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How to Strengthen Your Marriage to Survive the Coronavirus Pandemic

A friend of mine was talking with me the other day about how remarkable it was to cook with her husband now.  That might seem like a simple thing, and yet for years, it was a running joke among friends that they could not be in the kitchen at the same time, without some kind of competition starting.

One year she made potato salad from a “family recipe” and everyone at the neighborhood BBQ loved it. The next month, he tried to make one, and it was voted not as good. This almost became a battle of the potato salad until she called a truce and never made it again. While it was a source of amusement for the neighbors, no one knew how hard it was on their relationship. They avoided being in the kitchen together, it was too much stress and didn’t seem to be worth it.

And then, COVID-19 came into our lives. Suddenly, cooking became more than something done at the end of a busy day, it became a way to get creative TOGETHER.  The competition had to go by the wayside and instead it became a way to share experiences and enjoy the results. This didn’t happen overnight, it took give and take, for both of them to make this fun.  Hopefully, the behavior learned will carry over to other parts of their lives together.

The coronavirus pandemic significantly changed life as we knew it just a few months ago. The closure of businesses, loss of jobs and the imposition of stay-at home-orders combined with restrictions to avoid public places have increased stress and anxiety. For married couples, the long-term impact may jeopardize the survival of many marriages.

Spouses generally spend more time apart than together during the week. If one or both spouses work outside the home, couples might be together briefly in the morning, for a few hours after the workday ends, and off and on over the weekend. That routine changed as businesses closed or required employees to work from home and as shelter-in-place orders were enacted. For many spouses, the new normal became confinement at home together 24 hours a day all week long.

Too much togetherness is not necessarily a good thing, particularly in a small living space. Add in the responsibility to supervise children also forced to remain home due to school closures and stress multiplies. Worries about finances or the health of an immediate or extended family member and restructuring household routines and chores all increase the already mounting tensions.

Many couples with strong bonds and coping skills will weather the pandemic and remain intact. However, countries that are now easing mandatory shelter restrictions are reporting significant increases in divorce filings. Many therapists and attorneys expect the same trend to take hold in the U.S. as states begin lifting restrictions.

For many marriages to survive this pandemic, extra effort will be required to take steps designed to manage and reduce the stress and anxiety created by confined living situations.

1. Communicate openly and honestly. Good communication is essential for the success of every marriage under normal circumstances. With spouses spending a lot more time together, communicating about feelings, personal needs and the demands of daily life is even more critical to the relationship.

Don't let small things build up until you feel the need to unleash an avalanche of complaints and grievances all at once. If you are feeling overwhelmed, be honest and discuss the cause of your feelings with your spouse. Discuss the role each parent takes in raising your children or work to avoid one being the “bad guy” over the other one.

To prevent emotional confrontations, be upfront with your spouse about issues or behavior that may create stress. Try to devise a plan for dealing with conflicts should they arise and make a mutual commitment to deal with frustrations in a non-offensive manner.

For example, if you sense an argument with a spouse coming on, call a time-out, tell your partner you are feeling stressed, that you need some time alone to consider the issue and that you will revisit the topic after a short break. Go do something else to calm down, look at ways to practice mindfulness. Once you're ready to discuss the problem, listen to what your spouse has to say. Acknowledge your spouse's feelings and ask for similar consideration. If both parties make a concerted effort to try and understand each other's point of view, reaching a cooperative resolution is more likely to occur.

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2. Renegotiate domestic responsibilities. Keeping the home clean and organized can quickly become an ongoing source of conflict, especially when the entire family is home the majority of each day. Dishes and clutter pile up faster. With limited ability to bring in babysitters, cleaners and other outside help, household members must take on extra duties.

If one spouse is typically tasked with most of the household chores such as cooking, cleaning and doing laundry, the inequality of chore sharing may quickly become a source of tension. If you want help with the chores, child supervision, meal prep and cleanup, laundry, cooking or other daily needs, ask your spouse for assistance. Your spouse is not a mind reader and may be oblivious to the fact that you would appreciate a helping hand. 

Work together and take advantage of each person's skills and talents to solve problems.  Find time at the end of the day to discuss how each person is feeling, physically and emotionally. Create a plan to tackle the next day's challenges. This may simply involve making a list of who will prepare specific meals, watch the kids, do the shopping or complete certain chores.

 3. Give yourself and your spouse some alone time. Everybody needs personal time away from the other spouse to rest, think or just escape the pressures of daily life and reduce tension.  Even if your living space is small, there are ways that you and your spouse can be apart to decompress when needed. Take a bath, go for a jog or a drive or just tell your spouse you're going to go read or take a nap in another room and that you don't want to be disturbed for 30 minutes. Just as you require alone time, be sure to allow your spouse the same courtesy.

4. Connect with friends outside the home. Having to stay home does not mean cutting yourself off from friends or colleagues. E-mail, text, Skype or just pick up the phone and call a friend. Hearing a familiar voice or getting a perspective different from what you are experiencing can help you relax, reduce stress and improve your mental health.

5. Seek professional therapy. If you are experiencing severe anxiety for an extended period and just can't find a way to cope, arrange for an online session with a marriage or family therapist. Being able to discuss and work through difficult issues with a trained professional can provide the needed support to help get through a crisis.

6. Practice kindness. Saying "please" or "thank you" can go a long way to maintaining a positive atmosphere and obtaining desired cooperation. Similarly, if disagreements lead to increased tension, saying "I'm sorry" can quickly de-escalate a potential confrontation. Rather than pointing out fault, casting blame or being critical, ask for assistance in a non-threatening manner such as, "I am feeling a bit stressed and would appreciate it if you could make dinner tomorrow night." Don't take each other for granted. Take the time to note the good things your partner is doing and show your appreciation.  

7. Maintain a sense of humor. Life is much more tolerable if you can laugh about something you see or experience each day. Read the newspaper comic strips, watch a comedy TV show, check out a funny YouTube video or just sit and be amused by the antics of a family pet. Each day may present new challenges and finding whatever it is that makes you smile will reduce stress and help to cope with your current situation.

No one ever said marriage was easy. Marriage takes constant work and attention under normal circumstances, and recent events are anything but normal. If spouses rely on each other's strengths, work as a team, practice kindness and patience and maintain a sense of humor, marriages will survive this virus and, hopefully, become even stronger in the long run.

If you need assistance with marriage counseling our Scottsdale counselors at Pathways Counseling Services are here to work with you as a couple or individually.  Our therapists are trained to help couples grow to be healthier and happier in their relationships.  We encourage you to schedule an appointment onlinecontact us or call our office at 480-235-1682. We offer a free 15 minute phone consultation.

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