Most people I speak to have found one part of the pandemic particularly trying. Namely, the learning curve that has been presented to all of us in having to conflate parenting, homeschooling, and working from home simultaneously. Parents are being challenged to wear multiple hats and switch between them all day long. As a result, the attention we try to give to our marital connection will end up taking a backseat. It is less a matter of what we prefer or choose to prioritize, and more a matter of lacking time and experiencing exhaustion.
While “dividing and conquering” is definitely an aspect of the more successful approaches, I want to encourage you to think of COVID-19 as the “marital challenge” that asks us to increase our contact and communication and use our partnership to boost our strengths as couples!
First things first, if I told you that you needed to do something really, really hard that was going to make you feel closer to your partner and more thankful for their presence, I bet you’d be willing to give it a try. So, I am telling you that a marriage can survive in a pandemic and even thrive in a pandemic. Here are some tricks:
- COMMUNICATE, COMMUNICATE, COMMUNICATE. Communication is the number one rule in marriage. For parents and spouses working from home it is essential to let each other know what you have planned and how you will be helping with the communal and family activities. We are fortunate to be able to use shared calendars so that we can coordinate our schedules. However, let’s remember that we often spend too much time on our devices and too little time making eye contact. So, consider using a big paper calendar, or a whiteboard. At the very least, make time to sit and talk with each other about what’s planned AND about how each of you feel about it. During this unprecedented time, there is no such thing as too much communication. One week ahead of time, sit down when the children are asleep and talk about “kid-duty”. Then, revisit your work calendars the Sunday night before the week ahead as schedules become more concrete. And, each night, confirm you are on the same page for the following day. Remember, a digital synced calendar can streamline the process. However, shared digital calendars cannot replace face-to-face dialogue. Two important points: 1) Let your spouse know if you have important meetings that require privacy and quiet. 2) Be gracious about giving each other private time and encourage each other to schedule time for self-care. We not only need to eat right, sleep well, and exercise… We actually need breaks throughout the 67day to get some fresh air, listen to something funny, or meditate. This is an opportunity to show care for your spouse… taking the children outside to play during your spouse’s important videoconference, or bringing them a sandwich or a glass of water to help them stay hydrated can increase the smiles and decrease the overall stress.
- Find ways to connect as a couple…creativity is essential when quarantining. Surprise your spouse with a kind gesture. Here are a few ideas: 1) Plan a picnic in the backyard. 2) When you have “kid duty”, consider ordering a latte for your spouse (remember, curbside delivery only!). 3) Yes, everyday can feel like groundhog day…so how about making the weekend days feel special and different? Maybe pancakes and bacon can be breakfast on Saturday versus the bowl of cereal that the kids grab on a Tuesday. 4) Once the children are in bed on weekend nights, create a “date night in” and use this time isolated at home to focus on each other. 5) Try something that you don’t usually do: Try listening to a podcast. Instead of just watching a movie…snuggle together during the movie. 6) Of course, doing things you already enjoy is also a good idea: Find an absorbing new series to binge watch together (“Tiger King” can make Coronavirus seem normal!) Enjoy a leisurely late dinner and unpack the last week. 7) Make sure there is time allocated to checking in with each other to find out what is working and what is not. If you find yourself not having patience for your partner’s complaints, try to “reset” and listen affresh. Sometimes, it is difficult to be clear about what the issue actually is. This is a time to improve communication and teamwork. Be proud of each other. Simple tasks are not so simple in this time of uncertainty. And be kind to each other. You might have expectations for your spouse that they are having difficulty with. We can figure it out together. Leave the judgment outside.
- Now, after those positive ideas, we also must concede that blow-ups will happen…expect them. Emotions are amplified during times of stress. When frustrations escalate, how you go through the tough time, and how you recover is what gives spouses the greatest sense of success and security. Think of your emotional temperature on a scale of 0-10 (0 being “calm”, 10 being “greatly distressed”). If you notice you are in the 7-10 range, step away from the situation to cool down. It is very important that you make it okay for each other to take space. Remember, you can always explain later. There’s no reason to make yourselves stay and get into a fight. Oftentimes when you enter this danger zone, you are flooded with emotions and acting irrational. As much as we have the desire to figure it out “right then and there,” Dialogue is often counterproductive when spouses are in the “hot zone.” Draw upon your coping skills to find a way to lower your emotional temperature. It is most important to return to your spouse to calmly discuss the frustration. I find many couples gloss over these issues and over time resentment builds without regularly using healthy skills to de-escalate the conflict. Keep in mind that “healthy dialogue” does not mean that you need to agree or even be on the same page. It means that you can respectfully disagree at times, hear your partner’s perspective and empathize, and find some compromise if a decision is needed. Perhaps it is a rainy day and your toddler is on his 4th tantrum of the morning…your spouse walks in and asks why the Wifi is not working and says your Instacart order just got cancelled due to high volume…this brings you to an 8 on your frustration scale. Step away (of course, explain the need to do so, don’t just leave without a word)! Put in your headphones and do a ten minute guided meditation…or go for a drive to put gas in your car…find a way to reset. Return to your spouse and give them context for your escalated emotions…find your healthy dialogue.
- Limit negativity. There’s only so many times a day you need to check the news. Don’t have it playing in the background, and don’t make it the last thing you look at before you go to sleep. And that goes for your media choices, too! Why watch a gory, graphic, creepy movie when we have such bizarre events going on in our lives?
- Find humor. Laughing is therapeutic and can instantly diffuse tension in a household. If you are parents of young children, we all know they can say and do funny things. Share some of the humorous moments with your spouse at the end of the day and let the laughter wash away the stress. Find a way to laugh at the absurdity of this situation. Who would have ever thought you would be working from home, homeschooling and parenting WITHOUT childcare?! This chapter will end and many simple things will feel like luxuries….childcare, working in a private and quiet office, sending your child to school to learn.
- Aim for a Flexible Routine NOT a Rigid Schedule. Consistency and routine are helpful for everyone, however, leave room for things to deviate and opportunity for spontaneity. Perhaps you planned a creative alphabet learning activity for your daughter for your morning block of “kid-duty” time, but the weather is spectacular and she really wants to ride her bike. Go with it! Draw letters on the driveway with chalk instead! Save the prepared activity for tomorrow. Find the path of least resistance…it can work too.