As the novel coronavirus pandemic continues, many couples are experiencing extra stress and pressure. You or your partner may be dealing with job loss or putting in long hours as remote work blurs the line between professional and personal life. If you have kids, you’re probably coping with disruption in their routines and navigating challenges like online schooling.
When life gets crazy, the care and maintenance of your marriage often falls to the back burner. There are just so many other things competing for your attention that it’s tempting to put your relationship on autopilot for a while.
But this is a grave mistake. As a psychologist who has worked with countless couples, I’ve seen how easy it is for spouses to drift apart — even when they’ve been together a long time, and even when they still love each other.
The deep and sudden shifts in our lives this year can accelerate this process. While the pandemic won’t last forever (no matter what it feels like), any neglectful behaviors you fall into now can do lasting damage to your relationship.
Little habits have big consequences. That’s the bad news and the good news. Here are the daily practices that will help you maintain a loving and happy partnership even when both of you feel stretched thin.
Turn Up the Positivity
If you have a green thumb, you know that keeping your plants healthy requires care regularly, not just when you feel like it. The same thing is true of your marriage.
Plants need water and sunlight to thrive. In the same way, your marriage will wither without a steady supply of positivity. The marriage researcher John Gottman discovered that longtime happy couples have 20 positive interactions for every negative one.
Having a positivity-filled marriage doesn’t mean that life is all romance and passion (although both are wonderful, of course). Positivity also happens in the little moments of every day. When your spouse puts their phone away while you’re talking, or when you thank them for picking up extra work around the house while your job is crazy, you’re filling the “positivity bank” of your relationship.
With the stress we’re all under, those positive moments can dwindle. Maybe the two of you used to catch up with each other after a busy day by talking and cuddling in bed. Now, though, you’re spending the time before sleep answering emails you missed during the day.
It doesn’t seem like a big deal. You’re just doing what you have to do to stay caught up, right? But with the loss of this positive ritual, your connection can start weakening.
Think about all the habits that have added positivity to your relationship in the past. Which ones do you still practice? Which ones have you let slide lately? How can you preserve the positive interactions that matter most to each of you— even when life looks different? For example, if you need to answer email in the evening, you could still set a cutoff time for putting devices away to focus on each other.
Fight the Right Way
Stressful times can also create more conflicts in your marriage. But that isn’t necessarily a problem. The important thing is how you handle those conflicts.
One of Gottman’s other major findings is that showing contempt during conflict is just about the worst thing you can do for your marriage. There’s a big difference between saying “Why don’t you care about the kids?” and “I’m exhausted managing my job and the kids’ online school. Can we talk about how to take some things off my plate?”
On the other hand, avoiding conflict altogether is also dangerous. You might be thinking “With so much going on, it’s just not worth getting into this right now.” Admittedly, sometimes it is better to let the little things go. But if your point of conflict is not a little thing, you can end up simmering with resentment and eventually blowing your top.
Or maybe the two of you tend to get into escalating battles of passive aggression instead of arguing. Your partner snaps at you for forgetting an errand. So you work late and skip dinner with your family. The next morning, they roll over and ignore you when you try to embrace. And on and on. Yes, you avoided a fight. But you may have done even more harm by undermining those positive moments we talked about earlier.
A better approach is to set aside time regularly to check in with each other and openly address issues before they become explosive. I understand that this might feel like just one more thing to do when your list of responsibilities is already long. But, in the long run, being proactive about disagreements helps ensure that your marriage sustains and replenishes you and isn’t just another drain on your energy.
Master the Art of Apologizing
No matter how determined you both are to be positive and to handle conflict respectfully, there are going to be times when you mess up and hurt each other’s feelings — especially these days.
Stress shuts down the parts of our brain that help us relate to others. Psychiatrist Dan Siegel calls this “flipping your lid.” When you’re in this brain state, you get really bad at processing information and showing empathy.
You also become more defensive. That means that it’s not only easier to behave badly toward your partner when you’re under pressure; it’s also harder to apologize. How dare they get upset that you weren’t listening (or that you got snappish, or forgot a chore)? Don’t they know everything that you’re dealing with right now?
Refusing to apologize might protect your pride, but it hurts your marriage. If apologies are hard for you, I recommend checking out the work of psychologist and relationship expert Harriet Lerner. According to Lerner, a true apology can happen only after you have listened to and come to understand why your partner is hurt. Your apology won’t create healing if you make excuses, over-explain, blame your spouse for your mistake or and bring up what they’re doing wrong.
The French actress Simone Signoret once said: “Chains do not hold a marriage together. It is threads, hundreds of tiny threads, which sew people together through the years.” Every action you take in your marriage either stitches you together more closely or frays the ties that bind you. Which will you choose today?
