Credit: Jose Escobar, Unsplash
Stress takes a toll on even the healthiest of relationships, and, courtesy of COVID-19, most of us find ourselves under constant pressure. Whether we’re worried about financial problems, missing our friends and extended family members, fumbling to help our kiddos focus on distance learning or simply struggling to get through the day without breaking, we’re all juggling a lot. While it’s impossible to insulate our partnerships from pandemic stressors, we can control damage to our relationships by making sure we’re calm before interacting with our significant other and by remembering to give ourselves (and our partner) some grace. Whether you’re facing new challenges in your partnership and parenting or the escalation of existing issues, our experts have solid ideas to help you de-stress, reconnect and have more fun with your partner.
Connect with yourself and your partner
Busy lives make it far too easy to put our own needs on the back burner, and we end up with nothing left to give. “There’s always one more email to get to, one more stack of laundry, one more mouth to feed or dog to walk. It leads us to have a less intimate connection with ourselves, and it gets even harder to connect with a partner or a friend or even our kids when we’re not self-connected,” says Gina Senarighi, Ph.D., a relationship expert and author of “Love More, Fight Less: Communication Skills Every Couple Needs.”
When we’re exhausted, interacting with our partner, or anyone else, can feel like more work. To avoid burnout, carve out time to decompress each day — you and your relationship deserve it.
“The laundry and the email will still be there when you come back, break or not. So often we think, ‘One more thing before I’ll give myself that time away,’ and that one more thing will turn into a hundred things, and then we’re just exhausted or we don’t have the mental energy. We end up acting in this sort of grouchy, short way with each other instead of actually collaborating with [our partner] or connecting with them like we want to. We think our relationship is doomed, when really, we’re just tired. And being able to acknowledge what’s happening — that neither of us is at our best — is important,” says Senarighi.
Seattle resident Amy Jerrett-Kotsenas and her husband, Matt, had their first child on Nov. 22, when numbers of coronavirus cases were again spiking. The pair stays strong by supporting each other’s needs.
“COVID has been hard on every relationship, and having a newborn is hard on a relationship. To keep us moving, I’ve leaned on my husband to help me avoid becoming overwhelmed. While I’m on maternity leave and he’s back at work, he has helped me prioritize the one to two things — in addition to caring for the baby — that I need to tend to each day, which usually includes a self-care item. This has been critical for my mental and physical well-being, especially these days, with the ever-growing and overwhelming list of to-dos,” says Jerrett-Kotsenas. “For my husband, I encourage him and try to hold him accountable for going for runs — he’s an ultramarathon runner, and running is a major stress reliever for him — and I try to make sure he’s eating, even if it’s ordering delivery. I’m thankful every day I have the partner I do, and I know this experience has made us even stronger and more prepared to tackle what lies ahead,” says Jerrett-Kotsenas.
Don’t allow stress to take over
Ultrahigh levels of stress are the norm these days, and we’re all feeling it. But our bodies aren’t meant to endure such constant pressure.
“We evolved for sprints, not for marathons every day. In modern culture, we’ve moved into absolute stress excess,” says Laura Kastner, Ph.D., a clinical professor in both the Department of Psychology and the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at the University of Washington, as well as the author of a number of parenting books. “We enter into the COVID crisis and we’re getting a surplus of cortisol and adrenaline, which happens when the body’s threat system is activated way too much.”
Proceed with caution when you’re experiencing a hot-button moment, Kastner warns. “We’re not supposed to talk to loved ones under the influence of inebriation, and we should not deal with our loved ones under the influence of extreme emotions, when you have diffused thinking and quality of judgment. You have black-white thinking: ‘I’m a victim. You’re the villain. I’m right. You’re wrong,’” says Kastner.
To avoid inciting a full-on argument with your partner, understanding your body’s physiological arousal cues, such as an accelerated heart rate or a rush of adrenaline, is the first step, advises Kastner. “[Tell yourself] ‘I need to take care of my arousal, so when I enter a situation dealing with my partner, I’m in good shape. Then, the two of us need to be in good shape as individuals and as a couple, so we don’t have spillover of [stress] to our child,’” says Kastner.
When you’re seeing red, de-escalate before engaging with your partner or kids. In the middle of a heated argument, step away to cool off. Kastner recommends a paced respiration exercise: Concentrate on inhaling for four seconds, holding your breath for seven seconds and then exhaling slowly for eight seconds.
But whatever you do, do not talk until you’re calm. “If you go into another room and you just recite your resentments, which most people do, it won’t work. You’re going to stay very mad when you get back together,” says Kastner.
When it’s time to talk, leave your grudges at the door and actively listen to your partner’s concerns, instead of approaching the dialogue with an “I do so much, and you don’t do enough” message. “Empathy is always the place to start,” says Kastner. “Say ‘I know I’m listing all the stuff I did this week for the family, but you’ve got a list just as long. I went straight for the stuff you didn’t do instead of what you did do, and that’s my bad. I appreciate all the things you do for this family. I still want to talk about this thing that happened, but I do see all the things you do,’” says Kastner. “Sometimes you just want to apologize that you both yelled at each other and leave it there.”
