The majority of the world has been in Covid-19 lockdown for a quarter of the entire year. Although things are beginning to ease up, there are still restrictions in place and a lot of us are still more or less cooped up with our significant others. For most of us, there was probably a time not that long ago when we would have said, “I would love nothing more than to be forced to stay inside with just each other for company” But now, more than 90 days into that reality, many of us are singing a very different tune. And relationship issues are coming to light.
“I think couples are noticing dynamics that were potentially problematic, but not enough to warrant clinical and intervention in any way,” says, relationship therapist Dr. Katherine M. Hertlein, a professor with the Couple and Family Therapy program within UNLV’s School of Medicine. “And then as the pandemic has worn on, because they have spent more time together, those problems and issues have become more prevalent.”
This makes sense. Coupled with the stress of Covid-19 and with few outlets to turn to, small issues can mutate into larger problems. Whether that’s resentment stemming from imbalances in household labor or frustration from lack of personal space, couples are dealing with a lot right now. As finding a solution means pinpointing the deeper problem at the heart of each, we wanted to highlight eight common issues couples are bumping up against during this COVID-19 crisis and some ways to approach them. Here’s what to know.
The Problem: Loss of Control
The COVID situation has forced all of us to relinquish control in our lives. From how we work to where we can go, every aspect of our day-to-day existences has been rearranged for us, with very little of our own input. Trying to reassert that sense of control in our lives can lead to issues between couples, as they attempt to take control of something.
The Solution: The first step is to acknowledge that you have lost control and that it isn’t your fault. Then you have to take steps to reestablish that control in positive ways. Hertlein tells couples to practice going on 15-minute dates. Why? Because having them not go on too long makes sure that they’re successful. “I don’t want people to get into an argument or talk about tough things,” she says. “You can’t get into anything heavy in 15 minutes. And that will lead you to just spending time to just be present. You can start with just actually 15 minutes of just being quiet and sitting in a quiet space together.”
The Problem: Lack of Boundaries
While the quarantine has stripped away our own boundaries of privacy or time alone, it has also impacted the boundaries that couples have that are just for themselves. With less fixed work hours, more family time, and Zoom calls and virtual hangouts with friends and extended family, the quality time couples have for each other is slowly starting to erode. It’s important for couples to not let these outside influences begin to take precedence over their own relationship. When it does, feelings of resentment are likely.
The Solution: If you want to create a boundary that protects you and your spouse, then it’s important to make sure that boundary is clearly delineated and unbreachable. “You might want to think about setting up a message on your work phone saying, ‘During COVID, I may be slower to get back to you,’ or, ‘Please know that I’ll be maintaining these hours,’” says Hertlein. “Sometimes we let those calls come in during off-hours because of our guilt around it. But if you set a message from the beginning saying, ‘Here’s my boundary,’ then you’re more likely to be able to respect that boundary.”
The Problem: Lack of Personal Space
No matter the size of your home, chances are sooner or later, you and your spouse are going to feel confined. When you can’t leave your home, your space is going to feel smaller and smaller and it can create tension. This is especially true when a couple is using a shared workspace, or working in the same area where the kids are studying. Proximity and closeness has its benefits, but the absence of any kind of personal space can slowly wear away a person’s patience and lead to blowups.
The Solution: Try and come up with scheduled times as to who can use what space and when. Negotiate with your partner about how best to work together and make the space work for each other. Put up an agreed-upon partition to divide the space or, simply, discuss who uses the room and when. “If you don’t have the physical boundaries, you’ve got to do the psychological ones to the extent that you’re able,” says Hertlein
The Problem: Concerns About Money
Unemployment rates are rising everywhere, jobs are being impacted daily, small businesses are struggling or shuttering and tensions are at an all-time high. Needless to say, these tensions can very easily create strife at home.
The Solution: Couples need to sit down together and discuss how to navigate finances in this new normal. From education to grocery shopping to medical bills, COVID has created financial concerns for everyone, and couples need to figure out what is going to work for them by having open and honest conversations. “People tend to get right or get dysregulated. Especially if they think that something is always or never,” says Hertlein. “So it’s often helpful to be able to talk about things in terms of the temporary and as constant negotiation.” Conversations about money, she adds, are either about a perceived neglect or perceived lack of control. Understanding the root of the discussion can help couples have clearer conversations.
