When one partner is stressed in a relationship, the other can often provide support, encouragement, and love to help them get through it. But what happens when both partners are going through a difficult time? How can two people be there for each other when each is dealing with their own fears, worries, and responsibilities? It’s an important question — and one that has become more relevant than ever amidst the coronavirus outbreak. That's where certain relationship bonding tips can come in handy. As you and your SO begin to grapple with job changes (or perhaps a loss of work), fewer opportunities for socializing, and other concerns, you can de-stress together. The experience can even bring you two closer than ever before.
According to Melissa Divaris Thompson, a holistic licensed marriage and family therapist who specializes in working with young couples, when both partners are under stress, they tend to have less patience, meaning they're far quicker to snap at each other. They may even start assuming the worst about each other’s intentions, actions, and behavior (rather than giving their partner the benefit of the doubt), thus breaking down intimacy and trust.
“When these cycles continue, it wears away at the fabric of your relationship — it starts to tear and pull," she says.
If this sounds familiar, you're not alone. Dr. Mary Kay Cocharo, a licensed marriage and family therapist, tells Elite Daily that many of her clients — even in the strongest relationships — are bickering more than ever now that they’ve been forced to adjust to new living and working conditions.
"It takes conscious awareness to stay loving and kind, to accept each other and to celebrate our differences," she explains. "During a crisis, your emotional brain can hijack the thinking brain, and you go from responding lovingly to reacting.”
Fortunately, experts agree that it's totally possible to break out of this harmful cycle and make room for more empathy and intimacy. Here are their go-to strategies for managing the stress as a team, while also feeling closer than ever before.
Make a pact to break out of negative cycles.
Does it feel like you and your SO are having the same argument over and over — one where you’re not reaching any kind of understanding, because you’re not actually hearing each other? Thompson says it’s crucial to recognize when you’re trapped in this negative cycle and to take a timeout whenever one or both of you needs it.
Once things begin to escalate, she suggests saying something along the lines of: “I can’t think straight, can we take a few minutes to calm down?” If you need to leave the room or go for a walk, be sure to let your partner know when you’ll be back and reinitiate the conversation. When you do re-engage, Thompson says it's important to remain curious, asking them lots of questions about how they’re thinking and what they’re feeling rather than jumping to negative conclusions.
Designate a time for stressing.
Newsflash: ignoring or denying your stress won’t make it go away. Rather than letting it be a dark cloud that’s hanging ominously in the background all day, couples' therapist and relationship expert Dr. Laurel Steinberg suggests scheduling specific time to hash out your worries — for example, over an after-work drink together in your kitchen, or over FaceTime on a lunch break if you're not cohabiting.
That way, you both know you’ll have the opportunity to share what’s on your mind, rather than letting the stress build up and bubble over. Better yet, getting those concerns out of your system will allow you to be more present with your partner while spending quality time together.
Work on your active listening skills.
It's easy to get so caught up in your own stress that you fail to really absorb what your SO is going through. When you aren't paying attention to what your partner is telling you, however, you're far more likely to have misunderstandings — which then often lead to fights. That's why Thompson says it's crucial to hone in on your listening skills.
"Just listening and holding space for each other can help ease tension and anxiety," she tells Elite Daily.
An active listening exercise can be immensely helpful for making sure you and your partner are hearing each other (not just listening to respond), and to dodge any potential misunderstandings. Try this: When your partner is telling you why they're stressed out, repeat it back to them in your own words. For example, if they say, "I'm freaking out because I just lost one of my clients and rent is due in a week," you might respond with, "From what you're saying, I'm hearing that you're feeling anxious about being able to pay your bills now that you have less work. That's totally understandable. Is that right?" Not only is this response extremely validating, but it also demonstrates that you're making an effort to understand their plight.
Create some structure.
