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How Couples Are Navigating The Tricky Waters of Coronavirus Isolation

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(AP Photo/John Locher)

Justine, left, and Vince, who declined to give their last names, embrace while waiting in line for a marriage license at the Clark County Marriage License Bureau after it opened for the first time in almost 6 weeks Monday, April 27, 2020, in Las Vegas. The bureau had been closed to limit the spread of the coronavirus.

“It’s YOUR turn to take the kids outside.”

“Why are you doing it that way?”

“Can’t you just leave me alone for an hour?”

These could be typical things significant others say to each other at any time. But with everyone cooped up in the house together during the pandemic, they may also be more aggravating or happening more often. 

Whether it’s anxieties about health and work, cabin fever settling in, or the kids not sitting down for the Zoom school lessons, COVID-19 is creating a recipe for domestic strain. 

Rosie Shrout is a postdoctoral scholar at the Institute for Behavioral Medicine Research at Ohio State University. She earned her PhD at UNR last year. 

She told KNPR's State of Nevada that couples with existing issues an be the most impacted by stressful times like these.

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"The couples that were already distressed and experiencing a lot of problems - those couples are the ones that are probably hit the hardest when it comes to this pandemic."

Shrout said that, in general, stress can be bad for couples because it can affect how they interact and communicate with each other. She said they tend to act more negatively towards each with actions like eye-rolling, criticism or withdrawing from a conversation.

"Those kinds of behaviors are so bad for their relationships and their health," she said, "And, it can create a cycle because when one partner behaves in this way, the other partner is also more likely to respond negatively, and so you have this really, really bad cycle where they're being more hostile towards each other."

As for people already in a good relationship, a pitfall could be the little things. When people who are usually not around each other 24 hours a day suddenly have to be in the same home for hours on end, the small annoyances can build up, Shrout said, adding that effective and caring communication is vital.

"The couples who generally have pretty good communication - they're open with each other, they're honest, they're not afraid to talk to each other, and then they show each other that they care for each other when they do self-disclose - will probably do a little bit better with dealing with these stressors," Shrout said.

She said those who bottle up problems or shutout their partner could see their relationship eaten up by stress. Plus, Shrout recommended that unless something your partner is doing is really impacting your life - let it go.

One of the most important parts of a relationship is intimacy and during a stay-at-home order, that intimacy can be negatively impacted.

Brandon Eddy is an assistant professor and Internship Coordinator for Couple and Family Therapy Program at UNLV and marriage and family therapist.

He said movies and television often portray sex and intimacy as something that is spontaneous, but it most likely can't be for couples who are working from home, homeschooling their children or stressed about a lack of work.

He said - as strange as it may sound - putting sex on the calendar can help.

"If you're scheduling it, you're making it a priority and you're telling your partner, 'This is a priority for me. I do want to be intimate with you. I do want to be with you and let's find time to do this and make this happen,'" he said.

Besides intimacy, most couples need time apart, which can be tough when normal spaces for me-time are closed.

Sam Richardson, an adjunct professor at UNLV and a marriage and family therapist, suggested people reconsider the hobby or activity that has made them feel happy and fulfilled in the past and return to it, like playing the guitar, painting, running or reading a book.

"Look for what has worked for you before, look for those times in your life where you say... 'that was a time in my life where I was doing a great job of taking care of me,' and which have not been able to be on the radar much because of how busy life gets, and just kind of start there," he said.

While it is important to find me-time, Richardson said not to forget your partner in the discussions.

"Don't try to handle it alone. Don't try to sneak out of the home and just kind of find it," he said, "Let that be something you and your partner can discuss. You're in this situation with your partner. They're kind of in the same boat as you are, and chances are they're going to have the same or similar needs you are."

He said people need to explain their feelings to their partner, explain what they need, and then work on those solutions together.

The experts all agreed that good communication is indispensable in a relationship, but during a time of stress, it is even more fundamental.

Karen Anderson is a marriage and family therapist. She said what happens during stressful times is that communication problems that may already exist in a marriage get heightened.

"I'm encouraging my clients to set up some times to talk. So they can have a bit more of an open forum," she said, "Taking that deep breath before you approach your partner and creating an opportunity in the home to create... for a lack of a better word, a COVID experience and what our expectations are of each other."

She said many couples, especially long-term couples, may have already established those communications patterns without even realizing it. For those who haven't, she suggests talking to a therapist just to learn some of those vital communication skills.

Guests

Rosie Shrout, postdoctoral scholar, Institute for Behavioral Medicine Research at Ohio State University; Brandon Eddy, Assistant Professor and Internship Coordinator for Couple and Family Therapy Program at UNLV and marriage and family therapist; Karen Anderson, adjunct professor, UNLV and marriage and family therapist; Sam Richardson, adjunct professor, UNLV and marriage & family therapist.

 

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