As in the wake of any major life event, explained Steamboat Springs couples counselor Colleen Clark Lay, relationships under COVID-19 are likely to either improve or really suffer.
“Whatever was underlying comes to the surface,” she said.
Clark Lay gives the example of planning a wedding — a process that can either result in the eruption of underlying tension or bring about a stronger-than-ever partnership.
But Clark Lay also emphasizes what we are all going through related to the COVID-19 pandemic is totally unprecedented. There are countless studies underway measuring the impacts of COVID-19 on marriage, divorce and birth rates, as well as dating habits and people’s sex lives.
Most couples are not used to being around each other 24/7, and most are not accustomed to sudden and dramatic changes in roles — as breadwinners, as parents, as teachers.
Lives have been upturned, and routines obliterated.
“The ways we cope with stress really gets challenged during this time,” Clark Lay said. “Relationships can excel or fall apart.”
Role reversals and extra stressors
When many people lost their job, they lost a big part of their identity along with it. They lost their sense of self as a person who goes to work and has a daily role and purpose. They’ve also lost the normal interaction with people who they have a relationship with totally independent from their significant other.
“Everyone is having to evolve with there not being a template,” Clark Lay said.
Additional time with loved ones has been described as a silver lining by many people, but it is also possible to have too much of a good thing.
The newness of the situation is long over. But there still isn’t very much definitive to be said about where we are now or what is ahead.
“That unknown can be a key overwhelming factor,” Clark Lay said. “Even above and beyond the fatigue.”
Coping skills that worked in the past may no longer be effective, she said. And some people are high functioning under immense stress, while others shut down. Due to this, some roles are reversing, with people who were the strong ones in a relationship feeling new vulnerability and people who were more dependent finding new strength.
“The presence of external stressors — such as unemployment, economic hardship and work stress — create a context in which it is more difficult for partners to be responsive to each other’s needs,” writes Paula Pietromonaco in an article in the Association for Psychological Science. “When faced with external stress, individuals are more likely to communicate in ways that are overly critical or argumentative. They also tend to blame their partner and have more difficulty listening to their partner’s concerns and taking their partner’s perspective.”
What is happening now is taking a toll on even the emotionally healthiest of people, Clark Lay said.
“We are all human. People are not one-dimensional. If anyone is presenting as though they are okay and strong beyond belief all the time — that is really not human,” she said.
For couples with underlying issues, with a relationship that is already stressed, Clark Lay said she usually sees things go in one of two — polar opposite — directions.
“They can cave under the impacts of all of this or band together and get through,” she explained.
And within a relationship — and within a 24-hour period — both those things can be felt, she acknowledged.
“One day, you can hardly stand the site of your partner, and the next day, you are so grateful for each other,” she said.
One thing she hears a lot is couples saying something like, “We’ve decided to put aside all our differences because we have to survive this.”
However, that may not be sustainable, she added. “Does that mean we are going to address things that are wrong and heal, or does it mean we are going to ignore things that are wrong and just survive?”
That immediate survival — from both a health and financial standpoint — may simply take priority and shift away prior conflicts, Clark Lay said.
However if a serious issue is ignored, she warned, it isn’t likely to go away.
“Couples who are able to maintain good communication and be supportive and responsive to each other throughout the COVID-19 crisis will likely remain together and possibly feel more connected for having weathered the storm,” writes Pietromonaco. “However, couples who have difficulty communicating and effectively supporting each other may feel less happy with their marriage and possibly be more likely to separate or divorce.”
Take a moment
If you are struggling reach out, Clark Lay advises.
“It is okay to ask for help. If you can’t figure it out on your own, there is no shame in that,” she said.
Clark Lay also advises her clients to take time for themselves.
“It’s important to remember that relationships need nurturing. And each individual party needs nurturing,” she explained.
If you are going to run an errand, carve out a few more minutes to just be by yourself, Clark Lay suggests.
If that means shutting yourself in the bathroom for five minutes — do that, she said. “Self care is of the utmost importance. If the bathroom is your only option, go in and lock the door. Take a couple minutes to your self.”
We aren’t robots, Clark Lay emphasized. We can’t always just keep pushing through.
“A relationship is not a machine that will sustain itself — it needs love, energy, attention and space,” she said.
The primary message, according to Pietromonaco, is “although couples will face multiple challenges from the COVID-19 pandemic, the stress need not harm their marriage, and many relationships may even grow stronger as a result of overcoming adversity together.”
But Pietromonaco added that some stressors — especially financial — are going to be much harder on some couples and families than others.
There is no “one size fits all,” Clark Lay said. “We are all human, and we are going through something none of us have ever gone through before.”