When the lines between your job and your personal life start to get blurred (which is bound to happen if you and/or your SO are working from home), that can definitely add to your shared stress. That's why Dr. Mary Kay Cocharo, a couple’s therapist and relationship expert, highly recommends creating some structure in your daily lives, so that you can regain some semblance of normalcy and protect your mental and emotional well-being.
"Delineate between work and private time so that your job doesn’t become an around-the-clock thing," she tells Elite Daily. "Decide on an end time for your work day and stop. Take a lunch break and sit down together to eat and connect. Maybe take a walk together to get out of the house."
You may even want to designate some device-free times, such as the first hour after you wake up, during the dinner hour, or for two hours before bed, to make sure you can fully connect without any stress-inducing distractions.
Don't underestimate the power of physical touch — according to Thompson, it's a phenomenal stress-buster.
"Sometimes sex goes out the window during times of high stress, but now is a good time to focus on your physical connection," adds Dr. Cocharo. "Sex is a good way to unwind and release bonding hormones that will help you to feel more generous with one another the next day."
Of course, safety should be your top priority when it comes to sex — or even kissing, given that the coronavirus can be spread via saliva. According to Dr. Darshan Shah, a surgeon and the founder/CEO of Next Health, you should be extra cautious if your SO has traveled recently, especially to an affected area, or been around other people that are symptomatic or were diagnosed with coronavirus. On the other hand, if you've both been quarantined, it's probably safe to get intimate with a partner who's asymptomatic and hasn't been around any potentially contaminated locations or people.
Carve out some space.
If you and your partner are quarantining together, you're likely spending more time around each other than ever before — and that adjustment comes with some wonderful perks, but also some potential pitfalls. If your partner's previously adorable quirks have been getting on your nerves, you may just be in desperate need of some alone time.
Thompson suggests scheduling some time apart every day, which you can spend however you choose. Whether you opt to take a workout class in the other room, read a book in your backyard, or go for a walk, make sure to let your SO know how much time you need by yourself. Thompson also says it's equally important to schedule one thing every day to look forward to together, such as cooking a meal or watching a movie together.
Lighten the mood.
Thanks to the coronavirus outbreak, you're constantly being exposed to anxiety-inducing headlines and grim social media posts — and a little levity may be just what the doctor ordered for you and your boo to #shakeitoff and smile.
Thompson suggests playing a game together or having a dance party, but any playful activity will do (tickle battles or pillow fights included).
"Find ways to build intimacy such as asking questions like 'Would you ever...?' or, 'Would you rather...?'" she says. "It'll help lighten the mood."
Take advantage of technology.
If you and your SO are stuck quarantining in separate homes, Thompson advises scheduling a time to have a video chat every day. Why not make it a virtual date night? Dr. Steinberg proposes dressing up as if you were going out for dinner or drinks.
“Seeing your partner’s face is helpful during stressful times,” she explains.
Dr. Cocharo notes that only about 7% of communication happens through words, which explains why texting is not as effective for bonding as using FaceTime or Skype is.
“Video chatting adds connection through tone of voice, volume, cadence, facial expressions, body movement and eye contact,” she adds.
Experts agree that during times of mutual stress, it's especially important to maintain open communication with your partner.
"Bonding is important at this time because as humans, we are literally wired for connection," explains Dr. Cocharo, who recommends using the book Eight Dates: Essential Conversations for a Lifetime of Love as a conversation starter for "going deeper into each other’s worlds."
The goal, according to Thompson, is to learn to trust your partner enough to lean on them, while also letting them lean on you at the same time.
"When we are able to connect and undo our aloneness, it helps us feel more grounded and less afraid, and therefore, soothes our nervous system," she adds.
In other words, take comfort in knowing that you and your SO are in this together — and provided you can be sensitive to each other's stressors, you're primed to overcome any potential challenges you face in the coming months.
Melissa Divaris Thompson, licensed marriage and family therapist
Dr. Mary Kay Cocharo, licensed marriage and family therapist and relationship expert
Dr. Laurel Steinberg, couples' therapist and relationship expert