If you have been staying at home, you may have realized that sharing a space with someone for an extended period is increasingly difficult. What if the person you love refuses to use headphones or drives you insane with their constant worrying? “Anticipate [that, by spending] so much time together, you’re likely to get on each other’s nerves, and keep friction at a minimum,” says psychotherapist Karen R. Koenig, LCSW, M.Ed.
“See this time as a unique opportunity to learn more about each other or as a chance to emphasize the fact that you work best when you are not always together,” adds Racine R. Henry, Ph.D., LMFT. Since staying indoors and working from home (if you are lucky) appears to be our new normal, we asked the experts how to maintain a relationship and make the best of this situation. Here is what we learned.
Pro-tip for couples suddenly working from home together: Get yourselves an imaginary coworker to blame things on. In our apartment, Cheryl keeps leaving her dirty water cups all over the place and we really don't know what to do about her.
— Molly Tolsky (@mollytolsky) March 16, 2020
1. Create a WFH Schedule
It is very likely that you and your partner are not used to spending this much time together. “Create a schedule together that would allow you to do things alone (i.e., working from home, exercise, etc.) and also maintains your routine together, which may include meals, after dinner TV watching, etc.,” says Henry. It may be harder if you live in a small space, but one person can work on the bed, and the other can call dibs on the desk. “Alone doesn’t mean in complete isolation. It can just be a space that you designate for working during a certain time frame and making up your mind about that,” he adds. “You can still check-in via text or social media as you would if each of you were at your respective jobs. There are no rules around how much you have to talk or interact with one another.”
2. Set Clear Boundaries
“Boundary talk can include anything from asking (politely) that your partner not eat the special foods you’ve bought for yourself, to respecting that you will want alone time even if your partner is bored to tears,” says Koenig. It can help mitigate feelings of resentment and prevent an outbreak over who finished the cauliflower gnocchi. Further, ask them questions like “How do you think things are going with us now that we’re spending so much time together and don’t go out much?” or “What do you think will help us do better handling the quarantine?” “Go through a list of topics: sleep, sex, eating, alone time, together time, cleaning, and managing emotions. It’s not so much saying the “right” thing as asking the question with curiosity and caring and then listening to what your partner says,” adds Koenig. “Other boundary areas concern times when you go to sleep and awaken, who’s in charge of the remote, keeping your living space hygienic, and who’ll do the cooking and clean-up.”
3. Recognize This is a Scary Time for Everyone
“My best advice for couples is to give each other some space and leeway during this time. We don’t know what lies ahead, and the constant influx of media stories can be overwhelming,” says Henry. Decide if you want to talk about or watch constant media coverage of the COVID-19 virus or if you rather keep the mood light at home. “Try not to read too much into your partner behaving oddly or exhibiting behaviors that would normally mean something is off,” he adds.
4. Remind Yourself Life Will Go Back to Normal
Irritation is common when you are no longer following your daily routine. “If a partner tends toward anxiety and anger, they’ll probably exhibit a good deal of both in quarantine. If couples who aren’t used to getting irritated with each other do, this will be a new experience to learn from,” says Koenig. “When tensions get high, keep reminding yourself and your partner that life will be back to normal after the quarantine.” She adds, “Do deep breathing, take time outs from arguments, apologize for your part, vent to others, do physical activity to reduce body tensions.” Do not allow them to mistreat you, but it helps to cut your partner some slack and not take their irritation personally.
5. Look Out for Possible Red Flags
“Being around each other for hours on end can reveal the small and large issues present in your relationship that normal, functional routine tasks can distract us from,” says Henry. Some of the irritation can be blamed on the pandemic but pay attention to how they react. Is this someone you want to weather future storms with? Henry adds, “If you are absolutely dreading the thought of being sheltered in place with your partner, that can be a red flag… Are you annoyed that the dishes aren’t done because you’re not able to go to work (yellow flag) and not see them, or is this a habit that you are no longer willing to tolerate (red flag)?” Yellow flags are often transient and situational. If you are incessantly arguing with your partner and are unable to coexist in the same room, it is a red flag. It may help to establish a nonverbal agreement. “This means you will only communicate via text and/or e-mail. Setting this boundary will eliminate the act of arguing while also allowing you to exchange information,” adds Henry.
6. Appreciate This Time Together
This time is a unique opportunity to get to know your partner on an even more intimate level. According to Koenig, “The challenge is to understand that and not try to make the experience perfect. Think of being quarantined together as just one more experience you’re sharing with someone you love. Be open and honest and encourage your partner to do the same. Identify what will be different during the quarantine and what you hope will be the same.”
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