Love In The Time Of Covid

How to keep your relationship thriving amid challenges of the pandemic.
Quarantining can expose fault lines in relationships, or help them blossom. Photograph: K Zoltan

By Dr. Lea Lis

It seems that COVID is either increasing baby-making or ending relationships. Is spending an abundant amount of time with your partner making you happy? Or is the never-ending togetherness putting a strain on what was already strained? How do you make your relationship pandemic-proof? Here are my suggestions, as a psychiatrist and sexuality expert:

Schedule a date with your partner once a week. In order to make it more fun, I recommend the date be a surprise to the other person. Dress up in sexy underwear, cook a special meal or watch an erotic movie. Come up with a plan to get the kids to sleep, or keep them occupied with technology behind closed doors. Each week, the hosts alternate.

Do not let yourself go! It is easy to pack on the pounds during quarantine, forget the skin care routines, the hair coloring and the shaving. Do not do it. That is not hot at all. It is time to learn how to cover your own grays, pluck your own eyebrows, buy some self-tanner. Your razor is still your friend; it should not get rusty in the shower.

Get nostalgic: Remember why you started this relationship. Chances are that was a great memory, deserving of a trip down memory lane where you can rekindle that love. Other ideas include looking at old pictures, playing your wedding video or song, asking your friends to list their favorite memories of you as a couple. This can make for a romantic night. “Determine some specific, easy and enjoyable ways to be together without overburdening those times with tackling tense topics about finance or other issues likely to bring stress and discord,” suggests Rachel Alexander, a family law attorney and divorce mediator. “Physical activities can be a low-pressure way to share time together regularly, with the added benefits of releasing stress, producing endorphins and grounding oneself in the body.”

Don’t make your partner read your mind. Tell them what you need, and be specific. If you want a big fuss made for your birthday, or an item of jewelry, tell them. Include a link to the site. Be happy when you get it, show appreciation, and brag about it to friends. Praise works wonders for any relationship.

You can’t get everything you need from your partner. Friends are a great way to get needs met without causing a breakup. Find your COVID pod and dig in on intimacy with friends who share interests that your partner does not. The famed Nurses’ Health Study from Harvard Medical School found that the more friends women had, the less likely they were to suffer physical and medical problems. “Before COVID, there were natural, lengthy periods of time that couples spent apart, getting needs met in other environments, through other activities, roles and relationships,” says Alexander. “If our whole sense of self and purpose must now be fulfilled solely through our spousal relationships and home lives, well, we are all in trouble.”

Find some time for yourself, without your spouse, and make that time a daily ritual. “This time is for you, without any backlash or negative judgment from your spouse,” says Alexander. “It’s a gift you agree to give one other, a way of acknowledging you are separate people. Be compassionate for yourself and your spouse. Kindness is the best antidote we have.”

But what if the pandemic continues and you are unhappy, and can’t handle your emotions? If the crisis is more than just a blip, it is possible that your relationship is no longer healthy.

• Is there emotional abuse? While that definition can take on many possible forms, some are:

• Belittling, or in today’s slang, “negging,” in which the abuser makes some backhanded compliments or insults.

• Gaslighting: This term comes from the 1944 movie Gaslight, where a man manipulates his wife into thinking she is going crazy. It is when the abuser makes the victim feel they are losing their mind.

• Passive-aggressiveness: You cut off a discussion, or deny the other person’s needs by avoidance of the conversation.

• Financial control: Keeping all accounts in their name and making the partner ask for every penny, even though the partner contributes to the household in many ways.

• Derogatory names and patronizing: Calling the person names like chub, or patronizing your partner with comments like, “You’re such a blonde.”

There are many red flags to take notice of when you’re being emotionally abused by a partner.

• If your partner keeps you from socializing or seeking help from friends or professionals. Or they may even work to turn others against you, like your family or co-workers.

• It may feel like your partner is indifferent to your needs, or refuses to compromise or as if you are always walking on eggshells to keep them happy.

• You may find yourself turning to marijuana or alcohol in order to cope when this person is home.

• If your children become worried for you.

What to do? Start by setting boundaries with statements like, “If you yell at me or call me names, I will leave.” Or if the person’s emotional abuse is alcohol-fueled, make sobriety a condition of a continued relationship, along with therapy or medication, if necessary. Build a support network of friends and family who can help you maintain your boundaries or be there for you in a crisis.

Come up with an exit plan to enforce the boundaries you set. This can include living with a friend or parent, having a lawyer on standby for legal arrangements, calling an abuse hotline or getting counseling.

Lea Lis, MD, is a child and adolescent psychiatrist, and author of the upcoming book No Shame: Real Talk with Your Kids About Sex, Self-Confidence, and Healthy Relationships. shamelesspsychiatrist.com

Rachel Alexander, Esq., a family law attorney and divorce mediator, is the director of the Alexander Mediation Group. Her Sag Harbor-based practice supports families through thoughtful separations, which protect the well-being of couples and their children. alexandermediation.com