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?