How Social Distancing Can Make or Break Your Relationship
These nine challenges may change your relationship for good.
The past few weeks have been a blur of change, disruption, and, for many, anxiety. While governments and the medical community have been responding to the spread of the novel strain of coronavirus, COVID-19, families have adjusted to their new normal for the foreseeable future—and couples, who were once stretched thin on finding quality time to bond, now find themselves spending all day, every day together.
Regardless whether you’ve been together for a hot minute or for what feels like forever, practicing social distancing together can quickly bring up the strengths and weaknesses in even healthy relationships, according to Jenny Maenpaa, LCSW, EDM, a New York City–based psychotherapist and author.
“It will show how you handle stress and conflict, and potentially highlight issues that you may not have discovered for months or years under normal circumstances,” she says. “While this may sound frightening, it can actually be a great opportunity to observe and adjust preemptively instead of waiting until patterns and habits have become ingrained.”
So, will your connection thrive under self-imposed quarantine? Or will it crumble? Here, therapists and love gurus weigh in on what can happen to your relationship during social distancing if you already live together or are waiting out the crisis together.
You may discover better, stronger conflict-resolution strategies
First things first: you will get into a fight. Whether it’s over a messy bed or a messy kitchen, being under the same roof for an extended period of time without lengthy breaks pretty much guarantees conflict. Maenpaa says healthy relationships will learn how to mitigate these disagreements intelligently and come out the other side stronger
Couples who hold a high respect for one another will often work together—and not against each other—in a moment of crisis. In fact, Maenpaa suggests infusing humor as much as you can into this unusual, difficult period.
“If you have a pet, you can make them the office scapegoat, saying things like, ‘Did you see Rocky left his dishes in the sink again? We should totally report him to HR,’’’ she says. “This kind of joke can diffuse the tension but also name that dishes need to be cleaned on a regular basis now that you’re both home all day.”
You may release all of your underlying resentment
Even if you’re someone who tends to be level-headed, not having the freedoms you’re used to can drive anyone mad. And when you feel overwhelmed, nervous, and afraid, you are likely to take it out on the first person you see, especially if that someone is a person you have been harboring resentment toward for a while. As Monica Berg, a relationship expert and author of Rethink Love, explains it, social distancing will threaten your relationship if it already is on a fragile foundation.
“Being in close proximity to each other all day and night can lead to reactivity, short tempers, and saying things that would have been better left unsaid,” she says. Before the pandemic, you may have other distractions that prevented you from seeing the so-called writing on the wall, but now, you have to come face-to-face with it.
You may actually have time to have meaningful conversations again
Those first months of dating were blissful, full of endless time to ask important questions and sleep in on a Saturday morning. But as most relationships progress, so do responsibilities, and quality time becomes limited. When you add children into the mix, most conversations go from meaningful to logistical, according to Berg. With seemingly more hours in the day under house arrest, though, you may start to talk more—about the good, the bad, and the in between.
“Having this time together when you’re both less busy gives you the chance to have in-depth discussions about yourselves, each other, your goals—all the things that normally get put on the back burner,” Berg says. “Reworking the family budget, getting through a difficult but necessary conversation, dealing with an imbalance in household responsibilities—whatever the case may be for you, now is the perfect opportunity to work through it.”
You may identify relationship role imbalances
For couples where both partners are full-time workers, you’re now facing a new reality of meeting deadlines, taking calls, and trying not to distract one another during working hours. As you balance WFH schedules and home maintenance routines, what will quickly become evident, according to Maenpaa, is the labor division within your relationship.
“If, while you are both home for the same amount of time and doing the same amount of work, you find that your partner expects you to take on 100 percent of the household chores, you will likely start to feel resentment,” she says.
If a calm and reasonable conversation doesn’t lead to changes in these expectations, you may be forced to examine what you and your partner see your roles as in the relationship at large.
“If they are misaligned and both of you are steadfast in your beliefs, you may realize it’s time to part ways,” Maenpaa warns.
You may develop a closer friendship
Sure, part of having a long-term happy and healthy relationship is your physical and sexual attraction to one another. But if you ask most duos who have battled decades of storms together, it’s a close-knit friendship that matters the most in the long run. Though COVID-19 is a drastic reason to be holed up together, it could create a team-player mentality.
“When partners are friends, they more easily align as a team during times of difficulty, and their communication is less likely to buckle under pressure. Plus, who doesn't want to hang out with their friend?” Berg says.
Friendship, too, can also deepen your intimacy, since a strong friendship can help you bond through hard conversations and vulnerable confessions.
“Too many relationships stumble under the weight of withheld emotions, simmering resentments, and unspoken desires,” Berg says. “Discuss clearly, with kindness and love, as your guiding emotions. Give each other the benefit of the doubt. These conversations, while often challenging, can transform your relationship.”
You may grow bored, very quickly
And hey, that’s OK—if you let it be. Melody Li, LMFT, a licensed marriage and family therapist in Texas, says working all day, taking care of children, cooking, cleaning, and repeating can make every day blend into one another. That’s par for course during a self-quarantine, but if you take out your boredom on one another, it can create a tension-heavy living arrangement. To prevent this, Li says it’s best to put your heads together and create a tentative schedule.
“If couples do not have a plan in place, they run the risk of feeling bored and apathetic, which is the opposite of sexy,” she says. “Draft a plan together that balances wellness, like working out together [and] cooking together; leisure, like date night [and] home or creative projects; and intimacy, including massages, baths, and reading erotica.”
You may appreciate your partner more
When we feel like everything is out of control, having a safe harbor to snuggle up to can be instantly reassuring, comforting, and endorphin-boosting. Through this crazy ordeal, if you find yourself looking at your partner across the room and counting your lucky stars, you’re in for a happy quarantine experience, according to licensed professional counselor Crystal Bradshaw. In fact, she says you may even start to recognize traits you previously took for granted.
“You begin to see how your two personality styles can complement each other. Couples who interact with each other in a healthy interdependent way are strengthening their complementariness. They can begin to see and appreciate how they balance each other when under stressful circumstances,” she says. “This sharing of burdens can help decrease and manage anxiety and stress, thus making the individual and couple stronger.”
You may notice if your relationship lacks depth
Whatever issues may have existed for your relationship before you started social distancing will likely get exacerbated and bigger because of the stressful situations currently happening, according to psychologist Yvonne Thomas, Ph.D. If you were avoiding all red flags and hopping into the sack to forget about them, she says your relationship won’t be able to survive. After all, the sex will eventually grow wearisome, even if you’re on lockdown.
“Once the physical part of the couple’s relationship is taken away, limited, or fizzled, the couple may find that there is not enough of a connection in other ways which are important to have in a healthy relationship such as emotionally, intellectually, having similar values, sharing similar humor,” she says. If your dynamic was built on physical compatibility only, this period may reveal it doesn’t have the staying power you hoped for.
You may fall in love all over again
If there is any silver lining to a pandemic, it’s the opportunity to remember all of the reasons you fell in love in the first place—and, perhaps even more wonderfully, discover new ones. As Berg explains, social distancing sets the stage to develop a deeper, more profound connection that’s based on honesty and intention, where both parties are contributing equally.
“The active ingredient here is self-revelation,” she says. “In a successful relationship, both partners make themselves known, gradually disclosing their innermost selves, divulging their desires, fears, fantasies, and dreams.”