Marriage During COVID...How Have We Been Affected?

Marriage during COVID…How Have We Been Affected?

marriage during covid

We are a year into the pandemic. We have gone from shutdowns to partial reopenings, all of these changes due to COVID-19. Although we are still in it, so to speak, now is a good opportunity to look at how our relationships have fared during this time. What is the state of your marriage during COVID?

I have seen many couples throughout the pandemic, some before COVID, some came during the pandemic and some returned after the pandemic. A lot of couples have experienced an existential crisis during this period. We’re all asking ourselves…what’s next?

Our daily routines were massively disrupted by the pandemic and with almost no preparation in the Spring of 2020. For many, their work lives changed, their children’s schooling and their marriage during COVID had been tested the most. And the strength of our marriages during COVID is what we need to navigate the end of the pandemic and the emergence of a “new normal.” 

Now we use terms like “physical distancing” to keep us safe from COVID-19. However, ironically, many couples find themselves closer physically and many spouses have withdrawn into themselves with a sense of increased disconnection.

While managing differences is part of any relationship, Marriage during COVID has provided new challenges to address such as deciding if it is safe to go out, visiting other family members, who are going to help the children with virtual schooling, managing work time in real-time, these are new conversations for many relationships.

One partner may think their partner is “too lax” around COVID restrictions while the other partner thinks their partner is “too stringent.”

Marriage during COVID means a shared sense of purpose

My wife and I have had to make adjustments to our marriage during COVID. We are working physically closer than before and need to make our connections more intentional.

There is a novel virus out there in the world and we’ve been asked (in some cases ordered) to shelter in place, then to wear masks, and then to get vaccinated. Couples do better in the foxhole as allies rather than adversaries. All of this reminds me of one of my favorite expressions, “nothing constant but change.” Albert Einstein said, “in the midst of every crisis, lies great opportunity.”

Part of maintaining a marriage during COVID also means having or creating a shared purpose.

Not only loving a person but also having purpose together creates a sanctuary. It provides resilience in facing adversity as a unit. It is not the presence of problems that concern me in a relationship, but how we manage them.

Working together helps all of us feel less alone when stressed.

Marriage during COVID…notice what is still happening

Couples sometimes underestimate the impact of the pandemic on their relationship. They focus on the impact on their children, parents, their work, but neglect to talk about the impact on their relationship.

Recently I saw a couple that was processing a fight. They discovered just how much COVID and its aftermath set them up for a fight in the first place. It would be an incomplete understanding of what happened had they not discussed the pressures of two working professionals with young children in virtual school.

They’re constantly juggling, and while they (and many of us) want to believe that it is “under control,” the pressure is enormous.

Couples do not always recognize the external COVID stressors in their relationship that need tending.

I worked with couples during COVID to flip that around and use their relationship as a buffer to this external stress. That means that we need to talk about how stress is showing up in their lives.

Sometimes our instinct is to downplay our partner’s experience; we may be worried that our partner is going to go off the “deep end” if they give in to their feelings. Even though well-meaning, trying to alter their experience creates distance and loneliness.  

Our partner needs to be met where they are at, this is what diminishes those feelings from the “deep end.” Communicating understanding, demonstrating solidarity, providing affection and comfort, not judging their emotions are the ingredients to being the ally that your partner needs. Your marriage during COVID and in the aftermath needs this too.

Think as a unit

One of the important opportunities that can come out of challenging times for any couple is the opportunity to practice thinking as a unit. From the Bible, Ecclesiastes 4:9-12, “Two are better than one.” Meaning that we enjoy the benefits of our toil together as well as being there to help pick up our partner when stressed and feeling alone. In other words, a sense of we-ness.

John Gottman’s and Neal Jacobson’s research talks about how to use your relationship as a buffer against external COVID stress. Master the art of having a stress-reducing conversation.

 Having a partner expressing empathy, listening, and an understanding of your stress is the relapse prevention that couples need to be allies in trying times and manage external stressors.

Narrow the gap in your relationship by not leaving your partner alone with their stress. Ask your partner questions like; what is this like for you? Is there anything I can do to support you in this? What do you need?

Asking any clarifying question communicates presence.

Thinking as a two-person unit means we are in this together, not alone, that causes distance and misunderstanding. Again, if you are going to be sheltering in the foxhole you want an ally, not an adversary.

Looking forward; Marriage during COVID and the new normal

As COVID restrictions ease up and life begins to have some sense of normalcy such as the ability to socialize and travel more, I am starting in-person couples intensives again. What should the new normal for couples look like?

Take some time to ask each other! Talk to each other! Be Curious! How are we doing with this? What do you need and how can I provide what you need?

Couples during COVID have had to make a lot of changes and adjustments over the past twelve months. Some are probably working great, some need fine-tuning.

That is what makes relationships great, there is always room to repair. Help each other accept the uncertainty of yet another transition without making it certain, ride this wave together.

A two-person system helps to create flexibility. How are we going to handle this relationally? What will our “new normal” look like? These are the kinds of conversations where we can create shared meaning and have a higher level of understanding and “we-ness.” In many ways, this is a way to create your own relational crest.

Start to work with the idea of radical acceptance, together. Radical acceptance asks us to just accept what is. If you’re able to do that, then you’re able to adapt and be in the moment.

The trend of drive-by birthday parties and drive-by anniversaries are examples of radical acceptance in action, namely adaptation.

Marriage during COVID has been a stressful combination…face into the challenge of managing the aftermath.

Radical acceptance is not the same as toxic positivity, however. Toxic positivity is trying to put a silver lining around all of this. There has to be room for acknowledging what the impact is, too. Radical acceptance doesn’t mean you have to like it.

Getting science-based support for your marriage during COVID…and after

When couples during COVID find that they are no longer acting as a two-person unit it might be time for support. It takes a specially trained couples therapist to re-establish the connection by rediscovering or developing more helpful habits, behaviors, and mindsets for your relationship.

That therapist will help you recognize that there are issues and the other is how you are talking about problems that are getting in the way of managing conflict and connection. When you’re stressed there is a sense of danger and that’s when we tell ourselves things about our partner and some of those things you are telling yourself might not be so true.

He doesn’t love me.

She doesn’t care for me.

He doesn’t want to be with me.

She’s not interested in what I think.

I help couples slow down the dialog as a way to listen to understand and acknowledge their partner’s reality. This type of mutual vulnerability is what fosters closeness and connection.

In an intensive, you are going to have a better understanding of each other and then you’re going to get some skills managing conflict and nurturing your friendship…all of this to be closer and connected.

What is significant in an intensive, is that you are not just talking about it, I am showing you more effective research-based methods in repairing relationships and saying  “well, let’s do this now live.” Then you see this for yourself and experience it.

An intensive provides science-based guardrails as you get vulnerable. Your marriage during COVID may have been upended in more ways than one. Take it slow in the new normal. Decide …don’t slide into your decisions in the new normal.

We don’t know what the exact nature of this will be in six months or a year. Whatever comes our way, be mindful of being able to think and behave as a unit. That there is a purpose of being together.

Couples therapy is less about fixing problems and more about changing moments. We can help you with that.

About the Author Tim Donovan

Tim practices in the Baltimore area and is a Certified Gottman Therapist. He’s an expert on external stress in marriage. Tim offers a space for couples to understand each other, which is especially important today in the 24/7 environment that we live in today.

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