I had the distinct pleasure of being interviewed by David Waranch of the Authentic Dad podcast. Here’s the introduction from his site and a link to the podcast below.
August 20, 2020
Welcome to the Authentic Dad Podcast! I’m David Waranch and I coach dads on having a greater impact in the world, living on their own terms, flourishing in their relationships.
Today, I’m joined by Dr. Poonam Sharma. Dr. Sharma is an experienced psychologist in San Antonio. She’s the author of Strong Women, Strong Love: The Missing Manual for the Modern Marriage.
I wanted to talk to Dr. Sharma because I found her book very helpful and practical in navigating marriage and relationships in the modern world. I really enjoy her down to earth and practical style of writing.
We talk about marital expectations, the 5 human needs, gender roles, and much more.
I’ve seen it happen again and again. Especially to people who have been together for a long time. Their relationship was solid at the beginning. And they still love each other. After all, they’ve been through so much together. And yet, they are slowly drifting apart. Neither one can point to any clear moment when their relationship started to unravel. But it clearly has.
Why does it unravel?
There’s a really popular idea that once you fall in love, you’ll stay that way, unless you’re one of the unlucky ones who don’t. Of course, when you’re in love, you never think that could be you.
Unfortunately, this type of thinking supports being passive when it comes to your marriage. And that is a very dangerous idea. Because instead of actively tending to the relationship, you may think that if you really love each other, it will be okay.
Things become even more precarious when you’re angry with each other. Instead of kissing your husband as he heads off to work, you may ignore him instead. He might retaliate by working late and skipping the typical family dinner. The next morning, perhaps he extends an olive branch by reaching over and touching you in the morning. If you’re not ready yet, you may turn your back to him, registering a rejection on his end.
This back and forth can continue, slowly unraveling your daily relationship rituals. Add the stress of kids, work pressures, or money problems to the mix and you have a perfect recipe for the connection coming part. Until, you are now going to bed at different times, only discussing the daily tasks that need to be completed, and barely touching each other anymore.
Are you the frog?
It’s easy to end up like the frog in the boiling water. If you haven’t heard this story, it’s about putting a frog in some tepid water and then slowly increasing the heat. If you heat things up slowly enough, the frog will adapt to the changing temperature and won’t realize the danger surrounding it.
It’s the same way with your marriage. Thousands of small interactions over time strain your connection. if you don’t repair the hurt in a timely way, your relationship can come apart. All without your fully understanding why.
How to keep it together
Here are a few quick tips to keep your relationship strong as the years go by:
Remember to tend to your marriage like you would a living plant, making sure you are both getting what you need.
When you hurt each other, repair the damage quickly. Focus your energy on the big problems. Let go of the small annoyances that are coming up simply because you’re stressed out.
Exercise discipline about keeping positive relationship habits in place. If you normally give him a quick kiss when he leaves, do it. Yes, even if you’re mad and don’t feel like it. Why? It’s easier to give a half-hearted kiss than to stop kissing him and then try to get back into that habit again. Tearing things down takes just a minute, while building them back up is much, much harder.
Remember the words of Simone Segnoret:
“Chains do not hold a marriage together. It is threads, hundreds of tiny threads which sew people together through the years.”
Make sure your actions help preserve the connection. To learn more about other ways you can strengthen your marriage, consider picking up a copy of my book, Strong Women, Strong Love.
Have you seen the Netflix series “Indian Matchmaking“? It is one of the most talked about shows in recent memory. And that talk is widely varied.
For some, “Indian Matchmaking” is simply just another addictive dating show, like “Love Is Blind” or “The Bachelor.”
But others are aghast that the matchmaker, Sima Taparia, openly uses social class, skin color and beauty as criteria for selecting a mate. She also considers personality, educational background and profession because her goal is to optimize compatibility and make sure families fully support the marriage.
As someone of Indian background, I want to consider how this very different model of marriage might provide some insight into what is necessary for any marriage to work.
My Parents’ Story — and Mine
My parents never even saw each other before getting married. They were both in their early 20s when their families arranged their marriage in India. When my father told the story of their wedding day, he would always note that my mother’s face was veiled, so he was not even sure whom he was marrying! Yet their marriage lasted over 50 years until my father died.
Like most of you, it’s hard for me to imagine agreeing to an arranged marriage myself. However, as someone who has been married for over 20 years now, I am better able to understand some of the factors that make both types of marriages work. After all, no matter how your marriage began, we are all challenged to make the relationship one that works for us.
Where Does Romance Come In?
My guess is that some of the interest in “Indian Matchmaking” from U.S. audiences comes from disenchantment with marriage or the process of finding a mate here.
As I’ve written before, our current cultural norms around marriage set couples up for disappointment. We have come to think of marriage as the end all, be all of life relationships. Not only do expect our partner to be a nice person who’s compatible with us. We also seek a soul mate who will unceasingly shower us with passion and romance.
