Why Some Couples Thrived During the Pandemic and Others Didn’t

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As a therapist, I often get an up-close look at how current events shape the everyday fabric of people’s lives. When the holidays close in, I talk clients through the joys and heartaches such seasons can bring. When politicians are elected, bills are passed, or the economy takes a tumble, conversations can turn to more forward-thinking questions. And over the past few months, as the world has shifted and brought most of us indoors, I’ve seen how couples have coped.

It’s no secret that the monotony of cohabitation during quarantine caused some couples to reevaluate their relationships. Like many around the world, the great pause button was hit on the daily routine as we knew it. 

I’m in the unique position to work with many couples who experienced similar issues, but experienced different outcomes. I soon noticed an interesting trend with the couples I’ve worked with over the past few months.

My couples were, for the most part, like any other couple: one or both partners working high-stress essential jobs, while also taking care of children who were indefinitely home from school in their tiny Manhattan apartments. All the while they continued to experience pressure to perform at work, to fulfill their role as a partner, and for some, the added full-time pressure to be an ultra-productive parent. 

While many of the issues were the same, a unique pattern began emerging amongst the couples who were able to work through their issues and come out successfully on the other side.

The forced closeness of quarantine caused some couples to reevaluate their relationships. Like many around the world, the great pause button was hit on our daily routines.

Relationships Under the Magnifying Glass

Couples had to navigate uncharted territory where there was no physical escape from home. It was no longer an option to grab drinks with friends, hit up the gym, or even stay late at work. There was no retreat even outside; even parks and public spaces were often off limits. 

Many couples were, perhaps, for the first time confronted through the magnifying glass of quarantine, to the shortcomings and imperfections of their partner. Some couples had the time – without the distractions of the outside world – to finally see how their communication issues and misunderstandings were impacting their relationship. 

Some couples bonded against the unknown, and their fears brought them closer together.

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Some of my couples bonded against the unknown, and their fears brought them closer together. For others, being in close quarters brought another question, “are we really meant to be together?

Their partnership was challenged, and values were exposed.  A lack of intimacy was exaggerated by not feeling attractive, and the humdrum of home duties and chores were a weight upon both partner’s shoulders. 

spring cleaning grounding
Some of my couples bonded against the unknown, and their fears brought them closer together. For others, being in close quarters brought another question, “are we really meant to be together?”

The Couples Who Got Stronger

The couples that I worked with who were successful took essential steps to better their relationships. They didn’t try to take the easy way out by blaming each other.  They worked together on their communication by actively listening to each other, which meant asking helpful questions to make sure they actually heard their partner.  One way they did this was using detailed “I feel….when you…” statements. 

Couples also experienced new ways to be intimate with one another from sex (despite it feeling less spontaneous) or by rethinking what “date nights” should look like. Intimacy is important to healthy relationships because it’s closely connected with being vulnerable, and vulnerable relationships are the ones that last.  I noticed that these couples were also gentle and compassionate with each other. Especially if one is struggling or upset, a true effort was made to connect.

Vulnerable relationships are the ones that last.

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Couples who were successful also made a conscious effort not to assume the worst about their partner, were less judgmental and more forgiving. By forgiving your partner you’re able to move on from past problems without harboring resentment, so it’s no surprise that forgiveness is key to resolving conflict. 

One way to do this is think about the outcome you want. Do you want to win the argument or heal your relationship and feel close again? This doesn’t mean dismissing what happened. Express your feelings, and then be committed to let it go. The focus needs to be on cooperation and empathy, not making the other person continue to pay for their wrongdoing. 

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Couples who were successful made a conscious effort not to assume the worst about their partner, were less judgmental and more forgiving.

The Importance of Perspective

The lessons that couples learned together during the epidemic can be applied any time, not just during times of crisis. For example, approaching problems from a perspective of ‘us vs the problem’ vs ‘me vs you’ allows couples to gain a bit of emotional distance from their problems and act as a united front and examine issues with less defensiveness and reactivity. 

Express your feelings, and then be committed to let it go. Focus on cooperation and empathy, not making the other person continue to pay for their wrongdoing.

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For those couples whose relationships didn’t fare as well, perhaps the intense pressure of quarantine simply hastened the collapse of something that was already on rocky footing. While easier in practice, this also helps couples turn inward and be more willing to hear their partners’ concerns.

Ultimately, where compassion reigned, understanding was cultivated, and feeling good enough emerged, growth in the bond of their relationship blossomed.

Your Turn: what did you learn about yourself or your relationship during quarantine? How has your relationship evolved? Share your experience in the comments below.

Joanna Kaminski

Joanna Kaminski is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist at Clarity Therapy. Joanna uses aspects of Emotion-Focused Therapy (EFT) to help individuals and couples uncover their strengths, break free from patterns that keep them stuck, and discover new ways of communicating so that their partnership can thrive.

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