Forgive us for stating the obvious, but life is pretty damn stressful right now. The economy is on life support. Schools and camps are closed. We’re working from home and balancing child care. We’re concerned about our friends and relatives. We can’t casually scroll social media without stumbling into something overwhelmingly hateful. And, oh yeah, COVID-19 is still an enormous threat. So it’s understandable for all marriages to be under a lot of pressure right now.
Stress eats into relationships. It puts us all on edge, leading to less understanding and more arguments. Flare ups are bound to happen. While inoculations aren’t available, there is some relationships advice that can help people cope. Like giving one another the benefit of the doubt more often. Or being specific about the language you use when having an argument. Or making sure to vocally appreciate a partner half more often. Here’s some relationship advice all stressed out parents should keep in mind.
1. Set Boundaries
We’re all more or less jammed into the same space right now. This is unavoidable. But that doesn’t mean we have to be on top of each other all the time. Sit down and discuss lines of demarcation. Designate a work space for one another. Give yourselves the spaces you need to be productive and active without crowding them. If this means sitting in the car to make calls, so be it. We’re all making due.
Importantly, however, these boundaries must also apply to when you’re giving your attention to your work and when it’s time for family. Let your spouse know that he or she is still a priority by putting the phone down and closing the laptop when work is through.
“When you work from home, it’s easy to answer emails first thing in the morning and late into the evening,” says therapist Eliza Kingsford. “For some, this is fine as it creates flexibility throughout the day at other times. But be aware that it doesn’t start to consume your days.” Frustrations will certainly occur. Take note and make changes as necessary.
2. Get Intentional
According to Dr. Susan Mecca, author of The Gift of Crisis, one of the most important steps we can all take during any crisis is to stop and say to yourself: Who do I want to be during this and how do I want to act? Creating this intention, she says, helps keep yourself in check. Are there going to be times when blow up when you want to be calm and measured? Absolutely. We’re all human. But if we make this intention and share it with a spouse or someone else it can be help you get back on track. “Planes don’t fly in a straight line. They’re always changing course,” says Dr. Mecca. “So as a parent you’re always going to be readjusting. But if you don’t know your course, you don’t know what you’re readjusting to.”
3. Schedule Alone Time
We all need time to ourselves to destress or just zone out for 20 minutes. The need is even more so now. This means we must all schedule time to go outside, be alone for a minute, or do whatever is needed to mentally recalibrate. Without doing this, we’re much more likely to snap at our partners or put more emotional stress on them.
In busy households, this need can only be made clear through proper communication. Couples need to sit down and discuss this. What time do you need? When can we set that time in the schedule? It’s also important to be understanding of your partner’s need for the same. Therapist Ben Hoogland, MS, LFT says it’s crucial for couples to not be passive or resentful towards someone asking for alone time. So schedule that alone time. And if your partner is being reluctant, offer to take the kids or set up something for them that forces them to take some moments alone. Everyone needs it.
4. And Schedule Time as a Couple
Right now, it’s can be easy to feel like roommates or co-workers instead of romantic partners. Couples must be sure to take measures to recognize this side. Order in from that place you like. Take a long walk together while the kid is asleep in the stroller. Watch an old movie you both love. Schedule a Zoom class together.
5. Give One Another the Benefit of the Doubt
When stress is high, it’s very easy to misinterpret someone else’s completely normal actions. A good rule of thumb: When you’re communicating with your partner, give them the benefit of the doubt. “You’re both dealing with increased stress and unpredictability, so it’s likely that your partner isn’t actually trying to annoy you or act selfishly — they’re probably genuinely overwhelmed and not thinking as clearly as usual,” says Jessie Bohnenkamp, a licensed professional counselor in Virginia. “If you need to bring up an issue, focus on the specific behavior that’s bothering you rather than criticizing your partner’s character or personality.”
6. Set Aside Time to Vent
In stressful times, it’s easy to forget to touch base with one another. Not a good look. So be mindful and set aside a specific time at the end of every day to talk about what’s happening. Bohnenkamp says that during this scheduled time each partner gets ten or 15 minutes to talk about whatever’s on their mind — work stress, worry about their parents’ health, money concerns, whatever. The other person simply listens, validates, and supports (“No problem solving unless specifically asked for!,” reminds Bohnenkamp.) Then, it’s the other person’s turn and roles are reversed. “This time to come together and support each other is a wonderful way to stay on the same page, reduce each other’s stress, and stay connected and strong during this stressful time,” she says.
