by: Harville Hendrix Ph.D. and Helen LaKelly Hunt Ph.D
As couples find themselves at home now more than ever before due to the COVID-19 pandemic, many relationships are feeling the strain. Work-related stress, childcare difficulties, interrupted routines and lack of social connections compound the difficulty of these uncertain times, leading overwhelmed partners to interacting from a place of frustration.
Struggling for a way to make this time one of triumph rather than tragedy? You are not alone, and there is hope. Relationship experts Harville and Helen have shared their top tips for improving your interactions during this time:
- Honor your partner’s time by making an appointment. Ask, “Is now a good time to talk about…?” We are all facing life circumstances that fall outside of the “norm” right now. By choosing to make an appointment with your partner before engaging in conversation, you show them respect and care. While this system may feel formal, structure creates safety which in turn invites spontaneity. By honoring boundaries in this way, you prevent negative interactions with your partner.
- Allow for boundaries by giving your partner the option to say, “Now is not good.” Then, ask when might be better. When you are mindful of your partner’s preferences and personal boundaries, you open the door to a healthy and productive interaction when the time is right. Should your partner choose to engage with avoidance, the best response is to remove expectation and allow space with acceptance. Consider saying something like: “When you are ready, I have something to share with you.” Pushing against a boundary strengthens it and can cause conflict; therefore, it is best to operate with respect and patience.
- Show curiosity for your partner by asking, “Is there more about that?” If you think you know everything there is to know about your partner, think again. By adopting an approach of open, engaged interest in your relationship, you open the door to true closeness. On the other hand, a “me” focus invalidates the speaker, which triggers a “put- down” experience that activates anxiety and defenses. Instead of facilitating sharing, polarization is created. Struggling to see the shift from self-concern to curiosity? Encourage your partner to know that curiosity creates a state of safety, in which more can be shared without conflict.
- Express empathy for your partner by saying, “I can imagine you might be feeling…” Until you can experience or imagine what the other person is experiencing as they live in their world, you do not truly know them. Empathy is the ultimate form of generosity, in which you allow another person’s inner world to be a part of your inner world. You might notice that you and your partner are experiencing new or heightened emotions amid the current pandemic. When you encourage sharing of these feelings, you will likely find that you are able to connect in new and more profound ways. It’s true that the way we talk and listen changes everything.
- Show appreciation by simply saying, “Something I appreciate about you is…” Maintain positivity in your relationship by sharing with your partner what you appreciate about them. Perhaps you’re struck by how hard they work to care for your family, or the ways in which they support you. Let them know! The cumulative effect of appreciation is that it creates an atmosphere of safety, and that you begin to feel what you appreciate at a deeper level. You come to see your partner as a truly valuable person by your act of valuing and appreciating them. Your self-experience is also impacted in how you begin to feel the feelings that you produce within your partner, ultimately bringing you closer.
While tomorrow may be unpredictable, your relationship doesn’t have to be. By implementing these five tips, you and your partner will move closer to a bond that is not bruised or broken by the trials of life.
Harville Hendrix, Ph.D., and Helen LaKelly Hunt, Ph.D. are co-creators of Imago Relationship Therapy and a social movement called Safe Conversations. Internationally respected as