Embrace fun moments and new experiences
Many parents are working from home in close quarters with their children and partner. Seattle mother of three Sharon Van Epps has taken advantage of the circumstances to prioritize extra bonding. “Honestly, all the time together at home has been a boost to our relationship: taking walks together, eating lunch together sometimes, running errands together to fight boredom, talking about our respective work issues throughout the day and often cooking dinner together. All the simple pleasures our busy schedule didn’t allow for in the past have been soothing,” says Van Epps. “My husband will be retiring in a few years, and I no longer feel anxious about having him home all the time! I also noticed that so much togetherness made it easier for us to buy each other Christmas gifts this year; we were more in tune with what the other needed/wanted. Everything has not been perfect, but I really have tried to focus on what is going right,” says Van Epps.
Kastner encourages regularly allocating separate time to connect with ourselves, as a family and as partners. “You want some connection time, and you want some business-meeting time, maybe some fun family time, and then you want intimacy time. So, you need to think about yourself and the marriage as ‘How do I pay the meter? How do I fill the tank?’” says Kastner.
Research shows that couples who plan dates involving novelty have more marital satisfaction than couples who do the same thing every week. “I love routine, and it’s very sweet when people have pizza and beer every Wednesday, but I do a lot of marital therapy where I’ll say trade off planning a surprise date; it’s called ‘No Fail,’ and you’re not allowed to be negative. Your partner has to put some effort into it. During COVID, it could be something as simple as walking in a different park. You get coffee on the way, or you go to a different takeout place that’s a surprise,” says Kastner. “It’s really easy to not look at the big picture, especially if you’re being pulled in a negative direction all the time. We want to broaden and build our perspective on a regular basis about all those things our spouse is doing right, everything they’re doing to keep the engine going,” says Kastner.
Go back to basics to ramp up desire
Sexual desire isn’t easy to conjure when our systems are overloaded. Senarighi urges prioritizing pleasure in nonsexual ways, such as allowing ourselves the time to really taste and enjoy a meal, taking an extra-long shower or engaging in any activity that soothes our soul.
“We want to create an environment that is conducive to being intimate with ourselves, being able to prioritize our pleasure so we’re more likely to prioritize intimacy and pleasure with our partner. For most people, and especially most women, the way arousal works is responsive desire. The environment is right. I feel like I’m in a good mood. I’ve had a pretty good day. Maybe I could make out. Maybe I could do a back massage for a minute. It’s very much contextual. And then I respond to my environment and the stimuli around me, and that puts me in the mood to [have] sex,” says Senarighi.
Be open to physical closeness with your partner without the expectation of sex, Senarighi proposes. “It turns into this ‘sex or no sex conversation,’ where if my partner even looks at me a certain way, let alone touches me or kisses me a certain way, I will respond with a yes or no, not to the kiss, but to the question of sex. Make out every day for a week for five minutes solid. See how that goes. It will remind you how fun it is. No sex though, because if you have sex, it will ruin it,” says Senarighi.
The logistics of having everyone at home can make intimacy feel impossible. Jamie Beth Cohen, a Lancaster, Pennsylvania, mom of two children, ages 8 and 11, decided to be upfront with her kids about sex. “I had always preferred to have sex when the kids weren’t home, and that’s just not happening these days, because we made the decision to keep them out of school and extracurriculars for everyone’s safety. Our solution was to be honest with them about when we’re having sex, so they know not to interrupt us. This has allowed us to continue speaking with them honestly, frankly and appropriately about sex. I hope this will have lasting benefits for our kids as they start to engage with intimacy as teenagers and beyond, and in my relationship with my spouse as we continue our 20-plus-year relationship,” says Cohen.
Make an effort to spend time alone with your partner, even if that means watching a movie together in the bedroom while the littles enjoy their own flick in another area of the house. “It’s really important that your kids know you like each other, that romance is a part of your life, and that there might be some boundaries with that,” says Senarighi.
Take it easy on yourself and let go of worries
In a world where bad news is readily available 24/7, our attention is constantly drawn toward the negative. “We hold on to the ‘owies,’ to the disgruntlement, to the resentment. It’s very understandable from a species point of view; it paid off to look at bad things. We needed to know about predators and dangers, but by having that bias toward the negative, it’s really easy to not look at the big picture. We want to broaden and build our perspective on a regular basis. If we worry, worry, worry, it’s just not good for us,” says Kastner.
To nudge yourself toward a more positive outlook, let go of self-imposed, unrealistic expectations. “Accept yourself exactly the way you are. You are doing the best you can. You want to have a positive mindset. You can eke out a little energy to make things a little bit better. Lower those expectations, because then you won’t feel so crappy about the disparity between where you are and where you think you should be,” says Kastner.
During tough times, reflecting on the good things is essential. “It’s amazing how much a gratitude practice helps, especially if you write down three things you’re grateful for. It really helps reset the brain to offset the negativity bias,” says Kastner.
When the world feels heavy and we’re drowning in stress, having fun is the last thing on our minds. But if we make an effort to look on the bright side, we, along with our relationships with our partners and kids, will benefit immensely.