As you’re probably aware, there’s currently a health crisis that’s caused everyone to be stuck home for the past 2 months, and it’s not over yet. This situation has brought out many different dynamics in interpersonal relationships, one of the main ones being that relationships with spouses and significant others have been affected.
When you read the word “affected,” did you think “affected positively” or “affected negatively”? I’m betting the latter. This is natural – the pandemic is a negative event, so our instinct is to believe that any of its effects are likely harmful. For the most part this is true – but when it comes to relationships that’s not necessarily the case. I’ll explain.
Any time people spend significantly more or less time together it changes the way the relationship works and the way they each feel and think about each other. In the present situation, this has manifested either in couples being quarantined together and spending vastly more time together than usual, or the opposite – quarantining apart, and not seeing each other often or at all. Both obviously present challenges, but both present opportunity as well.
In my extensive research preparing to write this piece (spoiler alert: I didn’t do any) I asked my wife “what are some tips for maintaining a good marriage during this crazy time?” She threw a spoon at me and told me to get out of the kitchen and leave her alone. So that didn’t work out too well. I then asked the same question to my dog, Barky. He wagged his tail happily and promptly searched me for snacks. I think it’s fair to say he’s pleased with the way things are going and would happily keep things this way forever.
The reason for these two different reactions is simple, and points out a fundamental principle in relationships: we all respond to others in our lives based on how they relate to us. When something is working well, we want more of it; when it isn’t, we want less. In other words, if we see a significant other as a source of joy, lowered stress, comfort, safety, and other positive emotions, we want more. If the opposite, we want less.
This may sound simplistic, overly pragmatic, and even jaded. It’s certainly not a popular philosophy in many circles. But this is a concept that I believe strongly in, and that I believe is essential for a truly successful relationship. I use this motivation-based principle as the basis for my couples counseling work: specifically, the acknowledgement and acceptance of the fact that each person has individual emotional needs, and being able to have these needs effectively met within the context of a relationship is critical to the relationship being successful and contributing to the person’s emotional well-being. We all have specific emotional needs, and they are unique to each person. What works for one person doesn’t work for another, though many are fairly universal (trust, compatible worldviews/values, attraction, to name a few).
Being quarantined with someone, or conversely, being separated for an extended time, serves to highlight these needs and shine a brighter light on them than usual. When viewed in this context, the current situation can actually be an opportunity. Putting relationships in a different light and magnifying their dynamics allows people to see how they actually feel about various aspects of it, in ways that are simply not noticeable in “normal” times. It can allow you to notice what’s working well, what’s not working well, and to ask important questions like “why?” and “what can I do to improve this?” You may find things that you appreciate about your partner that you hadn’t noticed before. You may find things that bother you that you weren’t aware of; this is a good opportunity to explore those feelings.
I’ll add one more layer. I believe that in doing this exploration, it’s important to explore on your own first before having a conversation with your partner about it. Think it through and try to come to an understanding of what you’re feeling. Is there a particular aspect of the relationship that you view differently, and want to discuss? What exactly do you want the outcome of this conversation to be? Do you have specific requests? What are they, are they reasonable, and are they possible for your partner to meet? A therapist can be helpful in working with you to sort through these thoughts/feelings and formulate them into a more concrete form.
Finally, recognize that your partner is going through the same emotional turbulence as you. Whether they understand and/or acknowledge it or not, these dynamics are universal, and everyone in this situation is experiencing it. So ask yourself what might your partner be experiencing and feeling about you? Is there something you can identify that would make them more comfortable? Is there a particular emotional need they have that this situation has given you the opportunity to notice, to meet better, more often, or in a stronger way?
The bottom line in all relationships – romantic or otherwise – is that we all have specific needs that we are looking to have filled, and our partners are the same. The current situation, while not something anyone would willingly choose, is an opportunity to view your emotional state from a different perspective, in a very highlighted and focused way. If you can utilize this time to notice areas of your relationship that you didn’t even realize you appreciate, you’ll feel much better. And if you can identify areas of potential improvement, and work with your partner (and a couples counselor if you can find a good one), to develop a realistic and effective plan for making these improvements, you’ll have a much stronger relationship as a result.