Jebediah Sawyer

Can your marriage survive the coronavirus? By Matt Villano, CNN


Communicate, communicate, communicate

The secret to any healthy relationship is communication.
It’s true under normal circumstances, and in the time of coronavirus. For some, this might mean periodic huddles to deliver updates on what’s coming next. For others, it could be a daily check-in that rates how each partner feels physically and internally.
Michele Weiner-Davis, a marriage and family therapist in Boulder, Colorado, said it doesn’t matter as much how couples communicate during a coronavirus shelter-in-place, but simply that they try to do so.
“The biggest challenges I’ve faced so far are the cases in which both spouses are looking at what’s going on with different lenses—one person thinks the sky is falling and the other thinks people are making a big deal about it,” said Weiner-Davis, who also has a busy teletherapy practice.
“When people have different perspectives, they have different ideas of what needs to be done, and the only way to work around that is to communicate.”


Embrace space

Most spouses spend the bulk of every day apart — at least one partner leaves the house to go to work. Now, however, due to companies ordering employees to work from home and government-mandated lockdowns, both partners are required to spend almost all their time under the same roof.
Particularly for couples who live in smaller homes, this scenario can make it feel like neither partner has much (or any) personal space.
For this reason, many experts suggest acknowledging the importance of alone time. Alev Ates-Barlas, an LMFT in upstate New York, said she tries to teach members of a couple to identify whether they are individuals who need a partner to engage them in order to regulate their own emotions, or individuals who find comfort in regulating on their own.
“It is important that couples know where you fall in these two categories so that you don’t end up assuming your need for regulation is actually your partner’s need,” she said.
“If you know your partner is an auto-regulator, then you shouldn’t pursue them or engage them,” Ates-Barlas said. “Once you regulate yourself, engaging in reflective listening can be a good way to eliminate causes for friction and use that as an opportunity for greater understanding and learning about one another.”
Put differently, Ates-Barlas said the best way to get through a tense situation with your partner during the next few weeks might be to put on headphones and meditate, or sit quietly in a corner.
Sometimes, she said, “all you need is a quiet [spot] of your house for five minutes.”


Keep it light

In the days following government pleas to engage in social distancing, you might have seen a Tweet from writer and editor Molly Tolsky suggesting that partners suddenly forced to work from home together should create an imaginary co-worker on which to blame disagreements.
“Pro-tip for couples suddenly working from home together,” tweeted Tolsky. “Get yourselves an imaginary coworker to blame things on. In our apartment, Cheryl keeps leaving her dirty water cups all over the place and we really don’t know what to do about her.”
Alexandra Fondren, a public relations professional in Northern California, took the advice to heart.
Immediately, she and her husband started scapegoating “Cheryl” for all the things one of them did to annoy the other.
“I never realized Cheryl was such a chocoholic,” Fondren wrote in a recent email, her tongue firmly planted in her cheek. “I’ve heard it’s an easy affliction to hide, but the empty wrappers that are littered throughout the ‘office’ are illuminating, mainly because none of their contents were once offered to her co-workers.”
Other partners have found solace in sharing stories of work-related video conferencing gone wrong. Some have even embraced #CovidConfessions, a Friday night social media phenomenon through which people share truths about their lives they’d kept secret until the pandemic.


Establish routines

Nobody is quite familiar with the “new normal” of social distancing yet, and with news about the pandemic changing rapidly, every day brings with it a new reality.
Amid this constant tumult, Lee Miller, a marriage and family therapist in West Los Angeles, said it’s wise to create new routines to give life meaning and purpose beyond the mundane. Specifically, Miller said to assign roles for each day: who cooks, who cleans, who answers the phone, and so on.
“This is not even close to a typical situation, which means there are a number of different roles both partners are going to have to play while they’re working through the current reality,” she said. “It’s critically important to schedule time to sit down and talk about what your expectations are of each other during this time.”
In New York City, Carrie Ingoglia and her husband Ron Richards have devised a winning strategy to balance working at home in a 576-square-foot apartment and parenting 15-month-old twins.
Richards tries to schedule work calls when the babies are likely to be napping. Ingoglia takes them for walks when Richards needs to focus. Both partners stop working completely during baby mealtimes. The grownups also regularly go out of their way to give each other positive encouragement.
“This isn’t to say we don’t bicker, because we do,” said Ingoglia, a creative director. “But we know each other well enough to know a bickering moment is not a reflection of our commitment.”


