As the novel coronavirus pandemic continues, many couples are experiencing extra stress and pressure. When life gets crazy, your marriage often falls to the back burner. With so many other things competing for your attention, it’s tempting to put your relationship on autopilot for a while.
But this is a grave mistake. As a psychologist who has worked with countless couples, I’ve seen how easy it is for spouses to drift apart — even when they still love each other. The deep and sudden shifts in our lives this year can accelerate this process.
Little habits have big consequences. That’s the bad news and the good news. Here are three daily practices that will help you maintain a loving partnership even when both of you feel stretched thin.
1. Turn Up the Positivity
If you have a green thumb, you know that keeping plants healthy requires care regularly, not just when you feel like it. The same is true for your marriage.
Plants need water and sunlight to thrive. In the same way, your marriage will wither without positivity. The marriage researcher, Dr. John Gottman, discovered that happiest couples have 20 positive interactions for every negative one.
Having a positivity-filled marriage doesn’t mean that life is all romance and passion. Positivity also happens in the little moments of every day. When your spouse puts their phone away while you’re talking, or when you thank them for doing extra housework while your job is crazy, you’re filling your relationship’s “positivity bank.”
When you’re stressed, those positive moments can dwindle. Maybe the two of you used to catch up by talking and cuddling in bed. Now, though, you’re spending the time before sleep answering emails you missed during the day. With the loss of this positive ritual, your connection can weaken.
Think about the habits that have added positivity to your relationship. Which ones do you still practice? Which ones have you let slide? How can you preserve the positive interactions that matter most to each of you— even when life looks different? For example, if you need to answer email at night, you could still set a time for putting devices away to focus on each other.
2. Fight the Right Way
Stressful times can also create more conflicts in your marriage. But that isn’t necessarily a problem. The important thing is how you handle those conflicts.
Gottman found that showing contempt during conflict is just about the worst thing you can do in marriage. There’s a big difference between saying “Why don’t you care about the kids?” and “I’m exhausted managing my job and the kids’ online school. Can we talk about how to take some things off my plate?”
On the other hand, avoiding conflict is also dangerous. You might be thinking “With so much going on, it’s just not worth getting into this right now.” Admittedly, sometimes it is better to let the little things go. But if your point of conflict is not a little thing, you can end up simmering with resentment and eventually blowing your top.
Or maybe the two of you get into battles of passive aggression instead of arguing. Your partner chides you for forgetting an errand. So you work late and skip family dinner. The next morning, they roll over and ignore you when you try to embrace. And on and on. Yes, you avoided a fight. But you may have done even more harm by undermining those positive moments we talked about earlier.
A better approach is to check in with each other regularly and address issues before they become explosive. This might feel like just one more thing to do when your list of responsibilities is already long. But, over time, being proactive about disagreements ensures that your marriage sustains and replenishes you and isn’t just another drain on your energy.
3. Master the Art of Apologizing
No matter how determined you both are to be positive and to handle conflict respectfully, there will be times when you mess up — especially these days.
Stress shuts down the parts of our brain that help us relate to others. Psychiatrist Dan Siegel calls this “flipping your lid.” When you’re in this brain state, you get worse at processing information and showing empathy.
You also become more defensive. That means that it’s not only easier to behave badly toward your partner when you’re under pressure; it’s also harder to apologize. How dare they get upset that you weren’t listening (or that you got snappish, or forgot a chore)? Don’t they realize everything you’re dealing with?
Refusing to apologize might protect your pride, but it hurts your marriage. If apologies are hard for you, check out the work of Harriet Lerner. According to Lerner, a true apology can happen only after you truly understand why your partner is hurt. Your apology won’t create healing if you make excuses, blame your spouse for your mistake or bring up what they’re doing wrong.
The French actress Simone Signoret once said: “Chains do not hold a marriage together. It is threads, hundreds of tiny threads, which sew people together through the years.” Every action you take either stitches you together more closely or frays the ties that bind you. Which will you choose today?