2020 was challenging for a lot of us, in a lot of ways. Maybe there was a moment you lost your temper. Maybe you sent a heated email from the home office, criticized a friend’s pandemic precautions, or beat yourself up over another day spent struggling to keep your head above water. Maybe there was a moment you wish you would have been a better partner, colleague, friend or version of yourself.
Maybe there have been a lot of those moments.
Psychologists aren’t surprised. Some people have spent way more time than usual with their partners, family or housemates this year — and some people have spent a lot more time than usual with only themselves and their own thoughts and feelings, Dr. Kruti Patel, a licensed clinical psychologist in Austin, Texas, told TODAY. “2020 may have been very eye-opening.”
If this past year has prompted you to want to get better in terms of how you show up in your relationships with those you care about, you’re not alone. Relationships (either with others or the one you have with yourself) are some of the most common reasons people come to therapy, Patel said.
The good news: It's something you can work on and get better at. Here’s some expert advice of steps you can start taking right now to do just that.
Your relationship with yourself is foundational. Don’t neglect it
Your relationship with yourself — how you speak to yourself, how you listen to your emotions and how you respond to your needs — is the base that any other relationship you have builds upon, Patel explained. “If you’re not responding to your needs, it will also impact your health and overall wellbeing,” she said.
If, for example, you’re taking on too much and you don’t listen to your need to slow down and rest, you’re going to start to feel overwhelmed. You may find yourself burning out. You may get sick. You’re also going to bring all of that weariness, stress and burden to the table when it comes to a tough conversation with a friend or a disagreement with a partner.
To improve your relationship with yourself:
- Tune into your own thoughts and feelings regularly, Dr. Julie de Azevedo Hanks, a psychotherapist and assistant professor of social work at Utah Valley University, told TODAY. Start by making a point to stop at least once a day to ask yourself: “How am I feeling?”
- Treat yourself with kindness and compassion when it comes to listening to your emotions and responding to your needs, Hanks said. Talk to yourself about your own worries, fears and concerns the same way you would talk to a friend, she said. “We often tell ourselves things in our own head that we would never say out loud to someone else.”
- Make time for self-care, Kelly Nguyen, a San Francisco-based marriage and family therapist, told TODAY. Remember, self-care includes all of the things that help you meet your personal needs.
For couples, communication and respect breed strong partnerships
A healthy relationship with a partner doesn’t mean that you agree 100% of the time. It’s about respecting one another and being able to communicate in healthy ways to work through disagreements, handle conflict and navigate tough times, Patel said. Being in a healthy relationship means you feel emotionally safe to let your partner know when you’re struggling or upset, she added.
Research published by the University of Georgia investigated how the pandemic is affecting romantic relationships. They found that people who reported having a partner who understands, validates and cares for them were less likely to be as negatively impacted by stressors related to the COVID-19 pandemic (like social isolation, financial strain and stress) compared with people in relationships who felt less connected to their partners in this way.
To work on your relationship with your partner:
- Turn toward one another when you’re upset or you’re in disagreement, Hanks said. Talk about it. Work together to solve the problem by coming to a consensus that you’re both OK with.
- But give one another space when you need it. Our pre-pandemic routines likely included more time physically apart from our partners, Nguyen said, “we used to go to work or school; meet up with friends.” That time and space gives us the opportunity to take care of our individual needs. Now, it might mean going for a walk or finding some time to yourself for a hobby or an activity you like to do.
- Be intimate — both physically and emotionally, Hanks said. When you’re emotionally intimate, you feel safe opening up and being vulnerable with your partner when it comes to talking about emotions and needs. You can get better at this by listening to your partner — and acknowledging, respecting and caring about what he or she says, according to Hanks.
To stay close with friends and family outside your household, put in the effort
All relationships require time, energy and attention, including those with friends and family members you don’t live with. Maybe that time and attention had been a little easier before the pandemic when you could meet up for dinner regularly or do an activity together you both enjoyed. Now it’s important to find new ways to stay connected (phone calls, emails, letters, video calls) to maintain contact and closeness, Hanks said.
To bolster connection with friends and family:
- Pay attention to and remember the details, Hanks said. It demonstrates that you care about that person’s life, she added.
- Just reach out. Don’t take it as a personal attack or slight if someone hasn’t been in touch; you have no idea what they’re going through, Patel said. Don’t overthink reaching out to friends and family you want to stay close with. “A lot of us are craving more connection than ever this year,” Patel said.
- Be consistent. Repeated and regular contact is how you stay up-to-date on what’s going on with people, Hanks said. It builds closeness.