Get therapy

You can have a virtual session with a trained therapist.

All this advice is a good start. For more comprehensive assistance in dealing with difficult and potentially sensitive situations, it’s always a good idea to seek a new relationship with a trained therapist.
Holly Daniels, managing director of clinical affairs for the California Association of Marriage and Family Therapists, said regular therapy can help people work through even the most intense anxiety.
“Just having someone to talk to, someone who can help you work through some of these difficult issues, is invaluable,” said Daniels, a therapist with a private practice in Los Angeles. “Now more than ever, therapists are becoming indispensable for giving people the tools they need to get through any situation.”
Thankfully, today it’s easier than ever to connect with a therapist.
As of March 17, the Department of Health and Human Services’ Office for Civil Rights, which enforces the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA), said it would not impose penalties against covered providers for noncompliance with the HIPAA rules that relate to provision of telehealth services during this time.
That means that a provider who needs to provide telehealth services to their patients during this time may use platforms that would otherwise not be HIPAA-compliant, such as Zoom, FaceTime or Skype. Many state governments made similar decrees.


Don’t push for sex

No, having sex with your partner isn’t going to increase your odds of getting coronavirus.
Still, according to Britney Blair, a clinical psychologist and sex therapist in Northern California, you may find that sexual desire in the time of coronavirus falls short of what it usually is, since stress hampers libido for about 85 percent of us.
“It’s normal to be less interested [in sex] during times of crisis,” she said. “If you’re one of the 15 percent of people who aren’t affected by stress, understand that your partner might be on the other side.”
Blair, who recently co-founded sex tips app Lover, referred to this phenomenon as a “desire discrepancy,” and said it occurs naturally in every couple but can be pronounced at times like this. She added that the only way around this obstacle is to create a safe and comforting environment with no strings attached.
Specifically, Blair noted that nagging or shaming your partner into sex will leave both parties feeling low.
“Play it the wrong way and the partner with more desire ends up feeling rejected while the partner with less desire feels blamed,” she said. “The last thing any of us needs right now is added stress.”


Focus on the little things

It’s easy to become overwhelmed with existential dread in the face of this pandemic, which changes daily.
This panicked state only further complicates your relationship with your partner. Instead of allowing yourself to be triggered, take a deep breath and focus on the little things — especially those you can appreciate with your spouse.
Rob Bhatt, a writer in Seattle, says he and his wife, a mental health counselor, have done just this, embracing the extra time they get to spend together by living in a region that issued shelter-in-place orders earlier this month.
“We used to dine out more frequently; once this thing started, I have been making pizza from scratch,” Bhatt said. “We used to watch the news over dinner, but now we turn off the TV and just talk.”
Bhatt continued: “Most of the time we just have these moments of gratitude for some very basic things we get to do together, and we hope that we’ll all be able to get through this horrible thing sooner rather than later.”
Daniels, the therapist, added that sometimes even the simplest gestures can set the tone.
“Simply taking the time to stop, look at your partner and tell them, ‘Thank you,’ can make a huge difference,” she said.


If you feel unsafe

Of course, there’s another aspect to being stuck in the house with a spouse — one that can be gravely serious depending on the situation.
If you have been a victim of domestic violence, no lockdown or quarantine is more important than your health.
Police and other emergency response services are operating as normal, and if you are worried about personal safety be sure to call authorities immediately. The domestic violence hotline is 800/799-7233, or go to The Hotline.

How Not To Tank Your Relationship in Quarantine by John Tierney and Roy Baumeister

“This time of isolation could be a period of great growth or great struggle in our relationship.”

A graphic showing two hands overlaid by a maze
Humans have evolved with a drive to share life with a partner—just not all day long. Our hunter-gatherer ancestors on the savanna formed pair-bonds, but they parted in the morning to go about their separate tasks. So did our ancestors on the farm. For hundreds of thousands of years, even the most devoted couples have been uttering some version of that basic romantic principle: “I married you for better or for worse, but not for lunch.”