The Problem: A Not So Active Sex Life
The cliché in the media these days is that there’s going to be a post-quarantine baby boom, and it stands to reason, right? After all, you’re locked indoors with your significant other with very little else to do. Sex would almost seem like a given at a time like this. However, the myriad outside stressors everyone is facing can wreak havoc on a couple’s bedroom activities and quickly cool things off under the covers.
The Solution: Couples have to prioritize time for each other outside the bedroom before things can heat up behind closed doors. Taking time to connect emotionally and make each other a priority will foster attraction and rekindle desire. It’s okay to try and keep things exciting, but it’s also important to not worry when they get boring. “Any time you introduce novelty in terms of a sexual situation, the effect of that novelty lasts about three weeks,” Hertlein says. “And where a couple sort of gets stuck is they say, ‘Oh, you know, this lasted for just a few weeks and then it didn’t work anymore. So then I guess our relationship is shit.’ So you just want to make sure that you’re being realistic and giving yourself permission to have things just be exciting for a few weeks.” Eventually they’re going to drop out and then you’ve got to sort of figure something else out.
The Problem: Feeling Stir Crazy
Togetherness as a couple is important, but it’s equally important for each person in the relationship to have their own interests and pursuits. Being separate people allows you both to grow as individuals and become stronger together. In the absence of those outside pursuits, whether it’s a night out with friends or a morning yoga class, couples can get stir crazy and begin to build resentment.
The Solution: Even if you can’t have the freedom to go out and do the things you used to be able to do, you need to find ways to have your own time and space and your spouse has to be respectful of that. And, on the other side of the coin, you have to be respectful of his or her needs as well. “When you feel like you’re just overwhelmed with too much togetherness, step back, and tell your partner, ‘Hey, I’m feeling a little overwhelmed with the togetherness and, just for an hour, I’m just going to go over here and read and just not interact. And it has nothing to do with you. It’s about me. And thank you for allowing me that gift of having just some quiet time alone,’” says Dr. Lori Whatley, a clinical psychologist and relational therapist and the author of Connected & Engaged. It’s equally important to recognize when your partner needs the same and to suggest to carve out the alone time they need as well.
The Problem: An Imbalance of Labor
With everyone home, individual roles around the house may have changed. A parent who was out of the house for eight hours may suddenly find themselves being asked to take care of the laundry or help with homework. However, if they’re not prepared to take on these new roles, they might shirk their responsibilities, letting the laundry or dishes pile up or passing the homework off to the other parent. If both parties aren’t all in on sharing the load, it can create a great deal of friction and resentment.
The Solution: Expectations have to be laid out clearly with no room for misinterpretation or misunderstanding. Whatley suggests sitting down and having a frank discussion of what needs to get done and making a chart where each person can sign up for the tasks they want to tackle. “And then those things that are left over, pick them out of a hat and see who gets what,” she says. “Families have made a game out of it and made it more fun. There could even be some bartering like, ‘I really don’t want to clean the sinks, so I’ll take the trash out if you clean the sink.’ People can really rally around each other in times like that.”
The Problem: Too Much Screen Time
Between the stress of work, finances and taking care of the kids, pets and household, most couples are just looking for an escape at the end of the day. That escape comes in the form of an iPad, phone, or screen of some sort. But those who constantly retreat into social media and online activities when they should be turning to each other miss out in important time to touch base and discuss upcoming problems. This can lead to important conversations not being had and arguments ultimately taking their place. It can also result in phubbing, or the act of snubbing your partner in favor of your phone.
The Solution: We’re all wedded to our devices these days, and there is no harm in taking a little screen time for yourself either throughout or at the end of the day. However, you have to set limits, both for your own sanity and your family’s. Set no-screen times or no-screen zones in your house and set limits on your phone to have it switch off after a certain period of time. And if your partner is actively ignoring you for their phone, bring it up in a non-antagonizing way.
“It’s been interesting to me to see how people are managing their screens during this time,” Whatley says. “And I’ve really been surprised. A lot of people have voluntarily just said, ‘I’m exhausted from screens. I’m putting them away. We have no screen time for the evening at our house sometimes and it’s been really good for us.’ People are noticing what doesn’t feel good for them and they’re letting go of it.”