We’re all spending way more time at home than we ever thought we’d have to. That’s led to a few realities we’re all extremely familiar with at this point: our pets are happy. No one wears jeans anymore. And couples who live together are finding their relationships ... tested.
“We don’t have the outlets for stress relief that we might have had before. The little things get big,” said Bronwyn Singleton, a Toronto therapist who works with individual clients and with couples. “Everyone’s pretty frayed at this point.”
Despite our physical closeness — especially for people who live in apartments or condos — there’s a definite lack of intimacy in the way we’re interacting with each other.
“We often think about sexual intimacy or physical intimacy when we’re talking about couples,” she said. “But intimacy is also about an emotional bond, an intellectual bond and experiential bond from doing things together.”
Under normal circumstances, “at the end of a workday, people used to bring home anecdotes, stories, things they’ve seen out in the world. They used to go out with their friends and have things to contribute. But now, at the end of the day, if you’re sitting beside someone all day, you already know all that.” Most couples aren’t talking about great experiences or challenging ideas over dinner, in other words — there just isn’t anything to talk about.
And then there’s the fact that we’re essentially forced into relying on our partner to do what a whole friend group would otherwise be doing.
“We want couples to be interdependent, not codependent,” Singleton said. “We want them to lead independent lives, to be growing on their own as well as as a couple.”
Because we’re isolated from the people we don’t live with, though, it’s a lot harder to be independent. “For a lot of us, we just have that one person to go to, whereas we probably had a much larger network before,” Singleton said.
But don’t despair. While (almost) a year into a pandemic might not be the ideal time for love to flourish, there are absolutely things you can do to keep your relationship romantic. Here are Singleton’s suggestions for couples living through the pandemic in the same home.
Schedule time apart
“It’s quite paradoxical — we’re complaining about social isolation, and yet people who are sequestered with loved ones can’t get enough privacy either,” Singleton said.
The solution: spend time apart.
“It’s probably the first time that I’m actually recommending that couples actively spend less time together,” she said. “That’s pretty unusual counsel in my business. But I think, for many of us living in close quarters, familiarity [can cause] people to become irritable.”
If you’re both working from home, work as far away from one another as is possible. Go on long walks separately. Schedule time for yourself to watch a movie alone, or to chat with your friends.
And you don’t need to have actual plans in order to spend time away from each other. Having a few nights a week you spend together, and a few that you each spend doing your own thing, can actually be really helpful for your relationship.
“Of course, we don’t have the kind of resources where you can just send your partner to the gym for a couple of hours,” Singleton said. “But try to create some spaces of privacy ... and do try not to be one another’s only support system.”
Talk about it
It’s a weird time. Because you essentially have no choice but to spend all day, every day with that person, you might feel like you can’t talk about it. But it can actually help a lot to communicate about the constraints you’re feeling.
“I’m big on naming it,” Singleton said. “Just call out the fact that this is really hard.”
If you’ve identified what some of your own personal triggers are, share those with your partner Openness can break down some of those barriers that exist between you.
Remember to be considerate
“This sounds very boring, but be nice,” Singleton said. “Double down on your manners.”
Before you leave all your dishes in the sink or complain that your partner left the light on, think about how you would treat a beloved roommate. Would you start a fight with them? Or would you just tell yourself they’re probably under stress too, and do the dishes promptly?
Thinking of your partner more abstractly, as a person you live with who shares the space equally can help keep those daily domestic disputes from spiralling out of control.
Plan for sex
“So many people have bought into this myth that sex is just going to happen spontaneously,” Singleton said. These days, when we’re mostly wearing sweats and many people are dealing with compromised mental health or low self-esteem, that feels especially far-fetched.
“I work with a number of people who lead a BDSM or kink lifestyle,” Singleton said. “And those people have always known that sex requires a lot of planning.”
It might feel weird and unsexy at first, but scheduling a time for sex can actually be fun, she said: it’s something to look forward to.
She said a lot of her clients seem to be having less sex now than they did before the pandemic. Part of it might be that couples could be taking this time to figure out that they have different attitudes towards sex. There’s nothing wrong with that — but it’s a good thing to understand.
“When I’m doing sex therapy with couples, one thing I like ask them is what they use sex for. Some people, for example, see it as a really important energetic release. For other people, it’s about bonding and emotional intimacy. For other people. It’s really about experimentation and play.”
Being together all the time might make those different expectations more obvious, in a way that might feel dissonant.
“If one person is really into romance and needing to feel good about themselves before they can get into the mood, and the other person feels like, ‘This is a really important part of my energetic hygiene,’ they may be at loggerheads about how they’re using their erotic selves right now,” she said.
“So it’s kind of an interesting conversation that I don’t think a lot of people have: ‘How do you think about sex?’”
Take care of yourself
We know you’ve heard this one before, but it bears repeating because it’s true: you won’t be a good boyfriend or girlfriend or husband or wife or romantic partner in any sense if you aren’t making sure you feel good as an individual, too.
“You’ve really got to take care of yourself and your own physical and mental health so that you can show up as your best self in your relationship,” Singleton said. This is always true, but it’s especially important now, when there are so many stressors on everyone.
And being good to yourself also means giving your relationship a break. If you don’t feel like things are great all the time, that’s totally normal: the world is upside down right now.
If you’re considering a breakup, Singleton suggests looking at the root of the problem, and asking yourself if it’s pandemic-related or not. Of course, there are lots of valid reasons to break up — but if the pressure of COVID living is the biggest factor, consider waiting a little longer.
“Just know that you’re really, really challenged now, and you’re not showing up as your best selves, in terms of your capacity to be partners,” she said. “Think of all of the artificial pressures that are being put upon you right now.”
In other words, if you hate pandemic living, that doesn’t necessarily mean your relationship is doomed. It’s a message that feels contrary to those happy couples we all know who moved in together right before last March, and who joyously talk to everyone who will listen about how if they made it through the last year, they can make it through anything. But that’s actually “an artificial test,” in Singleton’s words: this is unlikely to ever happen again in our lifetime.
“For those people, I kind of wonder, how are you going to feel with the world opens up? It’s a bit like falling in love on a holiday, it has that artificiality.”
Right now, we’re all in a bubble, she said.
“If you’ve loved the bubble or you’ve hated the bubble, it’s an artificial existence.”