Months of quarantine under the current stay-at-home orders will test the strongest of relationships—some people may even consider getting the virus a more appealing alternative. Even people who have wonderful marriages are concerned their spouses may drive them crazy by the end of it. The people who worried about their marriage before COVID-19 are feeling completely overwhelmed.
Instead of feeling overwhelmed, imagine emerging from self-isolation this summer with a marriage that is stronger than ever before.
That is absolutely possible. I know this because I’m a divorce mediator. I’m also a divorce coach, where I focus on keeping couples from needing a mediator.
As a divorce mediator, I see the ways couples take their relationship for granted. As a divorce coach, I know what they can do instead to strengthen their bond.
Here are five things you can do right now to keep your marriage happy and strong throughout the COVID-19 isolation.
1. Notice and stop the four relationship killers in their tracks.
Raise your hand if your spouse has ever annoyed you. You are not alone. Even in the happiest marriage, people who live together annoy or anger each other.
Feeling these emotions is healthy. Using the four relationship killers—criticism, defensiveness, contempt, or stonewalling—to manage your emotions, though, will make an already tense situation worse.
The other day a friend called with a story that I think provides a good illustration:
She asked her husband to unload and reload the dishwasher while she went to get on a zoom meeting. He said yes. She assumed that meant he would do it while she was on her call.
Instead, when she finished, she saw he had spent an hour sharpening all of the knives—which they didn’t need because he had done that the day before.
She realized she had a choice that could have a long-range impact on her marriage during (and after) the quarantine:
- Should could say "How come you NEVER do what I ask? How hard is it to put the darn dishes away?"
- She could say "thank you honey, I appreciate that you are tending to our knives. It is so much easier to chop with a sharp blade."
She chose the second option because choosing the first option would have been a fast route to sitting through a divorce mediation in my office. By choosing that option, she was also practicing tip 2.
2. Practice compassionate empathy.
Before you get upset with your spouse, try and put yourself in his or her shoes by practicing compassionate empathy. Emotional Intelligence expert Daniel Goldman says: “With this kind of empathy, we not only understand a person’s predicament and feel with them but are spontaneously moved to help if needed.”
My friend realized her husband’s response had to do with his fear and inability to “control” the situation. Tending to his tools (i.e. the knives) was something useful he could do.
When practicing empathy, keep in mind that everything your spouse does during the quarantine will likely stem out of how men and women approach stressful situations:
- Women focus on what needs to happen now. Chances are they don’t want to look at the big picture. Instead, they’re taking care of the immediate details. They’ll be listing everything that needs to happen right now.
- Men are problem-solvers looking at the big picture. They are probably staying completely up-to-date with the news and the economic situation. They may be making big gestures and taking on big projects as a way to protect the family. Like sharpening the knives.
3. Understand that your spouse is scared too.
Nobody knows what is going to happen in the next few months. Nobody. That means everyone is scared, even if they don’t say it and/or pretend they’re not. Fear comes out in many ways, and both you and your spouse will experience one, or maybe more, of these typical emotions:
- Increased anxiety
- Emotional numbness
- Hyper-focus on work
If you notice your spouse is exhibiting any of these emotions, pause before you say anything. This is likely how their fear is showing up. And remember, you may be reacting this way yourself.
Commit to noticing how both of you are reacting, and possibly overreacting, to normal situations like doing the laundry, cleaning the house, noise levels during work hours, and so on. Try not to overreact and do your best to be kind.
4. This is the biggest test your relationship has ever had.
We are living in an incredibly difficult and frightening time, and that makes it the biggest test your marriage has ever had—and will likely ever have. Responding in a healthy way for your marriage means communicating about what you need, and giving your spouse space if they need it.
- Find a space for each of you to call your own. When your spouse goes to that space, honor their need to be alone. If you live in a small apartment where you can’t create your own space, devise a way to get that alone time, such as wearing noise-canceling earphones.
- If you see your spouse is depressed, anxious, or numb, think of some small thing you know they love. Draw them a bath, bake cookies, light a candle. Small acts of service make a big difference.
- Set up “date nights” as a time to talk about how you’re doing. Ask each other specifically what you need to keep sane. Make it special with your favorite meal or beverage.
- Show gratitude for all the thoughtful things your spouse does.
Talking about your needs is important. Listening to your spouse is equally important. If your spouse says something that annoys or upsets you, don’t respond immediately. Take the time to reflect on your initial response — are you under- or overreacting? Is what your spouse is saying a reflection of their fear right now? How can you show empathy?
This is a good time to start journaling how you feel, what you think, and how to respond.
Marriage is a journey. Practicing each of these five tips will help you strengthen the bond of your marriage more than you ever thought possible.
If these steps alone aren’t enough, talking to a neutral third party helps. In my role as a divorce coach I’m focused on helping you keep your marriage together. Contact me if you need to talk.