So what happens now that spouses are staying home all day, and many unmarried couples suddenly find themselves quarantined together? The peril facing relationships quickly became obvious to the pioneers of this new intimacy on the Diamond Princess cruise ship, where couples were cooped up for two weeks in their cabin during the ship’s quarantine. Ellis Vincent, a retired airline executive from Australia, told a reporter that he and his wife, Kimberly, were passing the time by having long conversations during which she displayed a remarkable memory.

“She is able to bring up every transgression I’ve ever had,” he said. “I believe she is not finished.”

That is not the way for a relationship to survive the COVID-19 quarantine. The Vincents were succumbing to the negativity effect, which even in ordinary circumstances is the chief threat to couples—and can be an absolute relationship killer in these troubled times. The negativity effect is the brain’s tendency to respond more strongly to negative events and emotions than to positive ones. In short: Bad is stronger than good.

Research has shown that a negative event (such as your partner rehashing an old fight) typically has at least three times the impact of a comparable positive event (such as your partner recalling one of your past kindnesses). To keep love alive, bear a rough guideline in mind that we call the Rule of Four: Four good things are necessary to overcome one bad thing. Given the nonstop negativity in the news, people will need lots of positivity in their personal lives to compensate.

Finding good things to focus on takes some creativity in quarantine, but there’s an obvious opportunity at home: that trove of photos and videos of vacations, outings, and celebrations that you’d never had time to go through. Now you do. These can be a source of positivity at any time, and couples stuck at home together can use them to happily “nostalgize”—a verb coined by social psychologists who have discovered remarkable benefits in reliving the past.

Nostalgia was long considered a sign of unhappiness with the present (and was once even seen as a disorder). But in recent years, Constantine Sedikides and his colleagues at the University of Southampton in England have shown that nostalgia isn’t just an exercise in relishing the past. If indulged in the right way, it makes us more satisfied with the present and more optimistic about the future.

Nostalgia has the potential to lift people’s spirits, make them feel more connected to others, and heighten the sense that life has continuity and meaning. It can counteract boredom and anxiety, can motivate people to work toward goals, and is linked to increased generosity and tolerance. Experiments have shown that people who nostalgize in a cool room actually feel physically warmer.

Other studies have shown that couples look happier and feel closer when they share memories—at least when they’re not recalling each other’s transgressions or lamenting what has been lost. The healthiest way to nostalgize is not to pine for the past—“Those were better days”—but rather to savor those memories as a treasure that can’t be taken away. So when you look at a photo of yourself with friends at a favorite restaurant, focus on your enduring friendship instead of the fact that the restaurant has shut down during the pandemic.

In most relationships, fortunately, the multitude of small good moments make up for the more powerful bad ones. And you can always create more good moments. You can try to regularly make a list of your partner’s traits for which you’re grateful, and also make a point of telling your partner what you admire about them.

However, accentuating the positive will only do so much. Because of the greater power of bad—that 4-to-1 ratio we mentioned—you can have a bigger impact by eliminating the negative, both negative actions and negative thoughts about your partner.

Instead of striving to be a perfect partner, concentrate on avoiding elementary mistakes. Studies have shown that people get relatively little credit for delivering more than they had promised, but they pay a stiff price for doing less. Before you make a commitment, beware what psychologists call the “planning fallacy,” our tendency to underestimate how long a project will take. Better to promise less and make sure you deliver on it than promise too much and fall short.

Another way to keep the peace is by fighting your own negative reactions to conflict. If your partner gets upset at what seems, to you, to be a trivial offense, remember that bad is in the eye of the beholder. You have to deal with their reaction no matter how irrational it seems—and the power of bad can bring out the irrationality in all of us. One critical word or careless affront looms much larger than any goodwill, and it will linger for longer, especially if you’re together 24/7.


When your partner does something that bothers you, don’t go with your gut reaction. Think before you blame, and be especially wary of what psychologists call the “fundamental attribution error.” When we do something wrong ourselves, we often blame it on temporary external circumstances: Yes, I lost my temper a couple of times today, but that’s just because of all the stress from the quarantine. But when our partner does something wrong, we’re inclined to wrongly attribute it to permanent internal flaws: He lost his temper because he has lousy self-control and doesn’t care about how I feel.

