Normally in relationships — even long-term ones where a couple lives together — we see our partners in small doses. We go to work, pursue hobbies, and spend time with friends.
Before quarantine, we would look forward to date nights out, or savor cozy time spent at home watching Netflix. Rarely, if ever, were we subjected to 24/7 contact with our partners. Quarantine and chill? Not so much.
Global lockdowns have forced us inside to face ourselves — and our relationship problems — in totally unprecedented ways. Without external obligations and distractions, we find ourselves in constant close proximity to the ones we love. And for many, it’s a little too close for comfort. Some of us may also be facing job uncertainty or straining under the pressure of juggling working from home with unassisted childcare.
During these stressful times, how do we care for ourselves and our partners? How do we keep the spark alive in our relationships when it feels like we are living on top of each other?
We offer some constructive tips on how to solve your lockdown relationship problems without breaking up.
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How are long-term relationships coping on lockdown?
There are varying opinions on the topic of what the lasting implications of the pandemic will be on long-term relationships. Some have reported a spike in divorce rates, while others speculate about a lockdown baby boom.
Some recent research suggests that the stressful conditions of the pandemic have not been kind to our sex lifes. A global study of sexual habits from mid-March to mid-May found that nearly half of those surveyed said they had sex less frequently and enjoyed it less.
Related reading: Need a mental health hack on lockdown? Try masturbation.
Regardless of whether we are having more or less sex on lockdown, there is an undeniable level of stress which is at the root of many couple’s relationship problems on lockdown.
Although some people may find sex to be soothing during stressful times, too much stress or acute stress is definitely not an aphrodisiac. High levels of stress force our bodies and brains to shut down. Stress can also prompt us to become more irritable than usual — leading to disagreements and arguments.
So how do we navigate the breakdown of intimacy and the rise of conflict during these times of pandemic?
How do I keep my relationship healthy on lockdown?
Lockdown is a pressure cooker for many relationships. In a recent interview with the New Yorker, Ester Perel, world-renowned therapist, author, and host of the new podcast ‘Where Should We Begin?: Couples Under Lockdown’ offers some brilliant advice when it comes to couples self-isolating together.
3 ways to solve your relationship problems on lockdown without breaking up
1. Maintain good boundaries
Lockdown has completely dissolved our sense of normalcy around boundaries. Weekdays blur into weekends. The lines between private and professional life are no longer so defined. Our roles and responsibilities within our households and families have also shifted.
Maintaining a sense of self during this disruption to our regular routines is essential. You can do this by taking some very small actions such as working from home with headphones on in order to maintain some privacy, or communicating your need for some alone time to your partner and taking space to engage in separate activities.
Additionally, alone time is a good opportunity to reflect on your priorities in life. Disasters are often a reminder that life is short — which explains why there is often a spike in divorces and births after a disaster. Disasters force people to reflect on the fragility of life, and consider what is really important to them — so make sure you take some time for yourself.
2. Use your imagination
Many couples on lockdown have reported feeling stuck or stagnant in their relationships and sex lives. It seems absence really does make the heart grow fonder. Without the space to actually miss our partners, the thrill of eroticism can lose its spark.
Ester Perel encourages couples to feed their erotic imaginations by finding freedom and excitement in the power of play. Although our physical spaces may be restricted during lockdown and social distancing, our imaginations are unlimited. Like children, we can learn to play again by allowing our creative imaginations to take us outside the confines of our homes.
“For those who have little kids in the house, look at what they do. They don’t need to leave the house to suddenly become the captain of a ship, or the officer of the fortress, or the driver of the truck,” Perel explains. “They just enter into a character, and from that “play mode” through their imagination, they transcend all the borders and the limitations of reality. It is the same with the erotic mind. It is the adult version of what children do when they play.”
Some ways you and your partner can engage the power of your imaginations:
- Pretend you are going on a dinner date to your favorite restaurant. Get dressed up and role play going out on the town.
- Set up creative dates such as a virtual visit to the MOMA in New York City, or the Louvre in Paris.
- Write each other love notes and hide them around the house.
- Surprise your partner by sending flowers to the house.
3. When you fight, do it right
When it comes to fighting, Perel assures us we are not alone in struggling with our relationship problems. She argues that it’s not a question of if you fight, but rather how you fight. Fighting is perfectly normal, especially under conditions of stress and instability.
Perel encourages couples to start arguments by telling each other what you both appreciate about one another, instead of immediately laying into each other with criticism. She also advises couples to try to limit their fighting to a single topic instead of bringing up old grievances from the past. This helps to keep the discussion focused and productive.
Try making a concrete and tangible request of your partner when fighting instead of simply complaining, as Perel illustrates:
“Tell your partner, “I really wanted you to do this. I counted on you. Can we agree you’ll do it by twelve o’clock today?” Fight from a place of enlightened self-interest, as [the family therapist] Terry Real says, not just to get it out of your system. To get it out of your system, call your friends. Vent as much as you want. And then go back to your partner and be strategic about it. Because you don’t just want to get it out of your system. You actually want a change.”
How do I know if I am in an unhealthy relationship?
Where do you draw the line between a healthy disagreement and an unhealthy one?
Healthy arguments tend to have an endpoint or resolution in sight. This means the couple are usually disagreeing because they are trying to solve a problem — and not simply from a place of anger.
Healthy arguments never involve physical violence, belittling, or other aggressive language.
It is also important to note that physical violence is not present in every abusive relationship. Other common signs of being in an abusive relationship include isolation from loved ones, control and surveillance, rules for living, and restrictions on access to basic necessities and facilities.
One Love, an organization educating young people about healthy and unhealthy relationships, cites the following 10 traits as telltale signs of an unhealthy relationship:
- Deflecting responsibility
Unfortunately during the pandemic many organizations have seen a massive uptick in calls related to domestic abuse as victims are trapped at home with their abusers.
Victims do not have to suffer alone in silence. If you, or someone you know, is in an abusive relationship, they should seek professional help or support through groups such as the National Domestic Violence Hotline.
The bottom line
The coronavirus pandemic is testing us all. The important thing to remember during these stressful times is that it’s completely normal for tensions to be running high. You may be arguing more than usual with your partner.
Remember that you’re in it together, and if you can view your issues as something to tackle together as a team— then you might even come out of lockdown closer and stronger than ever before.
If you, or someone you know, is going through a hard time, they should seek professional help or support through groups such as Better Help where you can speak with a licensed and vetted mental health professional.