Having a well-functioning intimate relationship is good for our health. However, the COVID-19 pandemic has put a huge strain on many couples.
According to Dr. Lisa Destun, a clinical psychologist at Old North Psychology in London, Ontario, “Couples have lost the ability to do things we’ve historically taken for granted, like going out to dinner or travelling, which allowed vital opportunities to relax and reconnect with our partner.”
Add a shared home office, financial woes, and home-schooling into the mix, and it’s a recipe for boredom, irritability, and conflict in relationships. In the most serious cases, tensions can lead to separation; legal experts across Canada and the US predict that divorce rates will surpass national averages in the aftermath of this difficult year.
Coping with the pressure
The added worries of the COVID era can make us shut down or lash out at our partners, which—unsurprisingly—has a negative impact on our relationships. Couples need to check in with their relationships and themselves—before they reach their tipping point.
Take stock of your relationship
Just like you take your car in for regular maintenance, it’s important to periodically explore your relationship’s health. Destun recommends checking in about different areas—such as affection, sex, communication, household responsibilities, time spent together, and finances.
Do a self-check-in
Although we tend to focus on how our partner could improve, Destun encourages her clients to ask themselves how they can be better. She says, “This can be very empowering, especially during COVID, when so much seems to be out of our control.”
Self-care to self-regulate
According to Destun, “Pre-COVID, most people had more time and space to themselves, whether it was a solo commute, time at the gym, or some incidental socializing at the office.” She adds, “We likely underestimate the important function that time alone out of the house serves in terms of our self-regulation.” So, even if that in-person yoga class is out of the question right now, finding innovative ways to recharge is critical.
The big three
Pay attention to the “big three”:
- a healthy diet
- daily exercise
- enough sleep (at least seven to nine hours a night)
Each has a major impact on our mood and ability to stay calm, making us a lot easier to live with!
Start small to reconnect
Luckily, detoxing a relationship’s bad habits doesn’t require expensive dinners or fancy holidays. In fact, researchers at Penn State University found that small actions—such as holding hands and regular acts of kindness—topped the list for how people feel loved. Here are some simple ways to give your relationship a reboot.
Make time to (really) talk
Many couples get so caught up in the daily grind that they forget to communicate about more than grocery lists or weekly schedules. Destun recommends having a daily screen-free, kid-free check-in to create stability and connection, whether it’s an early morning coffee or nightly stroll.
Schedule “connection” time each day
Set a timer for at least 15 minutes at the same time each day, and ensure the time is used to laugh, vent about work, or check in—not to discuss relationship concerns. Importantly, listen without interrupting and take turns asking meaningful questions.
A growing body of research shows that affectionate touch among couples provides a cascade of benefits, including increasing the “love hormone” oxytocin and decreasing the “stress hormone” cortisol. But the implications of affection aren’t just physical: couples who touch regularly also experience emotional perks, such as feeling more secure and positive about their relationship.
The six-second kiss prescription
Relationship expert Dr. John Gottman has been known to recommend the daily “six-second kiss.” In contrast to a quick peck on the cheek, this slower smooch allows us to be present with our partners in a more loving, deliberate way.
Try something new
Novel experiences activate the brain’s reward system, flooding it with dopamine—one of the feel-good neurotransmitters that’s also activated in early romantic love. So, when couples learn a different language or try out a new sport together, they’re reminded of those honeymoon days—and their relationship reaps the benefits.
Take things outdoors
Whether you’re trying out a new hiking trail or tackling gardening for the first time, being in nature is not only COVID-friendly but also profoundly linked to physical and emotional well-being.
According to Destun, it may be time to consider couple therapy if your arguments are unproductive: for example, if you seldom reach resolution or escalate to the point where the argument itself becomes the issue. She adds that, if you’re not arguing but have become disengaged from each other, “therapy can provide a space to prioritize and work toward a closer connection.”
Don’t wait to reach out
Reaching out before your relationship hits its breaking point makes it easier to nip larger issues in the bud. Talk to your partner about what factors are important to them in a therapist and prioritize finding a therapist that both partners click with. If one partner wants to attend therapy more than the other, keep in mind that a good therapist should be trained to draw out the less-than-enthusiastic party.
Natural libido enhancers
In many cases, the more satisfied couples are with their sex life, the more satisfied they are with their relationship. Couples looking for a little help getting in the mood can try these strategies.
In her book Better Sex Through Mindfulness: How Women Can Cultivate Desire (Greystone Books, 2018), clinical psychologist and sex researcher Lori Brotto explains how a mindfulness practice can significantly improve sexual desire, arousal, and satisfaction.
A 2015 review study found emerging data that maca, tribulus, ginkgo, and ginseng may improve sexual desire, satisfaction, and function. Some research also shows that fenugreek seed can boost libido in women and men.
It’s a myth that happy couples don’t fight. In fact, relationship researchers say that arguing productively is a good thing, promoting closeness and connection. Here are some tips to stay constructive when things get heated.
Listen and validate
Staying empathic during a conflict is incredibly difficult, but it’s the golden rule of couple communication. Instead of minimizing your partner’s concerns (“It could be worse!”) or getting defensive (“Why are you blaming me?”), try to listen without judgment, joining your partner in their feelings (“I can hear how hurt you are.”).
It can feel uncomfortable to communicate your feelings, but doing so in an honest and vulnerable way promotes connection. Use “I” statements (“I feel so hurt when …”) rather than partner attacks (“You’re never attentive to me!”).
Watch your body language
Use a soft, gentle voice without any eye-rolling, heavy sighs, or arm crossing.
Take a time out
If things start to spiral, take at least 20 minutes to let your body calm down. To give yourself renewed perspective, try to breathe and channel your energy into something unrelated—such as vacuuming or going for a walk—instead of ruminating about the conflict.
Assume the best about your partner
Be on the same team and communicate from a place of commitment to growth. And try to respond positively to attempts your partner makes for connection, such as making an inside joke or reaching for your hand.