I spent the last few months interviewing individuals for my podcast, Mentally Strong People. And I’ve found that even the strongest among us are finding these turbulent times are taking a toll on their well-being. Consequently, many of them recognize that it’s not just that they’re struggling on an individual level, they’re experiencing some relationship distress as well.
Whether couples find themselves trying to work from home together in a crowded space or they disagree about how much public interaction is safe, 2020 has brought some strange challenges. And even those couples who felt confident about their relationship before the pandemic are likely to feel a bit of a strain right now.
As a therapist, mental strength coach and podcast host, I’m seeing couples face these five common challenges right now:
1. Priority differences
What was important last year might not feel so important this year. And while some activities may no longer be options (like sending kids to sports camps), other activities might still be optional.
And many couples find themselves in conflict as they shuffle their priorities to balance family, social activities and mental health with physical health and safety. Should we still plan to redo the kitchen next year? Are we going to go on that big family vacation in a few months? Should we let the kids go trick-or-treating?
It can be stressful to disagree on priorities. And couples who aren’t careful to talk about their concerns may be at risk of working against each other, rather than a team. So it’s important to talk about your priorities so you can discuss why you think it’s important to invest your time and money into certain activities, but not others.
2. Stress and fewer healthy stress relievers
From death tolls to catastrophic economic disaster, the news over the past few months has been overwhelming to say the least. And with stress levels sky high, many people lost their main go-to coping skills as gyms were closed and coffee with friends was no longer an option.
Partners tend to take a lot of the brunt of the frustration from one another as they’re often the only “safe outlet.” With fewer social outlets, couples may depend on one another for more social support, which can be draining as well.
And some individuals are reaching for unhealthy coping skills to manage stress. Trying to escape pain by drinking, using drugs, or even binge watching TV can introduce new problems into the home and cause more distress for everyone.
There’s a difference between being bored one Friday night and being bored for months. And many people lack the usual fun and excitement they’re used to having. Without business travel, concerts, sports, and dining out, you might feel like you’re missing out on a lot of joy.
Boredom with life can turn into boredom with one another pretty quickly. And many couples find that being home with few places to go and few people to see, means they have little to talk about.
Not to mention, it’s easy for romantic feelings to go out the window when you’ve been sitting around in your sweats day after day at home.
It will require some extra effort these days to create a spark so you feel as though you’re more than roommates or colleagues.
4. Lack of alone time
Whether you like to spend your Saturday mornings cleaning the house by yourself or you usually appreciate a little alone time in the evenings before everyone else gets home, many people are finding the pandemic means a lot of together time.
A little time away from everyone once in a while can help you recharge. Being apart for a bit, even just a few hours, can also help you appreciate the time you spend together. It’s important to maintain a little individuality even when you’re spending a lot of time together so you don’t lose sight of yourself.
5. Decline in mental health
Depression, anxiety, and other mental health issues are on the rise during COVID-19. In June, the CDC reported that 40 percent of adults were experiencing mental health issues or substance abuse problems. And poorer mental health complicates any relationship.
Sometimes, people don’t know how to respond to a partner in distress. And while saying things like, “Don’t worry about it,” might be well-intentioned, minimizing someone’s feelings can make things worse.
It’s important for partners to work on maintaining their own mental health while supporting one another. Together, couples can make building mental strength a priority so they can grow stronger, even during their times of struggle.
When to seek professional help
Many experts are predicting a jump in divorce rates following the pandemic. Fortunately, you don’t have to jump on the separation bandwagon though. If you are feeling like your relationship is strained these days, get professional help.
Talking to a couples counselor (online or in-person) could help reduce your distress and improve your relationship now. Whatever you do, just don’t let distress and problems go unresolved. They’re likely to get worse as time goes on.
Amy Morin is a psychotherapist, mental strength trainer, and a psychology instructor at Northeastern University. She's also an international bestselling author whose books on mental strength have been translated into 39 languages. She gave one of the most popular TEDx talks of all time and she lives on a sailboat in the Florida Keys.