7 ways to reset your romantic relationship after a long pandemic season
Relationships have changed thanks to the pandemic. It's a good time for couples to think about how to strengthen their bond.
As we emerge, blinking, from our pandemic seclusion, all of us have, in ways great and small, changed. So, too, have our relationships.
“During this time, couples may have been spending about as much time with each other as would normally be stretched across a two to three year period,” said Bryce Doehne, a clinical psychologist in Portland, Oregon. “And they’ve had to occupy multiple roles that would have been previously filled by others, like friends, which is impossible.”
Now, as many couples plunge back into the hum of life, is a perfect opportunity for a relationship reset – to learn from our time hunkering down together and look toward the future.
Here is a seven-point plan to get started.
DO A RELATIONSHIP REVIEW
First, have a sit-down together to assess what worked about your relationship – and didn’t – during quarantine, said Christiana Ibilola Awosan, a therapist in New York City. In order to make positive changes going forward, start by sharing with your partner what you learned about yourself during the pandemic, she recommended.
Then, Dr Awosan said, consider using these prompts to continue the conversation: What did the pandemic show us about our relationship? What do we want to keep going forward? What do we want to discard? What has surprised you about me during this pandemic?
“Sometimes we tend to focus on what annoyed us about our partner, but there might be some good things that surprised you, like a strength you didn’t realise they had,” she said.
VOICE YOUR APPRECIATION
Perhaps over the past year, you haven’t felt like giving compliments to your partner – but positive feedback is important, according to a nearly three-decade study of marriage and divorce by Terri Orbuch, a research professor at the University of Michigan and a sociology professor at Oakland University. One of her divorced subjects’ biggest regrets was that they had not given their mate more “affective affirmation,” or encouragement and support in the form of words or thoughtful gestures. That includes compliments like: “You’re a great parent.” Dr Orbuch has called the neglect of these simple acts “an overlooked relationship-killer.”
You know that fleeting moment when a burst of affection or attraction for your partner flits through your mind? “Don’t just think it,” said Don Cole, a licensed marriage therapist and clinical director of the Gottman Institute in Seattle. “It should not ‘go without saying.’”
“Many of us believe our partners should know that we love them, especially after being together for years,” he said. But research at the Gottman Institute, the renowned laboratory for the study of relationships, found that the most successful couples regularly “opened their mouths and actually spoke their words of love and respect and admiration.”
Those words are even more meaningful, Dr Cole said, when you are specific. “My wife’s a trained soprano and I told her, ‘Yesterday you were walking around straightening up the house and singing, and I got a thrill down my back when I heard it,’” he said.
Why does specificity matter? Saying “you’re thoughtful” is nice, Dr Cole said, “but when your partner tells a positive story where you demonstrated your thoughtfulness, that makes you more likely to hold that, to cherish it, to make you feel good about it.”
BUILD IN TIME APART
Make sure that each partner builds some alone time into their day, even if it’s a short walk. Liad Uziel, a senior lecturer in the psychology department at Bar-Ilan University in Israel, said that solo time and being with others “both shape our character from different perspectives.”
When we’re alone, Dr Uziel said, “external pressure is reduced, we are often more in control of events and we can manage our time more freely.” Alone time, he said, is also important for what is called “identity consolidation,” in which one thinks of the past to process events, and the future to set goals.
In our relationships, taking time alone “offers a greater opportunity for each partner to develop their personal identity independently, which they can then bring to their relationship and strengthen it,” Dr Uziel said.
TAKE TIME TO CONNECT
Having less sex these days? It’s not just you. A recent online survey of 1,559 adults about their intimate lives by the Kinsey Institute at Indiana University revealed that over 43 per cent of participants reported a decline in the quality of their sex lives since the pandemic began.
A sexual dry spell is no surprise, given that the pandemic’s stress and uncertainty were “libido killers,” said Shannon Chavez, a therapist in Los Angeles. If you need a nudge to get back in the game, she said, think of sexual connection “as a form of self-care, which is anything you do to take care of your overall health and wellbeing.” Prioritising sex as health, she added, makes it easier to make time for intimacy.
That includes putting it on the schedule. “Scheduling sex can be better for your sex life than it sounds,” Dr Chavez said. “People fear it takes the excitement out of it, but if anything, it adds anticipation by planning, and isn’t rushed or put on the back burner.”
Why not aim for sex once a week? Not only is this an achievable goal, but according to one study of over 25,000 adults, it’s actually optimal. Research published in 2016 in the journal Social Psychology and Personality Science found that weekly sex was ideal for maximum wellbeing. If the respondents, who ranged from 18 to 89, had more than that, their self-reported happiness actually levelled off – and that finding held true for both men and women, and was consistent no matter how long they had been together.
GO TO A PARTY
While we’ve seen plenty of our partners during the past year, what’s been missing, said Kendra Knight, an assistant professor of communication studies at DePaul University, is social gatherings in which you view your partner through the eyes of others. She said that seeing your significant other at an event – dressed up, being witty perhaps – can renew your own attraction.
Our estimation of our partner’s attractiveness, sometimes referred to as “mate value,” she said, “is partially a function of others’ appraisals.” That can range, Dr Knight said, from physical attractiveness to social attractiveness (if, say, they’re the life of the party) to so-called “task attractiveness” – for example, making a batch of their famous margaritas or crushing a backyard horseshoe game.
Of course, if you or your mate is not ready for big events, or never liked neighbourhood block parties in the first place, you might just shoot for dinner with close friends or family. Each of us has our own comfort level about heading out into the wider world after so much isolation. “Check in with each other regularly and share how you feel about stepping out,” Dr Awosan said. “And work on being kind and patient wherever your partner is at.”
REDISCOVER YOUR PLAYFUL SIDE
The past year and half has been heavy. Now that we’re heading into a summer with far fewer restrictions than the last one, it’s okay to think about bringing some levity back. Being more playful in your relationship can revive that sparkle, according to a review from Martin Luther University Halle-Wittenberg in Germany.
The study’s lead author, Kay Brauer, a researcher in the psychology department, found that people who scored high in “other-directed playfulness,” or goofing around with others, “might be particularly important for reviving relationships after the long stretches of monotony during quarantine.”
Playful people, he said, tend to share inside jokes, surprise their partner, give them affectionate nicknames or re-enact joint experiences, like your first date or that disastrous time you tried karaoke. Look for opportunities to create inside jokes or act silly, like having your next date at an amusement park. “If there was ever a time to surprise ourselves and our partner with the new and unexpected, it’s now,” Brauer said.
Making plans together, such as for a vacation, a home renovation project, or even just swinging by a new restaurant, activates our brain’s craving for novel experiences, said Dr Knight, “which in turn can amplify attraction to and interest in our partner.”
It also reinforces your bond, Dr Awosan said: “Research has shown that when couples work together as a team, their relationship satisfaction and quality increases.”
In the past year and half, “people have lost jobs, lost loved ones, a sense of self,” Dr Awosan said. “We’ve all lost something.” Planning something to look forward to, together, symbolises hopefulness and optimism.
“It’s about the future,” she said. “It says, ‘We are moving forward.’”
By Jancee Dunn © 2021 The New York Times
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.