As of now, all Americans are expected to take part in social distancing — meaning no parties, no bars, and no trips to your friend’s house.
A lot has been said about how this will affect the American dating scene: Can digital dating last? Staying home — truly staying put where you are — also affects the relationship dynamics of couples, whether it’s a married pair or a couple who recently moved in together. Is it commitment — or is it self-quarantine?
To get some insight, Inverse interviewed three romantic relationship experts on how to keep romantic relationships healthy while sheltering in place:
- Gary Lewandowski, a professor of psychology at Monmouth University.
- Scott Stanley, a professor of psychology at the University of Denver.
- Joanna Davila, a professor of psychology at Stony Brook University.
Interviews have been edited and condensed for clarity.
How can you establish boundaries without hurting feelings?
Stanley: People talk about expectations and decide what space each needs and how this is going to work. How does time apart look in this context? What about together time? Most any couple would benefit from talking that out.
Davila: It’s important to communicate directly and calmly about needs. Couples might want to do a “relationship check-in” and come up with a plan. In doing so, it’s important that each partner really listen. Partners need to convey their needs for alone time in a caring way that doesn’t make the other person feel neglected or abandoned.
Lewandowski: Don’t feel obligated to do everything together. The benefit of separate activities and a little space is that it gives us a chance to miss our partner. Research I’ve done with a couple of colleagues shows that a sense of missing actually helps us maintain our relationships by boosting our desire for commitment.
Do you have any advice for people who are attempting to deal with their own anxiety or sadness, but want to be emotionally strong for their partner?
Davila: Mutuality is an important key to a good relationship. This means recognizing that both people have needs, and working towards meeting both partner’s needs. In this case, people also have to work on the skill of emotion regulation, meaning they have to work to manage their own feelings so that they can be available to also help their partner. If partners can “stay on the same side” of things, it can help. They should work to see the situation as a common problem that they as a team are working on.
People have joked that now when you threaten to leave over something, you can’t. Are there any strategies for managing conflict while living together?
Lewandowski: Argue more, not less. That is, rather than constantly try to avoid conflict, it can be better to lean into it by having little arguments as they arise. By dealing with small issues, we can keep small problems small. If we instead let things slide for fear of creating conflict, we risk letting a series of problems grow into something that is big enough to actually threaten our relationship. The best strategy then is to do everything we can to not let it get to that point.
Many unmarried couples are cohabiting for long spurts of time, for the first time, because of social distancing. Does research indicate whether or not there are strategies to make cohabitation as peaceful as possible?
Lewandowski: We do know from research on long-distance relationships that when those relationships become proximal, couples struggle.
One of the keys is to focus on finding a balance, or optimal distinctiveness, between doing things for ourselves and for the relationship. We often make the mistake in relationships of thinking more closeness is always better — but with greater closeness comes more threats to our identity and personal choices. I’d suggest creating a schedule that includes both “me-time” and “us-time.”
Stanley: I think that the same type of strategies that are appropriate for other couples, like married couples, would mostly apply. The big difference for some would revolve around the level of commitment between the two partners. It’s one thing to be living with someone with whom you’ve clarified a mutual and high level of commitment to the future. It’s another thing if it’s really closer to dating, and perhaps a somewhat hasty decision to just move in rather than living separately during this time.
In general, relationships look stronger when people have clear reasons for moving in. That’s obviously the case in marriage, and it’s also strongly the case with couples who already have mutual plans for marriage. Here, the word mutual is pretty important, because couples who are living together without that level of commitment are somewhat more likely to be asymmetrically committed.