This is a time of uncertainty and stress. As parents, we're facing financial worries and a relentless stream of distressing coronavirus-related news, all while adjusting our regular routines and schedules and spending more time in the home with our partners and children.
No wonder I have heard from so many mothers—both in my couples therapy practice and in my circle of friends—lamenting that they are "already at each other" in their relationship. They are frustrated with their partners. They are short. They aren't listening to each other and they already feel disconnected.
Yet, now more than ever, we need to be a united front with our partners.
Here are seven tips to help you maintain your relationship through this difficult time.
1. Redefine roles
What worked before may not continue to work today in terms of how you manage daily household tasks, work tasks, and childcare, and you both need to be willing to redefine and renegotiate your roles.
Each week, have a meeting to talk about what needs to be done and when it needs to happen for both of you. Write down everything that is coming up over the next week and what needs to be done. For each item, rate the importance from 0 (not important) to 10 (very important). If it is not high on the priority list, perhaps it is something that can be done at another time. The key here is to be flexible in this meeting.
Each day, decide who will be with the children at specific times, assign different tasks to each partner (who makes lunch, who prepares activities) and decide what time work starts and finishes.
The act of sitting side by side at the table and writing the tasks out will force you to look at the problem together—literally—and as a team, redefine who is doing what.
2. Practice daily rituals
In just ten minutes a day, you can continue to feel connected. Here are some things you can do every single day:
Daily ritual of greeting. When you first wake up, instead of reaching for your phone, reach for your partner. Spend a few minutes away from screens at the start of each day.
Daily check in. Take ten minutes at some point during the day to just check in and talk. Here are some questions you can ask: What is your biggest stressor today? How can I support you? What do you need in terms of our time together and time apart?
Daily hug or six-second kiss. Intimacy is key for our well-being. Even if sex is the last thing on your mind right now, physical intimacy (hugging, kissing, holding hands, giving a good back-rub) releases the feel-good cuddle hormone, oxytocin.
3. Be responsive and engaged
Being critical, attacking or defensive—or worse, shutting down—will not move you forward together as a couple. It will keep you stuck: hostile, angry, and frustrated. Over time, resentment will build.
Now is the time to shift to being responsive and engaged with your partner. This means that you hear your partner's concerns, empathize with them and offer comfort.
Being responsive and engaged also means confiding in each other about your fears and worries. It means sharing your vulnerabilities, and not dismissing them, but instead, listening to each other's feelings.
It looks like letting go of your anger and prioritizing the connection in your relationship.
4. Look for ways to validate each other's feelings
We all need to be heard and understood. Ironically, this can be hard for couples under stress, as we often focus on what the other person is not doing, or what doesn't feel good for us. This blaming position stops us from being able to understand and connect with our partners.
During this time of uncertainty and stress, try shifting away from blame—and use validation to help create a stronger connection.
Validation does not mean that the other person is right and you are wrong. It simply means you are seeing and accepting the other's emotion or their experience, without trying to problem-solve or make the emotion go away. You are not trying to "fix it;" you are simply allowing yourself to witness and be curious about what your partner is saying to you.
After a partner expresses a concern or an emotion, you can try using some of these examples to validate them:
Tell me how you're feeling.
What do you need?
It's okay to feel this.
This feels really hard.
I see that you are upset. Tell me more about this.
Can you help me understand your feeling more?
You're really struggling. How can I help?
5. Use compassion—and repair quickly
You are both going through this difficult time together, meaning that neither one of you are alone in the struggle. This is a key component to having compassion for ourselves and for others—acknowledging that we are not alone in our struggle.
Compassion in a relationship is like viewing our partner as our dearest friend. What would you say to your best friend right now, from a mind-set of kindness?
In this time of uncertainty, you will make mistakes, and you will get on each other's nerves. The key here is that if you do get stuck in an argument, go back and repair it quickly. Repairing your relationship can look like acknowledging your misstep, taking responsibility for your role, apologizing, or even making light of what you did that led to the disagreement (hint: focus on your own behavior and not theirs).
6. Talk about how much space you both need
In a normal family routine, space in your relationship—both physical space and emotional space—is created and maintained by all the things we need to do, such as our commitments to work and child care, our social lives and our other (many) obligations, big and small. All of these "automatic space makers" have now been removed. No wonder we all feel a little tense.
Everyone needs some kind of alone time—and that has nothing to do with the love we hold for our partners.
Have a conversation about what space looks like for you—personal space, family space and work space. Help your partner understand what you need in order to complete work, and when that needs to happen, and be ready to hear and empathize with your partner's needs for space as well (which may look very different from yours).
You may also make an agreement about when one is in "work space" and when they are in "family space." This will help create boundaries for each other as well as clear expectations.
7. Find meaning together
At the end of a long, tiring day, you may be tempted to zone out on your phone and tune out the world. But use a few minutes of this precious down time to connect with each other over something that brings you meaning and joy. Shift away from the media and the news and find enjoyment in something else—dissecting a podcast you both follow, sharing funny moments in both of your days or relishing a moment of connection over a warm memory (remember your last vacation? your last date night? your last moment of pride at one of your kid's milestones?).
You may also choose to enhance your relationship through books or online courses. I offer an online membership for women and mothers to help improve and master your relationship from the comfort of your own home.
This time is pivotal in our relationships and we must now choose connection over contention. We must be willing to let go of anger or the need to be right. Together, we can be connected.