How to Keep Pandemic Stress From Hurting Your Marriage

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?

How to Stop Your Relationship from Slowly Unraveling

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:

  1. Remember to tend to your marriage like you would a living plant, making sure you are both getting what you need.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.

Are Your Husband and Kids Now Your Coworkers?

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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!
  3. 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!
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
  7. 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.
  8. 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.
  9. 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.
  10. 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.

Stressed About Coronavirus? Make These 4 Mental Shifts

cornovirus

It seems like every few minutes there’s another alarming headline about coronavirus. Perhaps, worries about the virus have you constantly reaching for hand sanitizer and steering clear of anyone you hear coughing or sneezing in public.

While it makes sense to follow precautions recommended by the CDC and other trusted organizations, did you know that there are some other potent ways to stay healthy? I’m talking about taking steps to boost your mental health.

Normally, I discuss these steps in the context of improving your marriage. But the same strategies that benefit your relationship will also boost your physical health. And in stressful times like these, we could all use a boost! The mind-body connection is powerful. Here are four mental practices that will enhance your physical wellness.

1. Lower Your Stress

There’s really nothing in your life that reducing your stress levels won’t improve. Stress takes a toll on relationships. But it also damages your health in myriad ways, including weakening your immune system.

Chances are you were pretty stressed out even before this global crisis. If coronavirus has you even more anxious than usual, it might be time to put some limits on your news and social media consumption. When you do seek information, turn to sources that are reliably accurate and that take a calm and measured tone instead of a sensationalistic one.

You can also bolster your immune system by making sure you are getting enough sleep and eating healthful foods, especially those that feed the gut bacteria that protect your body. Meditation, yoga and qigong can help turn the volume down on your body’s stress response.

2. Make a Point to Connect

Just like stress, loneliness is bad for your immune system. And it’s an epidemic in its own right. Almost half of all Americans report feeling lonely and left out.

As coronavirus spreads, we hear a lot about keeping up our physical distance from others. Universities are canceling classes. Companies are telling employees to work at home. And members of vulnerable groups are being urged to self-isolate.

At the same time, though, we should be making an extra effort not to be emotionally distant. Get in touch with people you don’t see regularly. If virus precautions have changed your routines, don’t let important people fall off of your radar.

When you are stressed and sad, share your feelings with someone you trust instead of just soldiering on. Even spending time with your pet helps. We are all social beings who need a rich network of relationships.

 3. Keep a Positive Mindset

Decide right now that you are in good health and that you are going to stay that way. Constantly call to mind mental images of yourself as strong and healthy. Positive emotions and visualization improve physical wellbeing in a very real way.

Regularly remind yourself of everything that you are grateful for. Gratitude is a powerful weapon against the negativity bias in our brains. We do a good job of remembering dangers and threats, but we have to intentionally focus on and savor positive things in order for them to register.

4. Let Go of Negativity

Elsa from “Frozen” was really onto something. Letting go and forgiving improves our health. If you are carrying around grudges and resentment, you are making it harder to keep yourself healthy and to heal from any illness. If everyday annoyances are really setting you off lately, that can affect your heart rate, blood pressure and immune response.

These four tips will help you bolster your health amid the anxiety about coronavirus. And, as a bonus “side effect,” they will also improve your marriage and other relationships. Please care for yourself well, both during this challenging time and well beyond.

Following up with Your Husband is NOT Nagging!

It’s happened to any woman who is married. You ask your husband to do something — for example, take care of a leaky faucet — and he says he will. You wait for it to happen. And wait. And…

Nothing.

That dripping faucet is still driving you crazy. And now your husband is too.

You could handle the problem yourself. However, that adds one more thing to your already-long task list, and you know you’ll feel resentful. Or, you could remind him and maybe get accused of nagging.

Neither option feels like a good one.

OK, let’s set one thing straight. If the two of you had a discussion and came to an agreement that he would do something, it’s not nagging to check in if it didn’t get done. It’s simply “following up.” You follow up effectively with people at work all the time. And it’s possible to do the same with your husband. Here’s how.

Decide Whether to Follow Up

First, decide whether this is a conversation you really want to have. There’s no right or wrong decision here. Think about how important the request is in the big picture. Is following up on it the way you want to spend your energy right now? If it is, that’s fine. You can use the rest of the strategies in this article. But if it’s not, are you OK just letting this one go? I mean truly letting it go without being mad.

Give Him the Benefit of the Doubt

If you do decide to follow up with your husband, here’s how NOT to lead off:

You said you would fix the faucet, but you still haven’t! Why can’t you just get things done without my having to ask you AGAIN AND AGAIN to take care of them?!!!

No doubt, he’ll probably get defensive if you come at him that way.

Instead, you want to take an approach more like this:

Honey, I know you’ve been busy, so it may have slipped you mind, but the faucet is still dripping. I know you told me you were intending to take care of it by last Friday.

Use a neutral tone of voice, not a blaming one and just state the facts. Remember, you’re just checking in, like you would with someone at work.

Listen to his response and then make another specific request, making sure you highlight the importance to you:

It’s really important to me. Would you please take care of it today?