In 2000, researchers tracked couples’ “attributional styles” and found that attributing partners’ wrongdoings to internal flaws led to greater marital dissatisfaction and a higher likelihood of divorce. Before blaming your partner’s behavior on an inherent character trait, force yourself to consider a charitable excuse for what they did. And then give your partner the benefit of the doubt.

A friend of ours keeps his wife’s faults in perspective by taping a message to his bathroom mirror: You’re no bargain either. Being able to overlook your partner’s sins—to maintain what psychologists call “positive illusions”—is one of the surest ways to sustain a relationship. Some people seem to do it automatically, as demonstrated in couples’ brain scans. When shown a picture of their beloved, some people displayed less activity in the brain region associated with making negative judgments—and their relationships proved more likely to endure. But even if you can’t help spotting your partner’s offenses, you can at least pretend not to notice. As Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s mother-in-law once advised her, “In every good marriage, it helps sometimes to be a little deaf.”

If the affront is one you can’t endure, then say something, but do it calmly without retaliating, because the negativity effect can quickly turn a small disagreement into a raging battle. This dynamic was observed in experiments at the University of Chicago in which people took turns playing a game that gave them the option of either cooperating with their partner or acting selfishly. When a player acted benevolently, the partner typically reciprocated in kind. But when a player acted selfishly, the partner didn’t merely reciprocate—they tended to escalate the conflict by acting even more selfishly themselves. The Chicago psychologists summarized the participants’ reactions: “You scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours, but if you take my eye, I’ll take both of yours.”

That’s not the spirit that will get your relationship through the pandemic. There’s enough angst in the world right now without adding to it at home. You can suppress your visceral negativity bias by consciously looking for the upsides of your relationship—and even the upsides to being quarantined. After all, it’s giving you an unprecedented opportunity to get to know your partner.

“This is going to be a period of great growth for relationships,” says the anthropologist Helen Fisher, who has studied romance around the world. “Couples are either going to grow together or grow apart.” Therapists love to advise couples to create quality time for themselves, and now we have more of it than ever. Use it wisely—and positively.

JOHN TIERNEY is a contributing editor to City Journal and the co-author of The Power of Bad: How the Negativity Effect Rules Us and How We Can Rule It.
ROY F. BAUMEISTER is a social psychologist at the University of Queensland and the co-author of The Power of Bad: How the Negativity Effect Rules Us and How We Can Rule It.

We now offer Telehealth and other video conferencing options!


Continue to get the best possible counseling service from the comfort of your home. 

The Relationship Therapy Center is committed to adapting to our changing world. We are excited to provide you with a variety of safe and secure service options by conducting therapy through two-way audio and video communication platforms that you access from your computer, tablet or smartphone.  Some of the platforms we are utilizing are Telehealth, Zoom and Facetime.  These allow you to more efficiently access our counseling services where you are most comfortable.

Call us today!

Should I use this feature of wait for this crisis to pass?

Video counseling makes therapy more accessible and is a convenient option to keep your scheduled appointments or get the help you need. Research supports video conferencing and has found it to be an effective tool when in-person therapy is not an option. It gives you the support and help you need, with the convenience of being able to access services no matter where you are.

Nancy Carlson, one of our seasoned therapist’s was unsure how effective video conferencing or Telehealth would be with her struggling couples.  She has been convinced, however, by the feedback received from her clients, that this way of conducting therapy can be effective.  This includes feedback from her clients who have chosen to participate in Intensive Couples Counseling using teleconferencing. For Intensive Couples Counseling we are able to send the couple the books we use in this program electronically, so they have the written materials we typically use for our ICCs.

Your relationship and/or your individual mental health is too important to put on hold until after this Pandemic subsides. We are ready to help you have a better relationship and/or help your mental health through this crisis.

For couples perhaps it’s by helping you heal from an infidelity or other betrayal, helping you improve the intimacy in your relationship, helping you figure out how to coexist when you are both at home for a long period of time or improving your communication and conflict resolution skills.  For individuals perhaps it’s helping you work through anxiety or depression that has come up due to the pandemic, helping you work through your fears and what if’s or helping you figure out how to navigate your relationships with others during this uncertain time.

Whatever the case may be, we are here to help!