[Editor’s note: This is the second of four articles in a series on action plans for different areas of life during the COVID-19 pandemic. The remaining articles will be posted on subsequent Mondays in June.]
The new normal that the coronavirus has introduced can create some real tension, particularly for couples who think they are losing “that loving feeling” as a result of the shelter-in-place mandate meant to contain the spread of COVID-19. Every marriage has its natural ups and downs, but research studies suggest that the way we relate to each other can have profound effects not only on our mental health, but on our biological health as well, “for better or for worse.”
This unplanned for and prolonged time to stay at home may bring discomfort for many of us, but we can come out the other side with new skills. Having a plan of action can help protect your relationship during these changing times and may even help reignite the spark that brought you together in the first place.
Here is an action plan to follow to help you reclaim your “happily ever after” even during the coronavirus pandemic.
1) Bring back that loving feeling. Be more proactive.
Early in relationships, we prioritize our one-on-one moments, but eventually we begin to sideline, just when we may need to connect the most. To “bring back that loving feeling,” research shows that couples should engage in meaningful activities to stay connected with each other. It could be as simple as trying a new weekly schedule that includes a night for reading or listening to music, a night for TV, a night for conversation and so on.
One exercise we recommend to the couples who come to see us is to put a big fluffy pillow in the middle of their living room or bedroom floor, grab their favorite drink (e.g., a bottle of wine, sparkling apple cider, tea), turn off cell phones and TVs, turn the lights down low, play soft music in the background, and simply talk to one another for 45 minutes. We recommend they do this at least once a week.
No one enters a relationship with the expectation that it will be boring or unhappy. Boredom signals that our relationship needs to be refueled. Just as the fuel light on your car indicates when you are running low on gas, boredom and unhappiness mean that your relationship needs to be refilled. You wouldn’t think of abandoning your car when the fuel light comes on; you would think of refilling it. The same goes for relationships.
Boredom and “unhappiness” do not mean that a relationship does not work — it just means that it needs some attention. Early in the relationship, everything is new and exciting. We talk for hours, text countless times and spend every second we can together. Then, somewhere along the way, we believe we have shared all there is to share and know all there is to know about each other and we stop connecting, which can lead to a sense of boredom and unhappiness. We need to continue cultivating those opportunities that helped our relationship to grow in the first place. This, in turn, will help bring back that loving feeling.
2) Focus on supporting each other.
Can I depend on you when I need help, feel scared, worry about dying or don’t feel well? Am I willing to be that source of comfort and stability when you need me? These are questions the subconscious mind has kept in storage from the moment you decided to join your lives together.
No matter how long you have been together, the current pandemic has revealed the need for much more mutual dependency. Now is the time to give reassurance that your partner can count on you to protect them by protecting yourself. Now is the time to provide empathetic listening when they are feeling scared about their future or frustrated with the new changes and losses experienced. Now is the time to support each other.
3) Talk to connect. Connect through agreement.
Instead of talking about what is not working, have a conversation about the needs you both have and how to satisfy each other within your relationship. Try focusing on what is good about your relationship, what you admire and what you feel grateful for. Once you show appreciation for each other, it is likely that both of you will have a change in attitude.
Research shows that if you focus on the ways your partner is supportive, both you and your partner will feel better about the relationship. Connecting this way increases your chances of standing strong through the storm. Use this crisis as a call to action.
We continue to change and grow every day. The problem is that we have stopped sharing. Talk to connect! Ask questions: “How do you think the world has changed since COVID-19?” “What is something you truly enjoyed doing that you have not done in years?” “What is the best way for me to encourage you and support you?” There is still plenty to discover about each other.
Note for dating couples
Adversity can sometimes make a relationship stronger. COVID-19 may have intensified your relationship more quickly than it would have otherwise. Use this opportunity to examine your partner’s character during this crisis.
