While quarantine is an important measure in stopping the spread of the deadly coronavirus, it’s also proven to be a unique burden on many modern relationships. In recent history, there’s been no time when couples have been forced to stay in one another’s company for such a sustained period. And given that it’s absolutely possible to spend too much time together, the effects of this dynamic can be telling.
“It’s sort of been a ‘be careful what you wish for’ mentality for some,” says counselor Karla Ivankovich, PhD. For instance, if you’re a chronic multitasker who wears a “busy badge” with pride, you may have previously wished to have more time to spend with your partner. Now, perhaps that abundance of QT may be illuminating to you that your partner is more rigid than you realized, or not as engaged with your kids as you’d prefer, or has brought to light some other less-than-pleasing quality.
Ultimately, a number of couples are discovering that being together nonstop is more than they bargained for. Below, learn the common ways too much time together in quarantine can complicate a relationship, and strategies to help ensure you and your partner emerge stronger than ever.
How too much time together can be too much for couples in quarantine
Many couples are working remotely in the same space for the first time ever, which is allowing them to see one another in a wholly new light—one that can be flattering or, well, not so much. “I’ve heard people say, ‘I had no idea my husband is one of those guys—he’s constantly interrupting people at work,’” says says intimacy coach Alexandra Stockwell, MD, author of Uncompromising Intimacy. “Or, their voice will soften, their heart will open, and they’ll say, ‘I had no idea how intense his work is.’” Whether what you’re experiencing is newfound appreciation or disgust for your partner, though, what you ultimately need to decide is how you feel the implications of this information will weigh on your relationship.
In addition to new intel—like your partner’s work style—quarantine life has shined a light on a number of existing dynamics, like that of the distribution of household chores. “I am seeing tense arguments over who put the children to bed, who’s going to help with math homework,” says Dr. Ivankovich. “It’s a look at how you will handle division of labor down the road.” Usually, one partner is picking up the slack, and now that you’re constantly at home together and theoretically the division should be able to be equal, that disparity opens up room for disputes.
Constant togetherness is illuminating issues that always existed but were simply feasible to ignore before. But, we may not always like the truths of our relationship that we’re seeing.
Whether issues of new information or frustration about bad old habits—or both—are changing the way you feel about your partner or relationship, handling those feelings is trickier now more than ever. Our communication patterns and typical coping mechanisms are disrupted, since we can’t lean on our entire support network the way we previously could. If a spouse doesn’t offer the emotional intimacy you need or simply isn’t helping with the dishes, for instance, you can usually turn to a friend to find support or to just vent. But now? You can’t go grab that cathartic dinner, or perhaps even find the privacy in your own home to dish over a phone call. This forces us to confront our hard feelings in ways that we’re not used to and frankly don’t want to.
“Normal life gives us a ton of opportunities to avoid facing [conversations that don’t appeal to us],” says Dr. Stockwell. “We can distract ourselves from what is at the core of our relationships, but all of our typical forms of distraction are no longer available.” And, for better or worse, that can bring a number of deep-seated issues to the surface. The positive here is that constant togetherness is illuminating issues that always existed but were feasible to ignore before. But we may not always like these hard truths of our relationship that we’re seeing.
How to grow together, not apart, in quarantine
It is, though, definitely possible to come out of the pandemic with an even stronger relationship. And carving out alone time, even amid this period of constant togetherness, is necessary for making that happen. “Have your individual and together moments, and put them on the schedule,” says Dr. Stockwell.
Your individual moments should include seeing self-care activities that fulfill you, because committing to those at any point, but especially when you’re spending too much time together, will actually benefit the health of your relationship. “Anything one person does to feel better—taking a bath, working out—it’s not just for you, it is also to make you a better, pleasant, more available partner,” says Dr. Stockwell. “Take responsibility to do what you can to feel better, to bring that to the relationship so you don’t place that burden on your partner.”
“Anything one person does to feel better—taking a bath, working out—it’s not just for you, it is also to make you a better, pleasant, more available partner.” —intimacy coach Alexandra Stockwell, MD
When you prioritize caring for yourself, you’ll be able to come back to your relationship more able to effectively address pain points, which starts with opening lines of communication. “The first step is to be curious,” says Dr. Stockwell. “When there are cracks in the foundation, or masked problems in the relationship, each partner has made up a whole story in their head about what’s going on that correlates with their own experience. Very often, problems can be resolved with genuine curiosity.”
Dr. Stockwell suggests asking “really simple, open-ended questions” of your partner’s experience right now. “Ask, ‘What do you daydream about? What’s most frustrating about all of this for you? If there were one thing we could change about the situation, what would it be?’ Ask simple questions, where there is no right answer.”
Beyond being curious about your partner’s headspace, use this time in quarantine to reflect on reasons you may not be satisfied, in light of shifting priorities or just in general. Dr. Ivankovich says as life has changed, many people are discovering they didn’t want what they thought they wanted, which is totally acceptable, so long as those realizations are communicated effectively. “Don’t blame the other person. Have an honest conversation about what it is that you really want,” she says.
Ultimately, with our daily lives looking largely different for a sustained period, our relationships cannot stay stagnant and must change with our shifting needs. If utilized correctly, this time in quarantine could actually benefit your partnership and sense of mutual respect.
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