Relationship stress during COVID-19, how to cope.

The reality is that managing relationship stress and maintaining your partnership over time is challenging during normal circumstances. There are few models for accomplishing this feat and many challenges along the way every day, let alone including a pandemic as there is now. Here is where the rubber meets the road!

It is understandable to get discouraged when dealing with these challenges but there really is hope. There are many productive ways for dealing with them, and you may discover new ones along the way. With knowledge comes power–Couple Power–to adapt and change and create new options for problem-solving, and growth. 

There are 4 C’s to Couple Power, and each one has its own tools and benefits for dealing with stress in your relationship. The unique program views the couple as an entity in and of itself, greater than the sum of its parts.

Here are the 4 steps in their specific order to help couples deal with relationship stress effectively during the Coronavirus pandemic:

#1 Commitment

The first C of commitment is the cornerstone of any successful relationship. Without that secure foundation, nothing else really works, no matter what the circumstances. During the pandemic, you likely have experienced intense relationship stress dealing with the dramatic changes to your life–being home with your partner more than usual, dealing with financial difficulties, managing children out of school, dealing with parents and their situation, plus the turmoil of racial and political strife. 

Taking the time to acknowledge and reinforce your commitment to your couple will help fortify your strength in dealing with the challenges you face. The kind of commitment we are talking about here is not obligation, which involves a sense of duty. Rather, it is based on mutual trust and a joint vision for your relationship.

So take the time to sit down with each other and create a brief statement of your joint commitment for how you want to handle the current circumstances. We call this creating a couple proclamation(Lifelong Love). Make it a positive joint statement declared in the present tense as if it is happening now, and say it together every day. 

For example, one couple who was feeling depressed created the proclamation “It’s a new day!” It helped them face each day with possibility and renewed optimism.

Another couple where the husband was out of work created the couple proclamation, “We are in this together.” This helped the husband deal with his feelings of guilt about being out of work. It also helped his wife to be supportive without resenting the current situation. 

#2 Cooperation

Cooperation is commitment in action. Once you have created yourselves as a powerful entity, you and your partner can be a unit acting effectively as a supportive team. This means acting in ways that satisfy both of you, not coming from self-sacrifice, self-interest, or compromise. In cooperation, unlike compromise, neither of you feel like you are losing out. You cooperate to create a win-win situation.

This kind of cooperation is particularly important during the pandemic when both of you are likely feeling overwhelmed and anxious about surviving day-to-day. Many people are experiencing economic distress due to loss of work, reduced income, or loss in the stock market. It is well known that financial difficulties lead to higher levels of relationship stress and instability. For example, studies show that people who suffered job-related hardship following the Great Recession were much more susceptible to mental health issues.

Finding ways to cooperate as a team around finances is so important in this climate. Being flexible about your roles and how you each contribute to the ‘’team” is crucial. Even in this day and age, you may still feel the expectations and pressure of gender role stereotypes and that can increase the stress on your relationship.

Here is how one couple handled it:

Paul and Eve were having trouble adjusting after Paul lost his job and Eve had to work from home every day in a new more demanding job. She felt guilty about not having more time for their daughter, and Paul felt guilty about not providing more income for the family. As a result of their work situations, Paul took care of their young child during the day and took care of the meals and housework. This change in their roles at home created an opportunity to work on being strong partners for each other.

To manage their feels of guilt, they turned this around by cooperating and acknowledging each other for their individual contributions each and every day. It’s true that they may still feel stress at times, but now it is without guilt or resentment about their different roles.

If you are both working from home, it will be important to establish boundaries and schedules that support your family as a whole. Make sure you are clear about the distinction between work hours and leisure time. 

Use any extra time you may now have to take on projects together as a team. One couple started a garden and worked on it together. Another took on organizing and decluttering rooms in their home that hadn’t been looked at in years. 

Another idea is to take some time and set goals for your partnership and make requests and agreements of what you want to accomplish. Then, you get to celebrate your “team” victories together. Especially during this challenging time of the pandemic, you need to take every opportunity to focus on the positive and enjoy each other when you can.

Cooperation often requires some generosity too. So don’t forget to think about what your partner may want or need but hasn’t requested. Do the dishes without being asked; bring your partner a cup of coffee or tea; offer to take over watching the kids for a while so your partner can take a break. Those little things can make a big difference now when we are more isolated and stressed.

