Pre-pandemic, such a thing wouldn't have gotten a rise from either of us, but by keeping us cooped up at home, trying to balance working from home, and watching our 10-month-old baby, quarantine was changing our relationship. Neither of us had been sleeping well, and it seemed like we never had a minute to ourselves. We were always trying to work, always trying to entertain our son, and always trying to get to the never-ending “to-do” list of chores. We weren’t spending time together so much as tagging the other one in for “baby duty.” And by the end of the day, one of us usually fell asleep on the couch and the other would begrudgingly cook, clean up, or tend to middle-of-the-night baby cries. We were cranky and resentful, and felt more like childcare colleagues than romantic partners.
So on that particular day, it didn’t take much for us to snap at each other—and, as we'd learn in the months that followed, it would hardly be our only instance of fighting over something relatively insignificant in quarantine. According to mental-health professionals, this might be a result of looking for everything in one person during this time. “The pandemic has complicated intimacy in myriad ways, not least of which is that our social lives are constricted, making our partner our co-worker, lunch date, workout pal, and [spouse] all rolled into one,” says Leah Guttman, PsyD, a clinical psychologist in New York City and founder of Washington Square Therapy.
How a long-term relationship in quarantine can change
By the very nature of spending so much more time than normal with a long-term partner, we place additional expectations on them—and we’re doing all of this during a time of incredible uncertainty and stress, hence the pressure-cooker situation. “When you’re under stress, you have lower frustration tolerance,” Dr. Guttman says. “Wrinkles in personality and living habits that were once brushed off—a partner who leaves dirty socks on the floor or routinely forgets to walk the dog before falling asleep—become cause for major blowouts.”
- Leah Guttman, PsyD, Leah Guttman, PsyD, is a licensed clinical psychologist who is currently a supervisor for the New York State Office of Mental Health Pandemic Stress Response Practicum for which she supervises graduate students providing emotional support to first-responders and others impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic.
- Peter Kanaris, PhD, Peter Kanaris, PhD, is a licensed psychologist, sex therapist, and sex educator. Since 1998, he has directed the Sexual Diagnostic Program in Smithtown, New York.
This makes sense, but it still came as surprise to myself and my husband that our relationship in quarantine quickly changed after more than 10 years together. Having lived through job changes, layoffs, deaths, and illness, we thought we knew how we each reacted in stressful situations, and we certainly didn’t expect to take out our frustrations on each other.
But those previous stressful life events were different in that they were acute and specific, and the pandemic isn’t either of those things: It's an existential crisis without an endpoint. “[People in relationship] are now being enmeshed together in a very pressurized, condensed way where the normal outlets have been replaced with excessive time together,” says Peter Kanaris, PhD, a psychologist and sex therapist in New York.
We don’t get a break from each other, we don’t get a break from our relationship issues, and we don’t get a break from the stress and fear that comes with living in a pandemic. One thing this situation can lead to is even more conflict.
Over time, this pressure exposes existing issues in a relationship and puts strain on them because we don't get a break from them. We don’t get a break from each other, we don’t get a break from our relationship issues, and we don’t get a break from the stress and fear that comes with living in a pandemic. One thing this situation can lead to is even more conflict. “If these conflicts keep rolling, the danger becomes that it can breed alienation,” Dr. Kanaris says. “If you’re alienated, you don’t feel like being close, you don’t feel like being intimate, and you don’t feel like being affectionate with that person.”
Are the changes permanent?
According to Dr. Guttman, it’s too early to tell. “Crises are not the best time to assess the stability of a relationship,” she says. That said, if you notice a negative-leaning trend in your relationship in quarantine, such as more arguments, there are things you can do to work on them so that, as a couple, you cope better together.
“What’s needed for many couples is a discussion about how once-minor annoyances impact each person differently, when—in the context of a pandemic—baseline anxiety is heightened,” Dr. Guttman says. “Does the partner who leaves dirty socks on the floor realize this makes the other partner feel ignored? Does the partner who nags about the dirty socks realize the other person feels inadequate, as though doing the day's grocery shopping and cooking was somehow insufficient? I think that you have to work really hard on not seeing one person as 'right' or seeing that one person did more and one did less,” says Dr. Guttman. “You're both right. You've both done a lot. Meet each other together in the middle.”
This starts by recognizing that we’re living through something unprecedented; having awareness that the pandemic is impacting your relationship can remind you to act as a team. It’s also important to show empathy for each other and to help when and where you can. A lot of the frustrations in a relationship in quarantine, Dr. Kanaris says, comes from both partners feeling like they’re drowning while the other one looks on, without helping. “It’s not a contest. It’s not who’s drowning more than the other,” he says. “[You're] both trying to keep [your] heads above water, so ask ‘how can I help you?’” If that’s too hard to do—or you continue to struggle—you can also seek help from a professional.
It’s also important to make dedicated time for each other. Yes, you’re around each other all of the time, but that doesn’t mean that you’re actually spending quality time together as a couple. Make time to watch a movie together, go for a walk together, or simply talk to each other without phones or other distractions. “Just like we make time for other things we value or need to get done, we need to schedule time together,” Dr. Kanaris says.
So, nearly half a year into living amid a COVID-19 world, my husband and I are still at home, juggling caring for our son and our workload, and our relationship is still different than it was back in March. But not all the changes are bad.
Sure, we still argue—who doesn’t?—but we've made a conscious effort to give each other some slack and have grown as a result. We’ve learned to balance each other's high tensions and we’ve also discovered new ways to have fun so that we’re not just “co-workers.” We used to love spending time outdoors in national parks but since we’re uncomfortable with traveling right now, we bought ourselves outdoor patio furniture and a small grill so that we can really maximize our time outside in our backyard.
While we don’t know how our relationship will look in a post-pandemic world, we're now committed to making the positive changes permanent. Dr. Kanaris says that's the silver-lining opportunity we, and all other long-term couples navigating the pandemic together, can maximize. “We do that by holding on to the things that we cherish and bringing them with us to the other side of this [pandemic] dark cloud.”
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