beginning of your relationship are lost! Maybe try having a picnic at a park, getting take out and watching the sunset from your car, or going to visit a place you frequented in the beginning of your relationship (all while staying safe from COVID of course).
3. Be affectionate with one another
Sometimes it is the little things that count! Try hugging your partner right as they walk in the door, leaving little post-it notes around the house with kind words, giving your partner a kiss on the cheek or a little rub on the back as you walk by, and being generous with compliments and praise. These small moments of connection build over time to create intimacy that can weather the intensity of this pandemic season.
If you still find that you are struggling to connect in your relationship, therapy can be a great option to help assist you through trying times. You can reach out for a free 15 minute consultation to see if therapy might be your next step in saving your relationship. Happy connecting!