But, as you know, a marriage is about a lot more than romance and passion.It’s often about raising children together. It’s about maintaining a roof over your heads. It’s about getting along with each other’s parents and possibly even caring for them when they grow old and infirm. It’s about the laundry, paying the bills and making big life decisions together in a way that makes both of you feel reasonably happy and heard.
Sometimes a “fairy tale” romance evolves into a solid partnership for navigating real life. But sometimes it doesn’t. If that’s where you find yourself, it may be intriguing to watch relationships that have the opposite trajectory. Arranged marriages have their roots in family and practicality. From there, the assumption is that couples can grow romantic love.
What Do YOU Think of ‘Indian Matchmaking’?
You don’t have to be in an arranged marriage like my father to think, “Who is this person I’m married to?” Sometimes it feels like the man you fell in love with has changed into a stranger.
But I firmly believe that if the two of you have a respectful partnership — that is, you can manage your household together and treat each other with kindness and friendship — then rekindling romance is actually the easier part. As you are there for each other through thick and thin, the bond grows deeper, and you can find yourself falling in love with your husband all over again.
No matter how your marriage begins, you will always have to work on it. That’s one of the things I take away from “Indian Matchmaking.” How about you? I’d love to hear your take on this intriguing, and polarizing, show.
Are you struggling because your work situation has changed dramatically with COVID-19? If you’re home with your spouse and kids during this pandemic, you’re not alone.
The Struggle is Real
So many parents working from home, especially those with elementary-age kids, are worn out. Without childcare or summer camp, home has become a pressure cooker of stress for lots of people.
Those with older kids face different challenges. Adolescents, especially, may be frustrated with limits on social contact with friends and challenge rules you’ve implemented for their well-being.
The Immediate Future Offers No Relief
And, as we head into the fall, it’s understandable you’re worried about how to juggle the demands of work and teaching.
This is especially true if your employer is not very sympathetic about all you are trying to balance.
Work Together to Get Through
You may already be struggling with a sense of feeling trapped and pushed to your limits as this pandemic drags on with no clear end in sight.
Remember that this situation really is temporary. Simply do your best to protect what is most important: your health and your relationships.
Work with your spouse to see what you can do to ease the strain in the months ahead. Here are a few tips to help you:
Sit down with your spouse and identify what each of you needs on a daily basis to feel positive. Problem solve how to support each other and your kids as you work from home.
Take breaks from multitasking. If it’s possible, negotiate with your spouse to have chunks of time when you can focus on work without interruption. If you are more flexible than your spouse during the work day, then make sure you get a solid break when his work day ends. Everyone needs some time without demands on them!
Make things more convenient and less work for you. Stock up on meals your kids can prepare very easily or consider meal prep services that deliver ready-made food. Set up a snack station for your kids. If you can have a person who safely comes to your house to care for the kids while you work, that’s even better!
If it’s safe to do so, expand your bubble of safety to include other family members or close friends who are being as cautious as you are during the pandemic. Having more people in the mix may allow all of you to come up with some creative solutions for supporting each other.
Structure can really help decrease everyone’s stress. With little ones, writing the schedule down, planning activities ahead of time, and sticking to a routine can help. You can also brainstorm what kids can do if they are bored, or simply let them find creative ways to manage their boredom.
Expand your definition of learning to include skills kids pick up at home, as well as what they are taught at school. Although academic skills are important and you prefer they be in school with their teachers, kids can learn some very important life skills right now. Teach them to clean the house, do laundry, take care of pets, or fix a snack or small meal. There is an opportunity to help your kids gain more independence and self-confidence if you can come up with age-appropriate tasks. They will feel proud being able to contribute to the household if you ask them to do things to help you and don’t expect them to be perfect.
Give kids brief periods of focused attention. Tank them up emotionally and they will be more likely to do things on their own for a while.
Get your children outside. A walk in the early morning. A sprinkler to run through. Watering the plants. Maybe dance time. Movement will help burn off some energy and improve behavior.
Adjust your expectations. You can’t do it all. Just accept that now. Your kids may spend more time on screens that you like. They may not have all the academic support you wish they had. They may walk in during a Zoom call. It’s okay. Just do your best and know there’s nothing else you can do.
Take note of the opportunity to create a saner lifestyle by paying attention to how good it feels to have fewer outside demands and more family time outside work. It will be easy to lose this important perspective once things get back to normal.
Protect Each Other and Your Relationship
Keeping your stress managed is an important part of protecting your relationship too.
This pandemic can bring your and your husband closer if you can work together to deal with the challenges this situation presents.
Hold onto each other and walk through this difficult time together. If you do this, your relationship will actually be stronger when the pandemic is behind us.