“We used to argue about who left the orange juice carton on the kitchen counter,” said the 64-year-old woman, referring to her husband of 30 years. “But now those little things no longer seem to matter.”
She was reflecting on how quickly and utterly life has changed for the two of them and for millions of other American couples who find themselves hunkered down in their homes under governors’ orders, to decrease the spread of COVID-19. During this pandemic some of these couples are experiencing the cliché “Too much togetherness isn’t good for a marriage.” As creatively as they devise new household routines to keep from stepping on each other’s toes during weeks-long confinement, they still cramp each other’s style and work each other’s nerves. Friction is inevitable. Petty arguments play out.
But for many of the individuals and couples over 50 we see in our psychology practices, the enormity of the current health threat has put into perspective these small annoyances. Indeed, they’ve demonstrated to us that an increased sense of emotional togetherness — conveyed by a shared laugh, a warm glance across the table or a reassuring touch — is very good for a marriage during a time of national and personal crisis.
There are ways of strengthening this sense of togetherness through daily actions that enhance love (and increase tolerance levels!). Here are some ideas.
Recognize and forgive fear
Sometimes, spouses aim criticism and anger at each other because expressing those emotions makes them less vulnerable than sharing their unspoken fears. Then those jabs quickly provoke an argument. But if couples can recognize the panic beneath their irritability, they can prevent themselves from taking each other’s barbed comments so personally. And if they can see that they have overlapping needs for comfort and reassurance during these frightening times, they can then turn toward, rather than against, each other.
What this requires is listening well and responding sympathetically. Ask about your partner’s feelings. Suggest that maybe she is feeling overwhelmed by the situation at hand, and then offer your support. Share your own feelings of anxiety. You are not solving problems now; you are just listening to and validating each other.
Many of us have already been grieving the losses of routines, activities and jobs. But much worse sorrow is likely to come during this pandemic as colleagues, neighbors, acquaintances, friends and relatives die. Like fear, deep sadness often masquerades as irritability and anger. It is far better for spouses not to react to that anger but, instead, to sense the emotional pain beneath it and then reach out to each other for caring and supportive conversations.
Do things together
Now is not the time to maintain the usual divisions of labor and leisure in the day-to-day life of a marital household. Rather than cooking and walking the dog separately, spouses should more often do meal prep in the kitchen side by side and walk the dog arm in arm. Likewise, don’t watch TV in separate rooms; make the extra effort to find shows of common interest. Start a project together. Video-chat with other family members together. Those increased points of contact can strengthen your relationship.
Do things apart, too
We aren’t suggesting, though, that partners face this crisis joined at the hip. All significant relationships require a balance between me and we time. Designate rooms in the home (think the man cave and women’s hobby spaces) where each of you can retreat to at times to regroup or pursue solitary activities.
Hug and gaze
In a recent webinar, Leadership and Happiness, Arthur Brooks, a senior fellow at Harvard Business School, and Leonard Schlesinger, a professor at the same institution, offered three pieces of advice, based on neuroscience research, on how spouses can pull together during this crisis. The first two suggestions help provide the physical and visual reassurance to shore each other up: Hug tightly every two hours for at least 20 seconds, and make frequent eye contact with each other. The third idea, limiting social media to 20 minutes a day, may help counter the isolating effects of one of our most popular activities.
Spouses can draw on all of these ideas to make the best use of this period of enforced confinement to talk more, work together better and deepen their relationships — perhaps even gain new understandings and practices that won’t disappear after this virus finally does.
Barry J. Jacobs, a clinical psychologist and health care consultant, and Julia L. Mayer, a clinical psychologist, are married and the coauthors of Love and Meaning After 50: The 10 Challenges to Great Relationships — and How to Overcome Them and AARP Meditations for Caregivers.