Now please know that this is not some magic formula that will keep your husband from getting irritable or defensive. Some guys will still be reactive no matter how you follow up with them. But others will mirror your respect and courtesy.

Increasing the Odds of being Heard

There are a few ways to increase the odds that your requests will not be overlooked:

1. Connect the Request to Your Needs

One thing that can keep your request on his radar is to clearly connect it to a need you have. Sometimes husbands don’t follow through on requests because they don’t see why they’re important. Maybe he’s not as concerned about the water bill or conservation as you are, so that faucet isn’t bothering him. But it would bother him if he understood how much it was stressing you out. So try saying something like this:

I’m kind of at the end of my rope right now with Mom being sick and work being crazy. So that leaky faucet is just adding to my stress.

2. Treat Him Like an Adult

You don’t belittle or disrespect your colleagues and friends. (At least I hope you don’t!) So don’t treat your husband this way. Give him the respect you would any other adult.

But while you’re both entitled to respect in the relationship, you’re also both entitled to some degree of accountability too. That’s part of being an adult, too. Adults do the things they say they will do.

If the request you made was important to you, stand your ground. Just always do so respectfully and kindly.

3. Show Appreciation

If your husband regularly ignores your requests, make sure you’re not committing this common mistake. One of the reasons men say they stop stepping up in their marriage is because they truly believe no matter what they do, their wife will never be happy. So they just stop trying.

If that’s the case in your relationship, the easy fix is to consistently thank your spouse just like you would a friend or coworker if they did the same task.

Start changing the atmosphere in your relationship by looking for opportunities to show more respect and appreciation. More often than not, your spouse will do the same.

Got more questions about communication in marriage? Pick up a copy of my book Strong Women, Strong Love

One Small Shift That Will Improve Your Marriage

If you’re looking for ways to make your marriage better, there’s a strategy you may have never considered. It’s surprisingly simple, and it addresses a common point of tension. Yet very few women use it.

Ready? Here it is: Give partial credit.

That’s it.

What do I mean by partial credit? Let me explain by giving you an example I hear about all the time. A wife asks her husband to take care of some things around the house while she is out. He accomplishes almost everything she wanted him to do. But maybe he doesn’t do the job exactly as she would have.

What do you think she focuses on? That’s right: the fact that the task is not finished in the way she defines it. She’s only giving credit if everything is done and done right according to her standards— which doesn’t help anyone. The husband loses his motivation to do more around the house, and the wife loses out on the work he could be doing.

Giving partial credit works out a whole lot better for everyone. Let’s look at why that is.

Why We ‘Grade’ So Harshly

I don’t think women intentionally avoid giving partial credit. It’s just a function of how we are used to doing things and the stress we are under.

Women are taught to look for ways to be helpful without being asked and to go the extra mile. If one woman is doing a task, another will typically jump in and try to help if she can. Men, on the other hand, won’t usually insert themselves into a task another man is doing unless he is asked to do so. Men consider that being respectful.

In general, men also approach delegated tasks a little differently. They will usually strive to do exactly what is asked, and only that. So, if you’re mad at him for not doing more, he’s not really going to understand that. For example, if you asked him to run the dishwasher and he did that, he might be frustrated when you’re upset he didn’t also clean the kitchen counters because it was so “obvious” they were dirty.

Women are often multitasking and juggling more than men, thereby carrying a larger mental load. We want tasks to be completely done, with nothing left to address or worry about, so they can be totally off of our minds. There’s a psychological phenomenon at play here: the Zeigarnik Effect. Our brains remember incomplete tasks more readily than those that have been completed. Having too many loose ends can literally create mental stress by nagging at us.

What’s the Real Issue?

Shouldn’t he just know that the rest of the kitchen needed cleaning? Well, yes, but is that what you specifically asked him to do? If the only thing you did in response to the work he completed is to complain about what he didn’t do, he’s going to feel discouraged and micromanaged. He’s also going to eventually feel like nothing makes you happy.

Instead, try giving partial credit. Just say, “Thanks so much for loading the dishwasher.” This doesn’t mean you are giving up on his helping to clean the rest of the kitchen. But instead of implying he “failed” at the task you asked him to complete, make a more specific request next time: “Would you mind loading the dishwasher, cleaning the countertops and emptying the dishrack please?” Trust me, he’s not going to be offended by this level of detail.

The other important thing you can do moving forward is having a farther-reaching discussion about how the mental load of the household is distributed. This is especially important if you’re the one with a to-do list a mile long. At the end of the day, the problem isn’t really that he didn’t clean the rest of the kitchen, it’s that you are managing far too many details in your household, and that’s exhausting. Open his eyes to this so that the two of you can work out a better division of both physical and emotional labor.

Extend More Credit

Especially this time of year, partial credit is a useful concept to remember in your other relationships too. The holiday season brings a lot of expectations — and hurt feelings when those expectations don’t get met. How would it feel to give partial credit to your sister for at least waiting until after dessert to start complaining about her ex? Or to your in-laws for not overspending as wildly as they used to on the kids’ gifts even though they didn’t follow your wishes exactly?

I’m wishing you lots of peace and joy in all your relationships this holiday season. For more advice on better communication in marriage, pick up a copy of my book Strong Women, Strong Love.