Ever since stay-at-home orders started in Los Angeles, I have been asked about writing an article about how to keep relationships strong when you are cooped up together at home with nowhere to go. I have resisted until now, mostly because there are so many great articles out there already, and I was not sure I had anything to add to the conversation. But I realize that I do have something to say about it, so here goes!
Being around your partner more that you are used to can certainly create stress and resentment, but it can also bring you closer. What makes the difference? The answer is: what you were doing before the shelter-in-place.
The way I see it, and what I notice in session with couples, is that being around each other more than you are used to doesn’t necessarily create new problems so much as it makes existing problems louder. I remember an interview done years ago by Alanis Morisette, where she said that being famous makes all your issues bigger than they were before becoming famous. This is what I mean with couples–which is good news if you know what to do about it!
When the problem gets louder, you have a choice. You can either try harder to stuff it down, or you can come together as a team and take it on. Couples therapy can help, and I am happy to continue to offer in-office sessions as well as video sessions to assist. But the work always revolves around key values that do not change, regardless of the circumstances, if you want to have a close, loving relationship. Here they are in a short review:
- RESPECT: Respect is the strongest driving value for healthy relationships, and it needs to be mutual. Respect leads us to consider the effect of what we want to say or do before we say or do it. Respect does not mean that we never say anything bad, just that we don’t say it in a critical way, which only places the problem in the other person rather than in-between the two of you. Respect also applies to how we treat ourselves, which can impact a relationship in close quarters. Our self-care is important, and more so now, in that we attend to our health, diet, exercise, and grooming in a way that shows we value both ourselves and how our partners experience us. Self-respect also means that we pay attention to our feelings and communicate them sooner than later.
- CONFLICT: This is the number one skill I help couples with, because when done well, it brings couples closer. The basic rules to remember are that there are two things that work in conflict and four things that don’t. What works is to be able to talk about what you are feeling without making it into a criticism of your partner or an interpretation of their thoughts; additionally, it works to be interested in your partner when they are telling you that they are upset about something. What doesn’t work in conflict is criticism, defensiveness, uncontrolled anger, and demands. Keep them out of conflict! Of course, it is also helpful to know when you can talk about the problem, and when you might have to “cool down” first–as the late Kenny Rogers sang, “You gotta know when to hold ’em, know when to fold ’em.”
- CURIOSITY: The final value that is vital whether you are seeing your partner one hour a day or 24 hours a day is curiosity. Curiosity is your secret weapon against becoming defensive when they are upset with you–it gets underneath the surface issue and into the hurt feelings that have been triggered. The highest form of caring is interest, and if you have ever been on the receiving end of someone’s interest when you were upset, you know what I mean. When someone leans in and says, “You seem really upset with me, what is going on?”, we feel cared for and often immediately calm down. Curiosity shows a willingness to show up for each other, even when the conversation is difficult or painful. Love is not enough unless you are willing to be curious.
If you run into new issues that were not around before you started being at home together, you just need to use the same skills to have a “dialogue of intimacy” rather than a dialogue of distance. So there you have it–the new normal does not require that you learn new tools, just that you use the ones that have always worked! As long as you have to be close to your partner, take the opportunity to get closer!
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