During times of crisis, the nature of your marriage relationship will be amplified. If you have a strong, loving marriage, you will likely pull together and find many positives to this time of enforced togetherness. If your marriage is struggling, the tensions will likely increase. You may find yourselves fighting a lot, getting frequently triggered by your mate’s behavior. Difficulties become magnified.
There are many anxieties couples are experiencing during this pandemic. Change itself can be destabilizing for some. We like our routines, things and services we can count on. Much of what has been normal for us is now off the table or significantly different.
There are the obvious fears about staying healthy and avoiding activities that might make you vulnerable to getting the virus. The financial stress can feel overwhelming, particularly if you have lost your job or have lost significant income. With an uncertain material future, the fear of the loss of security looms large. Most of us like to feel we are in control. We have planned so we don’t have to be in situations of doing without. This pandemic exposes the reality that, though we can make good financial choices, we are not in full control of the outcomes and that fuels our stress.
In addition to health and financial issues, for most couples, roles have changed. Moms and/or dads are homeschooling, so, not only are they parents, but teachers as well. They feel pressure to keep their kid’s education on track and most feel what they are providing will not be enough. If both parents are working, figuring out who will tend to the kids and when is a challenge. If Mom and Dad are both essential workers and the kids are in childcare, there is the additional worry of exposure to illness. I have spoken with many working moms who feel they are carrying much more than their spouse, feeling unappreciated and finding themselves resentful. They often confess that they lash out at their mate for not pitching in more. Dads have expressed additional pressure to put in longer hours to insure they retain their job and an provide for their family.
There are also spatial issues. Many couples feel they are stepping on each other’s toes- living in close quarters. Needing to create a workspace at home and create some boundaries so the kids are not interrupting can be complicated! One young mom expressed, “This feels like what retirement might be like and I don’t like it!” If you’ve had space to yourself and now need to make accommodations because your mate is working from home, you might feel annoyed.
Problems you had before the pandemic become more pronounced because they can no longer be avoided. You are living in close proximity, under one roof day after day. Differences will surface more frequently and without skills to manage them, they can create a great deal of stress. For instance, whatever differences you have in the way you parent the kids will likely become even more challenging.
Many couples are experiencing a decline in sexual intimacy. Since stress and fear can kill libido, they find themselves less interested in enjoying lovemaking with their mate. In addition, privacy may be hard to come by. At the beginning of the pandemic, I was thinking we might have a “baby boom” come early 2021, but in this situation, due to the chronic stress of uncertainty, I am skeptical that will happen.
Although there are a great number of stressors couples are experiencing, there are positive reports of feeling a deeper level of connection with each other. Moms aren’t driving kids all over. Dads and working moms aren’t commuting, so they have extra time to play with and be with their kids. Families are enjoying many more mealtimes together. For many, it’s been a time to reassess life balance- the priority of family vis-à-vis work life. For some, being “unplugged” from life as it was has given them a fresh look at the imbalance of their previous life.
So how can you manage the level of stress you are experiencing and begin to relate to your mate in a more helpful and loving way?
- Focus on self-awareness
How are you reacting in this crisis? What feelings are coming up for you? No one can manage your internal stress but you. And stress takes its toll on relationships.
If you find yourself in a negative mindset about your mate, getting annoyed or angry or impatient- stop and notice your reactivity. Ask yourself what you’re believing. Is your mate really out to undermine you? Does their interruption really mean they don’t respect your time? Ask yourself if there’s any possibility that what you believe is untrue. When there’s a heightened level of stress, we tend to engage in all-or-nothing thinking as a way to protect ourselves. We are prone to see our mate as all bad. Stress surfaces the ways we protect ourselves in our relationship.
Usually, underlying our reactivity is an unexpressed feeling or need. Get curious about what that might be. When you identify that, share it with your mate when you both are calm. Maybe you’re feeling overwhelmed, maybe you’re fearful that you may lose your job. Maybe you’re worried you’ll never have your space back again. Taking time to know ourselves and why we react as we do is a necessary step to becoming more mature and having the marriage we desire. Chapter 4 of my book, Making Love Last, was written to help you explore yourself so you can have more choices about how you respond rather than simply reacting.
- Shift from control, to choice
When we are anxious, we tend to try to control our environment including our spouse and kids. We try to control what is not controllable and when we are unsuccessful, we feel more anxious. Focus instead on the choices you can make to be healthy and helpful. Go for a long walk together. Plant a garden. Read a good book. Make your elderly neighbor some muffins. When you are feeling especially annoyed that your mate is interrupting your routine, choose to make them a cup of coffee.
- Ask for what you need
Unspoken expectations only breed resentment. If you are too upset, examine your reactivity and your thinking before approaching your mate. Be kind and specific as you share your feeling and make a positive request for change. “I would really appreciate it if . . .”
- Have daily “stress reducing conversation” with your spouse
This is an emotional check in where you take 20-30 minutes a day to share 2 emotions you had during the day. Choose a time you can keep each day that will be uninterruptible. This is not about solving a problem, offering advice, or disputing your mate’s feelings. It is a time to validate your mate’s feelings and communicate that you hear and understand. You might also ask, “How are you doing?” or “What’s been the best and worst parts of your day?” This is an opportunity to support each other emotionally. Ask what they need from you. Be sure to show sincere interest and take your spouse’s side. At the end, an expression of affection and appreciation can help you feel even more connected.
- Take “The Colossians 3:12 Challenge
During times of high stress, we need to be intentional about loving our mate well. This verse challenges us to “clothe” ourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience. Choose one of these qualities, list 3 specific behaviors that would reflect that quality and make it your priority over the next 30 days to live it as you respond to your spouse.
At the end of this pandemic, what would you like to say you did with the time you had? Do you want to allow fear and stress to dictate your responses? Do you want to just survive it? Or do you want to take the opportunity this sheltering-in-place provides to reset your priorities? Why not set some goals about what you would like to see happen in your family and in your marriage? This goes beyond home improvement projects. What would you like to say about how you and your mate became more of a team? How your family time became more valuable, more intentional? Did you learn to treat one another with more kindness and compassion?
Please share what has worked for you in managing your marital stress in the comment box below!