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Helping Couples Survive the Pandemic

Advice on sex, fighting, alcohol, and privacy in a pandemic.

With social distancing becoming the new normal and many states now ordering a shelter-in-place mandate, many couples are getting stuck at home together with no place to escape.

With school being canceled and babysitters not being able to help families because of health and safety reasons, couples are now trying to work from home, care for their children, manage their relationship, and not lose their minds.

Many therapists have now moved to a platform of seeing clients over the phone or via online platforms such as Skype, FaceTime, or Zoom, and mental health practices are busier than ever trying to serve the needs of individuals, couples, and families.

In this post, I will try to address some of the issues that have been coming up in therapy since the pandemic has hit.

My hope in writing this post is to reach as many couples as I can and help them with professional ideas and recommendations for their relationship, their parenting, and their intimacy.

I’ve never spent so much time with my partner and I'm feeling a little suffocated.

It's normal to feel a little overwhelmed with not having our normal privacy boundaries. Most of us are used to leaving the house for a period of time every day to go to the gym, work, meet a friend for a happy hour, or visit a family member. It's very normal right now to feel like you have no privacy and no space because, really, we're all stuck inside.

It might be a good idea within the context of your relationship to communicate with your partner about how to give each one of you some alone time every day. For example, saying to your partner, “I need an hour from 7 a.m. to 8 a.m. in the morning to be able to go for a walk by myself before I start my workday,” might be an idea. Offer the same in return. Sometimes, having an hour to yourself whether you're outside the house taking a walk or inside the house, with a closed door, doing something you like provides a feeling of independence.

How do we handle the child care situation?

Couples need to have a sit-down meeting to decide how to manage the children. Some kids might have online learning that needs to be supervised while other kids don't have work that they need to do, but they need to have some structure to keep them calm and regulated.

Discuss with your significant other how and who will manage the kids and their work/exercise and who will make and enforce sticking to a schedule if that's been decided. If one partner is working from home, perhaps the other partner can manage the children to allow the person still working to be able to focus. If both parents must work online, perhaps they need to make a schedule and split up supervising the kids so that everybody has an opportunity to work and help with the parenting.

Older children can help to supervise younger children. Also, don't feel like you must live up to an expectation with regards to the children and their education right now. Look at this as “survival mode” and keeping everybody healthy is the main priority. Just have the children and the adults do their best with online learning and, eventually, when the kids go back to school, they will get caught up with what they missed by being home.

What about our sex life?

Some couples are staying in a regular schedule of being sexual either at night or in the morning as they usually did before this pandemic. Other couples I speak to are feeling some pressure to be sexual with more frequency since nobody has any place to go.

Remember, some couples are used to being separated on a regular basis because one partner travels for work, they work split shifts, or they are not used to having access to one another 24 hours a day.

I'm counseling couples that they should sit down and talk about expectations for sex especially if they are not in agreement.

For example, I counseled a couple earlier this week where the man was so happy to not be traveling anymore and had the expectation with his wife that they could have quickies during the day and sex every night before they went to bed. The wife felt very overwhelmed with the responsibility of taking care of three children, who are no longer going to school, preparing all the family’s meals and being available physically to her husband day and night. She was exhausted.

After speaking about it in a virtual session, we decided that the couple would agree to be sexual three nights a week and the husband would respect her physical boundaries with sex during the daytime and on the nights that they agreed not to be sexual.

Also, the wife was requesting that the husband participate a bit more with taking care of the children and helping her prepare and serve some of the meals, which he was happy to do.

The couple reported a few days later that things felt a lot less tenacious in their relationship just after being able to talk about their feelings for a few minutes in our therapy session over FaceTime and make a solid plan.

Couples need to talk about their feelings and try to come up with a management strategy that everybody feels good about, both with intimacy and their shared responsibilities.

My partner and I were on the verge of a divorce and then the pandemic hit. Now what?

Because things changed so quickly and so dramatically, I am recommending to couples that they put legal processes on hold for now and try to come up with a way to manage their responsibilities within the household but also have space from one another.

