How to Manage Stress and Uncertainty with Your Partner During COVID-19

How to Manage Stress and Uncertainty with Your Partner During COVID-19

What can couples in quarantine learn from retired couples? A lot about sharing and balance.

In an unprecedented manner, couples find themselves stuck at home together, sharing the same spaces around the clock. That can be stressful and difficult to manage. But retired couples have been at this for a while already. What happens when two people find themselves home all day, together? And how do they learn to manage this sudden sharing of space? Of course, there are huge differences between two retired people and, many of today’s situations. A couple with children who are out of school and who face unemployment, work from home and fear of illness are in a more complex scenario.

While I don’t want to compare the circumstances, it is worth looking at what retired couples are doing to learn how they handle the balance between togetherness and distance—and how they bring out the best in each other.

Of course, not all older retired couples fare better. Some do get stuck in cycles of constant bickering. But research shows that, in general, older couples report higher levels of companionship and lower levels of conflict than younger couples. As their social networks shrink, or their physical health diminishes, they rely more on each other, they fight less, and they are more forgiving and accepting.

How do they do that? Read on for lessons from older retired couples on how to survive and thrive in the age of COVID-19.

Can I Rely on You? Ask for Help.

Older retired couples rely on and support each other. All of us have always been mutually dependent on other people—and now more so than ever. But dependency has a bad reputation in this culture. We tend to prioritize self-reliance and independence. In turn, we minimize interdependence, which is an essential component of relationships. Some people find it hard to ask for help, even when they need it.

You may need help in carrying out the myriad of tasks required around the house, from disinfecting the groceries to deep cleaning the bathroom. You may need emotional support in dealing with fear of death, or fear of going to the hospital, or anxiety about losing a loved one. If you’ve been self-reliant all your life and proud of it, or if you have had trouble asking for help, you might notice hesitation in accepting help and support from your partner.  If self-reliance has been a strength throughout your life, consider that during these times, it can be detrimental to your relationship and survival.

Now is the time to strengthen your helping-asking capacity if you used to be proud of your self-reliance.  Where might your relationship take you to allow your partner to support your needs?  What changes might you experience as you discover each other’s vulnerabilities and interdependence? Being able to count on and be relied upon in times of anxiety and necessity is good practice. 

Have Fights—But Not Too Many. Forgive More.

When older couples fight, they do so with less intensity, less belligerence, less tendency to want to win at all costs. Maybe they have more to lose, or less time left to sweat the small stuff. In any case, they know how to push each other’s buttons better than anyone and they have been having the same arguments for so long that they even know each other’s lines. Their relationship is so important that they are able to let go, forgive more, and use humor to deflect a disagreement that could quickly spiral out of control. You can say that their love has grown up.

How many fights have you had that are really important? How many do you have just because you know how to push his/her buttons? How much nastier do you get than you really need to make your point.

Why not use the wisdom of older couples in your arguments:

  • Can you catch a fight that is about to start and say something like, “We know how this is going to end, why not talk about something different?”
  • If the topic is important and must be addressed, can you use kindness instead of harshness, and a soft touch instead of glaring eyes?
  • If you or your partner are still nasty, harsh or contemptuous, can you ask for a time out so you can resume the conversation with a cooler head later on?
  • If you must clear the air, can you compensate with doing something nice for your partner at a later time or day? Unless the positive interactions outweigh negative ones, resentments can linger.

Acceptance and Managing Expectations

One of the reasons older retired couples fight less is that they have stopped having expectations that their partners will change or that the relationship will be different. They are more able to focus on what is, rather than on what could be. They may not think about the end all the time, but they know their time is limited, and they tend to enjoy more of what they have instead of being upset at what they don’t have. They can focus on what’s good about the relationship instead on what’s not, and they express gratitude more freely and more often. Speaking about gratitude, there is a lot of research showing that focusing on the things we do have, rather than the ones we don’t, makes people happier.

Research shows that as they grow older, men tend to become more sensitive, less argumentative, and more attuned to their partner’s and their own feelings. This may have something to do with hormonal changes, but it wouldn’t be surprising if it also has to do with leaving the rat race and having changed expectations about their own careers and finances.

If you could adopt some the above ideas, you may be able to:

  • Verbal appreciation is one of the most underrated tools in the couple’s toolbox and is severely underused.  Express more gratitude verbally on a daily basis by completing any one of these sentences:
    • “I really like it when you…”
    • It makes my life easier when you…”
    • “One of the things I like most about you is that…” 
  • Change your expectations about what changes you would like your partner to make. Focus more on how to be a better partner.
  • Sit with your partner with no screens and just hang out. Ask him or her:
    • What are you most worried about?
    • What are your good memories about the best times in our relationship?
    • What do you miss the most about your life pre Covid-19?
    • What are you doing to do first when you can get out of the house?
  • Find ways to surprise your partner.  While staying in, step out of your comfort zone to continue to surprise, humor, and entertain your partner. You can:
    • Set up the living room for a cozy date night
    • Write each other a love note
    • Create a video
    • Cook dinner together
    • Make them laugh

Think that one day you will not be around, how do you want your partner to think about you when she/he remembers?

You don’t have to wait to become a retired older couple to create a stronger relationship. Take advantage of the quarantine. Act as if you were a happier, older retired couple!

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