by Ashley Jones, published in Romper Magazine, February 2021
Being in survival mode 24/7 during the coronavirus pandemic can put a strain on even the strongest relationships. But when the stress of it all reaches a boiling point, how do you dial it back? Romper asked experts how to end pandemic fights with your partner, and their advice for handling the most common disagreements is worth its weight in gold.
Remember back when we thought COVID-19 would fizzle out after a few weeks of lockdown? I remember baking lots of bread, putting together puzzles, and enjoying more time at home, despite the chaos of it all. But now, even with vaccines on tap, it feels like the weight of this chaotic time has infiltrated every single part of my life — my marriage included.
Experts confirm that I'm not the only one, but they say the key to ending any sort of pandemic disagreement is communication. "First, it is vital to assess how well you know your partner's value system. Moreover, what is the true quality of your communication before the COVID-19 crisis? Knowing these two facts will help in negotiating any situation of disagreement," Catherine Athans, Ph.D., a licensed marriage and family therapist in Los Altos, California tells Romper.
"Patience, compassion, and a willingness to compromise go into the ability to negotiate when there is a difference of opinion," Athans says, adding that using statements like "I feel" instead of "you always" can make a huge difference. Whether it's bickering about whose turn it is to supervise online learning or quarreling over a profound lack of alone time since the pandemic started, here's how you can work to diffuse common pandemic-specific fights.
For Partners Who Disagree About Safety Protocols, "Knowledge Is Always Power"
Family therapist and clinical social worker Belina Fruitman has continued to see patients via telehealth throughout the pandemic. She explains that when it comes to disagreements about mask-wearing, social distancing, and the like, "Knowledge is always power," so it's helpful to provide your partner with information directly from expert sources like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Fruitman also recommends that couples time these crucial conversations about scientific facts when you're both calm, well-rested, and adequately nourished. But, for a partner who still refuses to follow the science, you can move on to using "I statements" and sharing personal fears.
"Sometimes when we emphasize our deep concerns or worries, we can get empathy in return. Our loved one may hear us when we explain the 'why I am afraid,'" Fruitman says. "Are you afraid that your immune system is not strong enough to fight off COVID-19 if you contract it? Or are you concerned that you may infect someone that you love like a grandparent or elderly neighbor? Or are you worried about your partner possibly contracting it and perhaps the need for hospitalization? Being vulnerable with a loved one can be an opportunity for deeper connection and personal growth."
When You Disagree About Finances, Think Objectively
"Disagreements with finances are often less about money and more about values," licensed professional clinical counselor Mike Gallagher tells Romper. "Money is objective — it’s a number — but what money may mean to someone is variable and can change with perspective. Instead of focusing on cash itself, try to structure the discussion on the goals of managing your money. Goals can be reached regardless of perspective and may shed light on your partner’s own goals."
To obtain even more perspective, Athans advises couples to analyze their budget both together and separately. Taking into account how the pandemic has changed things for your family financially, you can also reach out for financial assistance if needed. "Go on your state website and investigate possible loans and grants. If you are having trouble finding loans and grants, call your State Assembly Representative and State Senator's Office for help. Their job is to serve you," Athans says.
If School Decisions Have You At Odds, Keep The Focus On Your Kids
Whether the mounting stress of not knowing when your kids will return to in-person school has you reeling, or you and your partner disagree about whether or not your kids should return to school at all, the pressure to think through every possible scenario can feel weighty.
"In relationship disagreements, it’s far more effective to focus on the issue and not the partner or their opinion," Gallagher says. "In this case, the issue is the child returning safely to school, not your partner or what they think. When the focus of the discussion is 'how can we make sure our child is safe' instead of 'what we should do,' you’re far more likely to find a solution to the issue."
Athans recommends that parents write down their school safety concerns separately, then come together to discuss possible options, keeping in mind concerns about your child's physical and mental health. Remember, there isn't a right or wrong answer when it comes to how your child will learn best, be happiest, and be safe.
"Ultimately you both respect each other and want to understand the other’s perspective," Fruitman says. "Remember that as parents we all really want the same thing: our kids to be healthy both physically, emotionally, and mentally."
If You Need More Space, You've Got To Ask For It
"The pandemic has certainly limited our options to engage in activities outside the house — work, play, daily necessities. If you’re feeling emotionally claustrophobic, you’re not alone, and time for personal self-care is important for self-esteem and growth," Gallagher says. "It starts with having a conversation with your partner and setting up personal time in your calendar. Time apart can make time together that much more special."
Spending time outdoors, away from cramped indoor spaces and the same four walls you've stared at for months, is an ideal option. When you're feeling touched-out, need to recharge, or just need half an hour to take care of yourself, it's imperative that you speak up. The conversation isn't always fun, but it's crucial.
"Some partners need more time alone with their partner. Other partners need less time alone. It is important to discuss with your partner your particular needs and hear theirs," Athans suggests. "These needs may not match. So it is important to examine what you receive from being with the other — validation, love, acknowledgment, companionship, etc. Then arrive on common ground."
Finding Time To Connect Is Still Key
"It is critical that partners not find time, but make time for adult time alone. Although trite, it is true: partners who play together, stay together," Fruitman tells Romper. "Frankly, we make time for what is important to us."
It may be harder than ever for couples (parents specifically) to find alone time during the pandemic, but experts agree that even something simple like watching a movie or playing cards together after the kids go to sleep can help you find small ways to connect during this time.
"If partners are feeling stress from constantly being together, they need to stop what they are doing to discuss this stress. In other words, set a time aside away from the kids to talk about their feelings," Athans says.
Professional help through relationship counseling — even when done online — can be useful when it comes to learning how to cope right now.
Stress from the pandemic can impact any relationship, so it's imperative to manage your stress level to help keep pandemic fights with your partner to a minimum. "As always the best coping tools are compassion, empathy, and patience," Athans says. "Get plenty of sleep. Drink water — sip it slowly all day — and do deep breathing exercises to calm down and let go of the stress."