For example, if a couple has been fighting a lot, the recommendation is for one of you to move into a different room in the house and respect each other's need for some space to try to keep things de-escalated. Now is certainly not the time to have knockdown arguments that drag out. It's a time for safety and peace. Also, if you have children living in the house, we do not want to escalate anything, we want to keep everybody as calm as possible.

Arguing can have the possibility of escalating into physical violence so not arguing is the first solution. Try to talk things through calmly, if that doesn't work try texting or emailing each other to see if you can come to some solutions while staying de-escalated by not communicating face to face.

If all else fails, have a therapist do a virtual session between you to come up with a set of rules for how to manage your responsibilities in the short term. Also, be aware of drugs and alcohol as those can ignite arguing and physical violence.

I'm watching my partner drink way too much during this whole pandemic. What should I do?

Many people are overdoing it with drinking and using drugs, including prescription pills, to cope with fear and anxiety. People are also trying to manage boredom, fear, and depression.

Clearly, relying on drugs or alcohol is not a good way to cope with the stress of what's going on right now. You don't want to get yourself into a situation where you are reliant on a substance in order to manage your emotions or to sleep.

If you feel like you are drinking or overdoing it with drugs, it might be a good idea to reach out to your primary care physician or a psychiatrist to see if being prescribed some medication in the short term would help you manage your symptoms or help you sleep. Using alcohol to medicate these symptoms can result in addiction or death.

Try using healthy coping skills such as exercise, talking with friends or family, or reaching out to a mental health professional for some support. Try to remember that this period of time that we're in right now will come to an end and life will return to normal at some point.

The trick is just to try and get yourself into a routine that is normal within the context of your home and to communicate your feelings to your family members that you are in close quarters with in order to draft solutions that everybody can live with. You also can express to your loved one that you are worried about them and are trying to help them.

My partner isn't taking the social distancing seriously, I'm afraid they're bringing germs back into our home.

All you can control is yourself. You can speak to your partner about your feelings of fear and concern and you can ask them to please wash their hands and take their shoes off before they come into the house in order to not cross-contaminate the outside world with the inside of your home.

If your partner continues to put you and the family in danger, you might want to reconsider staying someplace else.

All our kids do is fight. What do we do?

The adults need to take a leadership role and manage the children, especially with arguing.

Let them know that arguing right now is unacceptable because we are all trying to survive a pandemic, stay healthy, and that we need each other's help.

Set up things for the children to have to do together in order to work out their differences.

Have them cook a meal together or supervise them going on a walk together in order to try to get some of the feelings out and craft solutions.

If all else fails, tell them that whatever the difference in opinion is between them, we will figure it out when things go back to normal, but for now, they need to operate as a team to get us through this challenging time. We need to work as a team and we need everyone’s participation.

I haven't spoken to a relative in a very long time. Should I reach out to them?

Yes, now is a good time to reach out to friends and family that maybe you have been cut off from and try to mend fences.

Being in a life-threatening situation such as this pandemic provides a good backdrop as to why you are reaching out.

Clearly, if the conversation doesn't go well, just thank them for their time and know that you tried. Many times, a crisis such as an illness or death brings long lost relationships together in a new way with a change of focus.

How am I going to get through this? I feel like I'm losing my mind.

Try to relax and remember self-care is especially important right now.

Taking walks, meditating, deep breathing exercises, staying in a schedule, eating regularly, and waking up/going to bed at the same time every night can all be strategies to try to help this pandemic time feel a little bit like some kind of a normal life.

Limit how much news you watch. Try to identify things to do that occupy your mind, for example, many colleges are offering free online courses and many zoos have virtual tours set up.

Feel free to reach out to a licensed mental health professional for some support. We are all experiencing a change of routine and uncertainty about what happens next. We are all following instructions from our leadership and waiting to hear what happens next.

We are all in this together, you are not alone. Stay calm and carry on.

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