3. Communication

Once you are clear about your commitment and are cooperating together, you and your partner can make good use of communication. Without having commitment and cooperation in place, however, you may communicate negative feelings in such a way that makes things worse. Tenzin Wangyal Rinpoche, a renowned Tibetan Buddhist teacher, in his book Spontaneous Creativity calls this “pain speech,” the voice of anxiety and criticism of yourself and others. 

You may be finding yourself or your partner lapsing into pain speech more often as the pandemic drags on and the relationship stress between you grows. Being together all the time, those loving, endearing traits you once cherished may begin to irritate you. Your partner’s sarcastic remarks may have been funny in the past, but now they seem cutting and unkind. 

Just don’t forget that it’s important to tell your partner how you feel about these irritations in a kind and supportive way. Otherwise, your message may be lost. To do this, first look inside yourself to see where your own sensitivities come from. Then, share with your partner in a respectful way, using “I” statements not “you” messages. In traditional communication, “you” messages focus blame on your partner instead of speaking from your perspective and your heart. By taking responsibility for your own stress, you can work on your issues together as a team.

One couple, Helen and Keith, together off and on for over 15 years, had finally begun talking about marriage before the pandemic. Now that both were home all the time, Keith’s drinking and smoking habits became more obvious and bothersome to Helen. When she told him “you have a problem with this,” he naturally became defensive.

With some coaching and therapy, Helen began to look at the problem as something they could take on together–through a view of “couplism”, not alcoholism. She told Keith she had an issue important to their relationship that she wanted to talk about. From this discussion, they were able to begin to communicate about possible actions to deal with his drinking and smoking together as a team. Now they can begin to envision a real future together. 

One of the most helpful communications you can give is acknowledging each other for things you appreciate about what your partner has said or done. This is particularly important during these challenging days of the pandemic when you probably each feel you are doing everything you can just to keep things going. Things that you might normally take for granted, like cooking dinner, folding the laundry, changing a diaper and so on are important to acknowledge and reinforce. Not only does it lift your partner’s spirits, acknowledging the positive behavior reinforces it and makes it more likely to reoccur.

So why not do it regularly and more often!

Another helpful tool is to bring some lightheartedness and humor into your lives so everything isn’t so serious all the time. Communication doesn’t have the be a chore! You can bond together greatly by watching some comedy on television, read joke books to each other, and find ways to laugh off the little irritations before they become big deals.

#4 Community

Last but not least of the Four C’s of Couple Power is the step of community. This is the experience of identifying with like-minded people. Just as it “takes a village” to raise a child, it takes a community to support a couple. This is even more important now during the pandemic. 

In the early romantic stage of your relationship, all you may feel like you want or need is each other. As time goes on, however, love is not enough. Community involvement serves to reinforce the notion that you are not alone, even in times of necessary social distancing that are required. 

You can get support from family, friends, religious, and professional groups through telephone calls, Facetime, and Zoom. It is especially helpful for you as a couple to connect with other couples as well. They are a source of support to your relationship and to theirs. 

Think of the couple friends you know that you would like to connect with, and call one each week or whenever you need support. You might even be able to arrange to meet in a small group of couples with social distancing for a patio gathering or a hike or canoe outing.

It is great to be face to face, but even virtual connections are helpful to feel connected. Sometimes short, regular meetings (we call them virtual cocktail parties) are an occasion to laugh and remember our connections.

You might also want to take this time to check out the national couple community of Couples Coaching Couples, which we helped to found almost 3 decades ago. It is a non-profit organization committed to helping couples have profoundly fulfilling relationships. Couples coach each other in weekly sessions, meet quarterly (in homes or now on Zoom), and annually at a CCC Convention (virtual this year). CCC supports partners in all Four C’s of Couple Power, especially now during this pandemic, with coaching and workshops on a regular basis.

Of all the Four C’s, community is perhaps the most exciting now during the pandemic, as it focuses on breaking down the barriers that keep people from committing, cooperating and communicating in loving and powerful ways. Like Couple Power, the power of mutuality can reduce fear and increase a sense of harmony, possibility and humanity–things couples and everyone needs so desperately now during these challenging times.

Please feel free to contact us if you need support in any area of the Four C’s. We have helped hundreds of couples through the years to achieve Couple Power using the Four C’s. We are happy to talk with you by phone (call 434-971-4701) or to set up an appointment for a virtual telehealth session. You may also want to check out our book Lifelong Love: 4 Steps to Creating and Maintaining an Extraordinary Relationship.

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