Many of us in the mental health field are writing about ways to cope and manage during these difficult times: Take it a day at a time, eat well, get outside, reduce time spent watching COVID-19 news, maintain a schedule, and don’t leave your partner.
With many of us spending a lot more time at home with our partners, children, and pets, we may struggle to cope with too much togetherness. The most important first step is to appreciate the challenge and embrace active strategies for coping with your relationship.
Each partner in a relationship has different needs for space, communication, and attention. Diligently communicating helps us develop reasonable expectations about what our partner needs. Reflect on what your partner needs. Work hard to understand their needs and talk openly about ways to meet them. When we act like we know what our partner wants, we can often find that our assumptions get us into trouble.
As the number of days we are sheltering-in-place climbs, understanding your partner’s needs will grow in importance. To paraphrase President John F. Kennedy, ask not what your partner can do for you, but what you can do for your partner. What can I do to help you get through this?
- What helps you feel better?
- When do you need time alone?
- What would you like to do together and with the children?
- What do I do that irritates you?
We are living in a time of uncertainty with pronounced feelings of fear, anxiety, and sadness. It may be easy to try and reassure our partner that everything will be fine and that we will make it. But before doing that, appreciate how your partner is feeling. When we validate our partners, we let them know we understand and care about their experience. Try to consider what your partner is feeling without dismissing their emotions. Our intentions (to reassure) may be good, but the real need is to feel heard and understood.
While we have all heard of social distancing, we need to consider relationship distancing. Some couples are challenged by living in spaces where it is difficult to find space and distance, particularly with children in the household. When we have our own space, we are typically better equipped to engage in a relationship.
The key is to find a balance between togetherness and personal time. For most, we are accustomed to spending most days apart. We need to find safe ways to relationship distance so that we have the energy to remain connected. Discussing expectations and scheduling time to read a book, listen to music, watch a movie, or play a game can help people achieve their own healthy time.
There have been plenty of jokes about the impact this crisis will have on the U.S. population after it is over. The idea is that with more time together, couples will engage in more sexual activities. For many, sex is not at the top of their mind. Respect your partner’s emotional state and readiness to engage in sexual behaviors. If we are not prepared to emotionally engage in sexual activities, the experience can create problems and unnecessary stress. Healthy sexual relationships are developed when we respect boundaries, attend to our partner’s feelings, and talk openly about how we are doing.
Laughter Is the Best Medicine
As difficult as this is, we need to find some humor where we can. I know it is hard. Take a moment and laugh at something. Find a movie that comforts you and helps you laugh. Listen to a comedy concert, play a game that makes you laugh, watch your dog try in vain to catch squirrels. There is a lot of pain and fear in the world, and while humor does not solve it, we do need moments to just let go.
Recently, I have been deluged by emails sent from various companies telling me what they are doing in response to this crisis. It is important to know that if I order shoes or need lawn care, my needs can be met. Humor is one important approach that can help us navigate difficult times.
Although we make fun of it, we need dad humor now more than ever. You might think that the last thing we need right now is dad humor, but dad humor is typically so bad that it is spectacular. For example, “I tell dad jokes, but I don’t have children. I am a faux pa.” When adults use humor, it helps comfort others. We need all the dads in the world to unite and share their best (worst) jokes. Laughter is truly the best medicine even if it tastes terrible.
Our relationships depend upon careful attention to how we are doing. Work on your patience, appreciation, and self-care. Work together to establish expectations that help you cope with togetherness. Find time alone and enhance time together. Find some humor in a time of great pain. Consider individual or relationship therapy if you need additional guidance. We will navigate through this, and perhaps we will learn some new ways to enhance our relationships.
Written by John O’Neill, Ed.D., LCSW, LCDC, CAS. John directs the outpatient programs at Menninger’s Outpatient Services’ location in Bellaire, Texas, where he oversees the practice’s interdisciplinary team approach to assessment and treatment.