Eileen Cotter and Christian Wright, a married couple who live near Boston, are among legions of employees who are working remotely to avoid the spread of COVID-19. Cotter, a copywriter, and Wright, a business manager, have been sharing their small apartment as a workspace for only a few days. They’ve been on back-to-back conference calls since they started and the constant noise is frustrating.
“We’re both shouting into our laptops, and there’s no noise cancellation,” Cotter said. “I’m listening to his calls all day and he’s listening to mine, and I can see maybe after another week of this it’s going to get really interesting.”
The couple, both 34, are trying to figure out how to share the space peacefully.
“If we were going to do three or four weeks and then we’re done, it wouldn’t be so nerve-wracking, but because this is an indefinite challenge,” she said of the outbreak, “there is a fear of the unknown of how long we’re going to be able to sustain a calm routine when there’s no end in sight.”
As more couples adjust to this way of life, many will experience strain on their relationships, according to Niro Feliciano, a cognitive psychotherapist based in Wilton, Connecticut, whose upcoming podcast, Coping With The New Normal of COVID-19, advises families on how to deal with stress during the pandemic. Spending time with friends and family is normally a way for couples to deflect that stress, but many couples are losing that outlet, Feliciano explained.
“I think people are going to have to reinvent — or at least get creative about — how they connect and spend time together,” Feliciano said, “because a lot of couples like to go out or meet up with other friends and other couples, and now it’s going to be a lot of time together.”
As the pandemic winds on and families hunker down at home, there are a number of ways experts said couples can prevent stress from taking over their relationship — and interfering with their family life.
1. Limit your conversations around COVID-19
As news about COVID-19 dominates headlines and swamps social media feeds, it’s understandable for people to feel anxious. While it’s important for you to stay informed and keep up to date on the latest news, you and your partner should limit the amount of time you spend exposing yourselves to information related to the pandemic, as well as how much you discuss it, Feliciano explained, because too much focus on the pandemic will only create more stress.
2. Don’t invalidate your partner’s concerns
In most relationships, there is a partner who always worries and a partner who doesn’t worry enough, according to Stacy Hubbard, a Gottman Institute-certified marriage and family therapist based in Ashland, Oregon. The non-worriers have a tendency to dismiss their partner’s concerns, which can lead to conflict.
If your partner is anxious, it’s important to listen to them, Hubbard said. Once it’s clear that you are validating your partner’s concerns, they will likely calm down, she said, adding that it’s important to ask them what you can do to help them feel safe. “For a lot of people, they just need to be heard and validated, which basically would mean the partner saying, ‘Yeah, I can see how stressful this is, I know you are worried, how can I help you? How can I meet your needs?’”
3. Communicate your needs regularly
Both Feliciano and Hubbard said that the best way to create a peaceful work-from-home environment with your significant other is to communicate with each other regularly.
Krystal Craiker, a Dallas-based freelance writer and author who has been working from home with her husband, Michael Dunn, a teacher and online educator, on and off since 2017, agrees. “Now is the time to work on your relationship communication skills,” Craiker explained. Practice asking directly for what you need. “Don’t expect your partner to be a mind reader. When you’re in the middle of something and they’re talking to you [or] bugging you, say, ‘Hey, I’ve got to get this done, I’ll talk to you when I’m done.’”
4. Schedule daily check-ins
Hubbard said a great way to ensure regular communication with your partner is to schedule daily-check ins. These check-ins should be used to discuss what you each feel is working, what isn’t working and what you appreciate about each other. “I would really recommend couples are taking time each day at this point — because everything is changing,” Hubbard advised. “Every day it’s evolving, every minute almost. Sit down and say what went well today, what do we need to do differently tomorrow, how can I shine for you tomorrow?”
5. Establish expectations and boundaries
To avoid conflict, couples should work on establishing boundaries and expectations. Who is going to be in which room and when? How will you know when not to disrupt each other? What are the important deadlines you are currently working on? “Couples need to set boundaries,” explained Hubbard, “and have a really clear conversation about what their needs and expectations are about working from home, and set hours of the day for a no-disturbance zone from this hour to this hour.”
6. Build a routine together
When you work from home regularly, it’s important to have a routine. “I feel that a sense of normalcy and a sense of routine is really important,” Cotter said, who worked remotely as a travel writer for several years before taking a full time office job. She follows the same routine when working from home as she does when going into the office: she wakes up, takes a shower, gets dressed, eats breakfast and gets to work. The only difference is that she doesn’t have a commute.
7. Make time for each other
Scheduling breaks during the day is a great way for couples to bond without distracting each other during work hours. Every day, Cotter and Wright take a no-work lunch break together. They are also creating a routine for after-work hours and weekends, which Cotter calls an “isolation bucket list, which includes virtually spending time with friends, taking online workout classes and playing video and board games together. “I’m going to teach him how to play cribbage this week,” Cotter said. “He’s never played that before.”
8. Make meals together
Dealing with meal preparation in advance is another way couples can decrease stress, since it eliminates the need to cook during work hours. Cotter and Wright have decided to prepare meals together on weekends. “We’re going to have to plan for three meals a day now for the two of us, which will be a bit more than usual — instead of just maybe a dinner,” Cotter said. “We’re planning on chiles and curries and things like that that we can just make [and keep on hand], so we don’t have to be cooking for every meal.”
9. Schedule time for kids
Routines are especially important for families, since they establish a sense of connection and safety for parents and children, Feliciano said, who has four kids. “When you have a system,” she said, “and when you have predictability in that way, it lends a feeling of security — and that is a huge piece of what we can give our kids right now.”
Hubbard recommends families engage in activities that don’t involve electronics. Reading to children, doing craft or baking projects and watching family-friendly movies together are all great ways to build a sense of normalcy and routine. “Play a board game together, have a dance party as a family, some of those things,” said Hubbard. “Like we’re all together now, let’s use this time to build a connection and create memories.”
10. Give your kids a daily routine, but don’t over supervise them
As schools close and some children begin taking classes online from home, parents may be feeling pressure to assist them with school work. While it’s important to help your kids build a routine between classwork, recess breaks and mealtimes, you probably don’t need to take time away from your job to supervise their schoolwork — unless your child is very young or has special needs that require your attention. “I think parents need to understand that kids are resilient and they’re actually capable of more than we give them credit to do on their own,” Feliciano said. “Are they going to fail? Are they going to make mistakes? Yes. That is absolutely good for them.”
11. Create a system for chores
Couples and families who are self-isolating together should anticipate a larger-than-normal amount of housework, Feliciano said. To help avoid conflict, they should divvy up chores. If you have kids, giving them chores is a great way to take the stress off you and your partner while also creating a sense of routine in your kids’ lives, she said.
12. Check on your partner’s mental health
During times of stress, it’s easy for people to become overly absorbed in their work. “Encourage your partner to take a break,” Feliciano advised. “Take a break, stop working, do something you enjoy, get outside and hold each other accountable in that way.”
Craiker and her husband, who normally like to go out to eat and socialize with friends, plan to keep their spirits up by heading outside when the work day ends. “We can’t really go anywhere,” she said, “soon it’s going to start taking a toll on us, so we’re going to have to drive to a park and stay several hundred feet away from people, I guess.”
Surely there will be some stressful days ahead, but there are also likely to be some unexpected silver linings. Cotter said she and her husband are trying to focus on how fortunate they are. As she points out, many couples don’t live together and many people don’t have the benefit of getting to work from the safety of their homes during the pandemic. “I’m glad that we have that ability to be able to do this together,” she said, “and be safe — and stocked up.”