My husband and I have been together for 10 years, married for three. His work schedule changed significantly this past March due to COVID-19, which meant he was home more often than normal.
We’ve spent more consecutive time together in the past three months than we have over the course of our entire relationship. We’re expecting our first baby, and we recently remarked on how this unexpected time together has made us both feel very connected. But that isn’t to say there haven’t been some hiccups along the way. I had to adjust to him being home all day as I worked, while he had to adjust to my tendency to chitchat pretty much nonstop.
Looking to make sure your relationship thrives while you’re in close quarters with your partner? Try incorporating these 11 expert-backed tips.
1. Make sure you’re communicating effectively.
Communication is the backbone of any solid relationship. Feeling distant from your partner or sensing that there’s a strain on your relationship likely stems from ineffective communication, says Tracy Ross, a couples therapist based in New York City.
The best way to improve your communication is to practice listening without an agenda. This means approaching the conversation not from a “win-or-lose” standpoint, but rather with the goal of better understanding your partner, Ross says.
“There’s nothing quite like the feeling that your partner is truly interested in you and really ‘gets’ you—this creates emotional currency that will get you through tough times,” Ross says. “It allows you to grow as individuals and as a couple.”
2. Watch your words.
Communication involves more than just listening—it’s also about the words you choose to use when speaking to your partner.
Ross says to practice using “I” statements and avoid using the words “always” and “never,” as these words are absolutes.
“They will inevitably lead you down a rabbit hole argument, and you will find yourselves debating whether or not it really is always or never,” she says. “When this happens, no real communication or connection can occur, and reaching a mutual understanding or resolving a problem are both highly unlikely.”
In addition, she recommends asking questions that start with “what” instead of “why.”
“The word ‘why’ often elicits a defensive response and makes the other person feel they have to justify and explain,” Ross says.
3. Schedule a time to talk.
Is there a topic you and your partner have been putting off discussing? Cristina Dorazio, a couples therapist based in New York City, advises her clients to schedule a time to have tough conversations.
She recommends having difficult talks over pancakes and bacon on a Saturday or Sunday morning so it feels more like a date and less like a tense, transactional occurrence.
Scheduling time for important talks (or simply date nights) is particularly important if you and your partner are both working from home.
“Couples sometimes feel they always have access to one another since they might be working only feet apart,” she says. But if one partner tries to spontaneously connect and the other is preoccupied with work, this can lead to feelings of rejection and isolation. “While this structure doesn’t seem like a big deal, it can actually be helpful in setting up boundaries and expectations throughout the week.”
4. Don’t be afraid to spend time alone.
Ross says couples often confuse being merged with being connected. The former is not good for a relationship, while the latter is. You can still be connected when you spend time apart from your significant other—and it’s especially important when one or both partners is introverted.
“Time apart is healthy in all relationships,” says Sofia Robirosa, a marriage and family therapist based in South Florida. “Time apart allows us to work our personal goals, get some needs met by other important people in our lives and gain perspective on why we value and appreciate our partners. Without time apart, we may feel depleted and resentful.”
For my husband and I, this means I often cross-stitch while he reads. For you, it might mean exercising while your partner cooks dinner. Find something that works for your specific relationship.
5. Take advantage of this unexpected time together to bond.
Ross says one of the biggest complaints she sees in couples therapy is partners struggling to find time to devote to their relationship. If being sheltered-in-place has freed up some time in your schedule, take advantage of it.
“Embrace the time as an opportunity to refocus on your relationship,” she says. Be intentional with how you spend your time together. For example, do something you love but didn’t have time for in the past, like cooking dinner or tackling a home renovation project.
6. Foster connection with the 36 questions exercise.
This popular exercise involves you and your partner asking one another a series of 36 intimate, often eye-opening questions. Ross recommends doing the questions in three sets of 12 instead of all at once to reap the most benefits.
7. Chat with family members and friends.
Technically, we’re physically distancing from one another—not socially distancing, Robirosa says. It’s important to stay connected to friends and family members during this time, whether your intention is to vent, play a virtual game or simply catch up.
“This can alleviate stress from the relationship by allowing you to see your partner in a different light, bring new conversation into the relationship, and also decrease the emotional demand from each other,” Robirosa says.
8. Make sure your partner is doing OK.
In order to ensure your relationship is thriving during this unique time, it’s important to check in with your partner at least once a week, Dorazio says.
Ask your partner how this week went for them and whether they felt things were equitable in terms of work, household responsibilities and childcare. If things don’t feel equitable, discuss them. You want to make sure both partners feel as though their time is valued and respected.
9. Plan for the future together.
Ross says the COVID-19 pandemic has spurred significant self-reflection—many people are reassessing their priorities and future plans. Where will you live long term? Do you want to have children? How do you see your career evolving?
Ross recommends thinking through these questions with your partner. “Take the time to really talk and listen to each other’s thoughts, feelings and experiences,” she says. “A little can go a very long way in reigniting your feelings for one another.”
10. Schedule a date night—and get ready for it.
Whether you’re cooking a meal together or ordering take-out, it’s important to make one or two meals a week feel special. Dorazio suggests getting ready for your dates as if you were actually going out. This could mean putting on makeup, trying out a new cologne or wearing a new outfit.
“These behaviors might seem pointless and like a waste of time, but they are so important for the creation of intimacy,” Dorazio says. “We are signaling to our brains that something else is happening that we need to attend to. It forces us to psychologically shift out of work or childcare mode and into couples mode.”
11. Don’t be afraid to act silly.
We’re collectively going through a heavy, traumatic time. But that doesn’t mean you can’t bring levity into your relationship. Dorazio says it’s important to remember that you should incorporate positive, light feelings into your relationship, too. Be vulnerable with one another. Be goofy. Be grateful.
“It’s OK to be sad that a pandemic is happening, experience compassion for all the lives lost and still find bliss in your partnership,” she says.
Photo by @evablanco/Twenty20.com
Jamie Friedlander is a freelance writer based in Chicago and the former features editor of SUCCESS magazine. Her work has been published in The Cut, VICE, Inc., The Chicago Tribune and Business Insider, among other publications. When she's not writing, she can usually be found drinking matcha tea into excess, traveling somewhere new with her husband or surfing Etsy late into the night.