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September 15, 2020

The COVID-19 Crucible: Forging Better Bonds for Couples

Wisdom for strengthening your relationship during crisis
The COVID-19 Crucible: Forging Better Bonds for Couples
Image: Alex Iby/Unsplash

Before COVID-19, one of the struggles I used to hear from couples was a lack of time spent together at home due to work-related commitments and social activities. Now, I find that the opposite is true! Couples are dealing with different issues and stressors as they are now, in a way, “forced” to be together at home. What are these new issues and stressors, and what are some helpful ways to face them together?

Since the pandemic started, the struggles I often hear from couples center around dealing with financial hardships, adjusting to the new work-from-home routine, increased amount of household chores, new child-rearing arrangements, and feelings of isolation from the larger community. It seems that many couples now spend a significant amount of time together but are also overwhelmed with lots of “To Do’s”, which have taken away their opportunity to really “be” with each other. When both spouses are under stress and busy coping themselves, they may not be able to provide one another with much-needed support. They might find themselves drifting away from each other and feeling disconnected despite the constant physical presence.

So, what should we do to nurture our couple/marital relationships during this COVID-19 era without neglecting the things we must do? While there is no one perfect answer to this, here are some considerations that might help turn this COVID-19 crisis into an opportunity to strengthen your relationship at the very foundations.

Viewing Your Relationship through a Systemic Lens

As a therapist, one of the first things I do with couples is to step back and assess their interaction patterns from a systemic perspective. When a couple comes in, spouses typically have a ready answer for who they think is responsible for their current relationship distress, often blaming the other and defending oneself. But for most of their issues, they both may have played a role in the maintenance of what they identify as a problem. For example, some couples demonstrate a pursuer-distancer pattern with one spouse pursuing the other to resolve conflict while the other distancing to avoid the conflict. They might blame the other as being “too aggressive” and “too passive” but it may be that each of their behavior has been reinforced in response to the other’s. Given this, distressed couples may first need to gain an understanding of the relational dynamics created by both parties and the ways in which COVID-19-related stressors have affected or accelerated these dynamics.

Why We Do What We Do

The next question to ask is why certain dynamics exist and why those are often repeated in the relationship. Those who are stuck in the pursuer-distancer patterns might conclude that it’s because of their personal differences and communication preferences. Those who tend to consult with a third person for their couple/marital issues might believe they are in the right because they benefit from the person’s neutral advice. Some others might feel too busy to address their couple/marital issues because they have too much work to do. All of these are valid reasons, but they may only be at the surface-level. In my clinical practice, I often find that there are deeper-level stories that underlie couple relational dynamics. It may be that the pursuers feel rejected and abandoned when their spouses distance, so they pursue even more to work things out. The distancers feel criticized and attacked when they are pursued, so they distance more to feel safe. Couples who tend to involve a third party – whether it be a pastor, friend, or even one of their children – might do so to reduce the tension in their couple relationship out of anxiety. These may all be vulnerable backstories that people rarely share. Yet, these are powerful motives of their behaviors and relationship choices, and often hint at what their “real” needs are.

The Need for Bonding

One thing that surprised me the most in my early career as a therapist was that people seem to only need a simple thing from their spouses. While they complain about a wide variety of problems, ranging from the division of labor to frequency of sex, their deepest-level of needs tend to converge to their desire to be loved and connected. In Hold Me Tight, Sue Johnson emphasizes the importance of understanding that “most fights are really protests over emotional disconnection” (p. 30). The real reason couples fight, therefore, may be to earn love and connection they are currently missing. Nothing is pathological or shameful about wanting love and connection. Rather, it is the opposite. Such attachment needs indicate natural and healthy human desire, and couples need to be able to acknowledge those needs. As Sue Johnson urges, “Forget about learning how to argue better. . . Instead, recognize and admit that you are emotionally attached to and dependent on your partner in much the same way that a child is on a parent for nurturing, soothing, and protection” (p. 7).

Strategies for Bonding (and Loosening!)

Many people are juggling so many things during the COVID-19 pandemic that strengthening their relationship as a couple might feel like too much of a luxury. However, a strong relationship makes a strong partnership for the tasks at hand, and productivity may come from a collaborative team work. While there is no magic solution that will work for everyone, putting some structure on daily routines can help, both for the time spent together and alone. Spouses may set aside a day/time each week for their “dates” during which they take a walk, go on a bike riding, or watch a movie at home. Sometimes making an “appointment” for arguments can be helpful for busy spouses to know that they have a space where they will be able to share their thoughts on difficult topics. In doing so, it is also important to leave room for each spouse’s personal space. Though it may seem counterintuitive, spending some alone time can benefit a relationship as it gives each spouse the opportunity to get reenergized for social interactions. Especially during times of intense stress or conflict, couples may want to establish a rule for calling time-outs so that each person can decompress and gain perspective on their distress.

Use of Helpful Resources

All of these things—assessing relationships, identifying needs, and implementing strategies—may not be easy for couples to do on their own. Thus, I strongly encourage that they take advantage of resources that are available to them. Sue Johnson and John Gottman are well known family therapy experts whose approaches have strong research evidence. They both have published many self-help books for couples that provide insights and helpful suggestions. For example, Gottman’s Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work includes questionnaires and exercises that couples can implement for themselves to assess and strengthen their relationships. Couples therapy may also be an option to consider. A good systemic therapist will be able to help you do what is outlined here, in a safe, non-judgmental environment. Though therapy is more of a process and may not provide you with a quick solution, you will find the process rewarding as you gain a better understanding of yourself and your spouse and collaborate to nurture your relationship during this difficult time.

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The COVID-19 Crucible: Forging Better Bonds for Couples