We’ve entered a new reality that none of us would have chosen, but here we are. Socially distancing. Washing our hands obsessively. Counting the rolls of toilet paper in the closet. Staying at home with our children and our spouses, those dear ones we chose to have and to hold forever after but not necessarily for every day.

My husband is a sixty-seven-year old dentist who had been working part-time in a local dental clinic. Since he spent his days inside people’s mouths, we decided it was time for him to take temporary retirement. His job was just too risky. Apparently the American Dental Association agreed, and suggested that all dental clinics restrict their services to emergency cases only. (His clinic shut down a few hours after he told them he was taking time off)

As a licensed marriage and family therapist with a general psychotherapy practice, I have begun conducting teletherapy sessions. I feel fortunate to still have an income, however reduced it may turn out to be. My husband and I are staying close to home. Our only social contact is with our grandchildren and their parents, as we are now also part-time homeschooling grandparents!

In my psychotherapy practice, and in my own home, the challenges of the covid-19 pandemic are clearly straining the bonds of matrimony. We are hearing plenty of messages about how to protect ourselves from contracting the virus, but not much about how to protect our relationships from the stress of constant contact in enclosed spaces!

Here are a few tips I’ve been sharing with the couples in my practice.

1. Negotiate for distance

2. Make a plan for sharing space

3. Have a regular emotional check-in

4. Do something unexpected

5. Remember your manners

6. Cultivate generosity

In a typical marital therapy, I encourage couples to spend more time together. In the pandemic marriage, we might need to negotiate with our partner for time alone, or time spent engaging with others in whatever ways feel safe. You might time to yourself for a virtual girls night out. You might want to two hours to take a long solo hike or go for a drive. The point is that you will have to ask for it. You will need to be direct about what you need, and be willing to negotiate for it. Don’t take your partner’s need to time away from you personally. In our pre-pandemic lives, most of us got enough time away from our partner that we looked forward to time together. Now that itch has been scratched-and how!

Making a plan for sharing space can prevent couples from feeling invaded by their partner’s constant presence. Talk honestly about your needs for privacy and solitude. Now that the weather is warming up, consider porches, yards and patios as living spaces. For couples who have children at home all day now, space has become a precious commodity. If you haven’t already, teach your children to consider your bedroom private space they can’t enter without your permission. Perhaps you love cooking alone. Maybe you love sitting in a special spot early in the morning with a cup of coffee. Let each other know how you want to use the space inside and outside your home and respect each other’s needs for privacy.

Having a regular emotional check-in is a good idea for both couples and families. Life is stressful right now for everyone. For some families, life feels not only stressful but precarious. If there is illness, or job loss or financial insecurity, everyone in the family is going to be less resilient. Having an opportunity to share what you are feeling without criticism helps both children and adults to feel less afraid. Check-in should be brief, non-judgmental and focused on emotions, not complaints.

Someone has said that when humans are stressed, we don’t play, we don’t mate, and we don’t create. Once our personal safety is established, once we have re-calibrated our financial lives and have a sense that our basic needs will be met, then couples need to be intentional about playing, about loving, and about exercising their creative impulses. Do something unexpected. Have a themed dinner and dress up in costume. Paint a mural together on one of your walls. Play strip poker after the kids are in bed. Cultivate the playful, expressive parts of you and invite your partner to join in the fun.

Saying please and thank you is one of the easiest ways to increase marital satisfaction. A “thank you for unloading the dishwasher” is more likely to encourage your partner to do it again. Being considerate and kind goes a long way toward smoothing the small irritations of being stuck in the house together all day.

Cultivating generosity is a worthy lifelong goal, especially in a marital relationship. Generosity takes many forms: giving of oneself, one’s time, one’s possessions, and one’s attention. It also takes the form of forbearance, the capacity to let things slide, to stop a defensive comment before it leaves your mouth, to accept your partner’s limitations and challenges.

Relationships are going to be altered during and as a result of the covid-19 pandemic. Speculators are already taking bets on the increase in births nine months from now, and the increase in divorce filings. Couples who are thoughtful can use this time to improve their relationships, and not let them fray under the grind of a forced togetherness. Share this list with your partner. Post it on the refrigerator. If nothing else, it might hold you more accountable to each other.

Cynthia Ezell is a psychotherapist, farmer, and writer. Her literary work emerges from the intersection of relationships and the environment.

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