Character is the first thing to inspect before marrying someone. Your potential spouse can have good career and a strong personality or be fun loving and good looking, but if there is a character problem, these other qualities will not matter. Your character determines your commitment to the relationship, and commitment is the essential ingredient that will help you build a lifetime of enjoying one another.
The following questions can help you identify potential character issues that will need to be addressed to keep your relationship healthy. Most of these questions can be answered simply by watching a person’s behavior around family and on social media.
- How do they handle stress or crisis situations?
- Are they teachable?
- How well do they set healthy boundaries in their life?
- How do they handle money?
- Are they angry or hot-tempered?
- Do they follow through on commitments?
- Do they demonstrate respect for others?
- Are they entitled?
Plan of action for individuals
If you are going through COVID-19 alone, the lack of social connections and the disruption in routine can impose additional stress that can lead to depression. These feelings of association and loneliness are flexible and change with context. In fact, things may get worse before they get better. What felt manageable yesterday may not feel manageable tomorrow. Here is a plan of action for you.
1) Change your perspective.
You may find yourself riding this wave “alone,” but it is important to remember that you do not have to feel lonely. This is a global pandemic. We are all in this together, even if we are physically apart.
Now is the time for a change in perspective. Remember, perception is reality to those who perceive it. Your world is built from the inside out, from your brain. If you perceive your time alone as lonely time, then you will feel lonely. But being alone is not the same as being lonely. On the other hand, you can be in a relationship or surrounded by people and still feel unsupported and lonely. Use your situation as time of reflection. Solitude can be a season for us to reconsider what is important in our lives.
2) Reach out and connect.
Now is the time to reach out to friends and family and connect with them in a more meaningful way. Let people know how much you care about them. A phone call, involving a real voice instead of a text message, is better, and a video chat instead of just a phone call is best. Humans were created to be social beings, and hearing a real voice and seeing the faces of those we care about is exactly what we need in times of crisis.
Talking about your feelings with someone when you are stressed or upset may or may not resolve your problem, but it can help you to feel better and less alone. If, on the other hand, you are on the receiving end of the call, be the support that person needs. Listen and convey that you understand their feelings. This act of one person sharing something vulnerable and the other responding with understanding and care is what we call empathetic listening.
3) Avoid unhealthy coping mechanisms.
Avoiding unhealthy coping mechanisms such as pornography, alcohol or drug use can prevent long-term complications. The spread of the coronavirus and the necessary physical distancing measures put in place have led to increased feelings of loneliness and stress, which can help explain the reported increase in pornography use. Some claim that pornography does not present a problem for those who use it. However, a number of research studies show links between pornography use and potential concerning outcomes, including lower levels of sexual satisfaction for men.
Alcohol and substance use are also popular coping mechanisms among those looking to reduce feelings of stress, loneliness and boredom. However, alcohol and substance use could do more harm than good and could lead to a possible spike in addiction disorders for years to come. Health experts warn that an increase in alcohol and drug use could have both short- and long-term impacts on health and safety.
To avoid the potential harm of relying on unhealthy coping mechanisms, we recommend using humor and creativity to reduce stress and boredom. Using humor does not mean that we are trivializing the challenges brought to us by the coronavirus; it means we are trying to cope with them in a healthy way. Laughter is the best medicine, and humor can improve our mood and increase our resilience.
The movie Groundhog Day offers a great example of how many of us may be feeling. Every day seems to be a repeat of the last. But remember, even though it was the same day over and over again, the main character in the movie had the opportunity to learn something new every day. You may be alone, but you do not have to feel lonely. We are in this together with our friends, family members and even the entire global community.
Esther Scott is a licensed professional counselor in Arlington, Texas. She is a solution-focused therapist. Her specialties include grief, depression, teaching coping skills and couples counseling. Contact her through her website at positiveactionsinternational.com.
Opinions expressed and statements made in articles appearing on CT Online should not be assumed to represent the opinions of the editors or policies of the American Counseling Association.