Locked down with your spouse? 7 ways to stay sane

It's normal for your relationship with a spouse or partner to feel strained, especially if you're spending 24 hours a day together. We spoke to mental health experts to get tools and tips to get you through this difficult time.
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By Julianne Pepitone

The coronavirus pandemic is upending everyday life across the globe in myriad ways — and as we work to stop the spread through social distancing, many Americans are locked down with a spouse or significant other.

Relationships are in a pressure cooker, with spouses not only stuck under the same roof but also dealing with the anxiety and stress of the larger coronavirus crisis.

“It’s so much pressure we’re going through as a culture,” psychotherapist Kristin Reale told Know Your Value. “I’ve told all my patients to slow down, take a pause and adjust to this new meaning of the relationships in our life.”

That might feel challenging right now, but know that you’re not alone and your feelings are normal. Here are seven tips to manage any unprecedented stress on your relationship — you may even come out of this difficult time stronger than ever.

1. Give each other some grace. Dealing with disproportionate blowups about small things like laundry piles or overcooked eggs? So are lots of other couples. The pandemic is not a typical situation, and the resulting anxiety and stress means both of you are more likely to snap at times. Try to lower expectations during this temporary period and maintain empathy for one another.

“When someone seems upset about something trivial it might not really be about that trivial thing,” said psychiatrist Dr. Miriam Bensimhon in an interview. “Sometimes it’s best to just let it go. Other times you can simply ask: ‘Are you upset about everything that’s going on?’ It might get the conversation going, when it’s appropriate.’”

Psychiatrist Dr. Miriam Bensimhon.Courtesy of Dr. Miriam Bensimhon

2. Offer and accept apologies easily. While lowering expectations during these weeks can help, Reale warned that annoyances and arguments can pile up if they are routinely not resolved.

“These are little deaths in a relationship that can add up to resentment if we don’t have a plan of repair,” Reale said. “That could be a code word that stops the conversation when things get tense, or a promise to check in with each other at 9 p.m. each night when things are calmer.” Own up to snapping at your spouse and accept their “I’m sorry” when it’s offered.

Psychotherapist Kristin Reale.Courtesy of Kristin Reale

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3. Set up a routine for each day — but don’t over-plan. “I have some families doing what they do in normal times, which is overschedule the entire day,“ said Bensimhon. That’s stressful in regular life, but it’s an impossible expectation during the pandemic. Instead, Bensimhon recommends setting up looser routines. Maybe you promise to have breakfast together around 8 a.m.; you plan to take a midday walk around the block by yourself; you vow to sign off work by 6 p.m. The key is identifying what you need to get done and setting aside time to do it, but allowing for flexibility rather than trying to stick to a rigid hour-by-hour schedule.

4. Carve time to divide work and childcare duties. For couples with kids, work-life balance has taken on an entirely new meaning with children stuck at home while you’re still expected to work. Take time the night before with your spouse to discuss meetings and “must-work” hours so you can split childcare duties appropriately. Again, flexibility will be needed, but fewer surprises will mean less stress.

5. Keep the hour before bed a news-free zone. As part of your routine, be sure to bake in some time to step away from the coronavirus news and talk about something else. Don’t immediately pick up your phone when you wake up, and be sure to avoid the news at least one hour before bed so you don’t rile up yourself and your spouse.

Some of Bensimhon’s patients are talking about “the blissful 30 seconds when they first wake up and forget about coronavirus. It’s important to extend that to more than 30 seconds,” she said.

6. Get some alone time. “It’s the equivalent of a time out for kids,” Bensimhon explained. “It works best, though, if you do it before you get upset or agitated: ‘I’m going to go read or work in the other room.’” For couples in cities, this might be difficult because of lack of space. So some of Bensimhon’s clients have been planning two walks a day: one with the significant other, and one alone.

Or, “maybe lunch is the one time you come together during the day and the rest of the time it’s as if you’re both in the office like usual,” Reale suggested. “Structure is important so you don’t end up interrupting each other all day.”

7. Express yourselves through a creative outlet. This time is a difficult season, but for good and bad, it’s one we’ll remember the rest of our lives. Come together to mark the highs and lows in a creative way, Reale said. Try writing down a sentence that sums up the day each evening, record a daily video, or cook special dinners and take photos of the dishes.

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Overall, Reale said, the coronavirus outbreak is challenging in many ways, but it can provide a small silver lining for a healthy relationship.

“If you’re not in a good, communicative relationship, [the pandemic] obviously isn’t going to help,” Reale said. “But when you have that foundation, this can be a real opportunity to hold space for one another, build trust and find strength in your relationship.”