7. Practice Gratitude
Is this a bit cheesy? Sure. But sometimes that’s what we all need. Take some time together to share things for which you’re thankful. They can be as large or small as you want. Think: I’m thankful our baby loves belly rubs. I’m thankful they still make Flamin’ Hot Cheetos. Or I’m thankful our friends are there for us. Write them down together or share them over text throughout the day. They’ll do wonders for your state of mind. Why? “The more you practice gratitude, the less you practice fear,” says Kingsford. Her larger recommendation: Each day write down at least 10 things for which you are grateful. Pretty soon, it’ll become second nature.
8. Get Back to Communication Basics
Although parents’ pandemic to-do list is extra-long right now, it’s well worth penciling in a refresher course on communication while in social distancing jail together. “It’s always helpful to practice essential communication skills, which are to reduce criticism and give and receive compliments and positive attention,” says Menije Boduryan-Turner, Psy.D., a psychologist in Woodland Hills, California.
One trick to improve communication is to ask each other, “What did you hear me say when I said, ‘take out the trash’?” for example, says Thomas McDonagh, Psy.D., founder of Good Therapy SF. “Often we misinterpret or twist what our partners are saying, and in an overly negative way,” McDonagh says. This trick, he adds, helps to correct the issue if a partner hears instead, continuing the example, “You’re lazy and I have to do everything around here.”
9. Don’t Neglect Self-Care
Self care is discussed endlessly these days. But it doesn’t make it any less important. “You absolutely have to take care of the basics,” says Dr. Mecca. And by you doing it, you can make sure your kids are doing it.” Meditate for five minutes. Do some deep breathing exercises. Eat good food. Get proper sleep.
Everyone should be asking themselves: What actually does make me feel better? Keep track. If you hop on social media to chat with friends for a few minutes but then find yourself feeling worse because of all the social media mind-fuckery, then figure out an alternative. Set up Zoom Meetings or Google Hangouts with friends instead. Grab a beer with a buddy over FaceTime. “The goal is understanding what you need to do to be the best parent and person you can be right now,” she says.
10. Learn How to Move on From Arguments
Disagreement is unavoidable in any marriage. One of the defining aspects of a strong, happy relationship, however, is the ability to get past a fight. “It doesn’t matter if you argue, because all couples do, it’s about coming back to the table afterwards and talking about what happened and owning your part,” notes marriage and family therapist Melissa Davis Thompson. “It allows a couple to share deeply how they feel without being angry or frustrated during an argument.”
11. Be Open About Your Appreciation
Validation is one of the most important things couples can do for each other. Knowing that your partner hears what you’re saying, appreciatesyou, and understands you speaks to a basic need for connection. Did they nail that bedtime routine? Tell them. Did they expertly handle a tantrum or cry-fest? Tell them. Were they a remote learning all-star? Tell them. Parents often stroke kids and acknowledge their terrific poem or great game they played, but we don’t acknowledge what we appreciate about our partners. Doing it is a show of support and love for their hard work at a time when it’s definitely needed — and, in the long run, shows an example to children as to what a loving, supportive relationship looks like.
12. Pay Attention to the Little Things
Small gestures carry a lot of weight, and for couples who have mutual respect, those small gestures are second-nature. A simple love note or a slightly longer hug can make your partner feel validated and appreciated. “One short and sweet text or email per day can make your lover’s heart pitter-patter — without causing his or her head to spin from electronic overload,” offers family psychotherapist Dr. Fran Walfish “Be sure to include an intimate and heartfelt detail in your notes as a key way to boost your bond.”
13. Understand What Respect Truly Requires
Partners who respect one another work better. This is both simple and not. Because when it comes to building respect equity in their relationship, couples need to focus on being responsible for how their actions affect the other. “Some of it is common sense and usually centers around being personally responsible,” Aricia E. Shaffer, MSE, a therapist and coach specializing in parenting, told us. “Don’t put the empty milk carton back in the fridge, clean up after yourself, let your spouse know if you’re running late. In other words, basic human consideration. But it also means taking responsibility for your own triggers or needs and having a talk with your partner as needed.” In other words: Without constant communication, true respect will never be achieved.