Pandemic Aftershocks: Overcoming the Mental Health Impacts of COVID-19 for Couples

How to help create a resilient relationship

I think we can all agree that things haven’t been easy for awhile now. For some that has led to problems in their romantic relationships. While this is an unfortunate side effect of the pandemic, it doesn’t mean we have to just accept this as a sort of new normal.

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Please note, the information in this post is not a replacement for personal medical advice.
By Jacob Christenson, PhD, LMFT

If you had to pick one word that describes the last year, it might be “stressful”. People like predictability and resist change. When their world is turned upside down it creates a context for a stress reaction. Graduations, marriages, vacations, recitals, and so many other events that provide rhythm and meaning to our lives were stripped away. This left people feeling isolated, lonely, and disconnected. Even one such disruption in someone’s life can have a significant impact on their functioning, let alone several disruptions, one right after another. None of this is news to any of us. However, it does remind us of the situation couples found themselves in over the last 16 months.

Impact on Couples

So, what was the effect of the pandemic on couples? Well, if stress is the feeling, contention is probably the best way to describe the outcome. Sometimes that contention has gone so far as to result in the dissolution of the relationship. I heard one story of a couple that ended up divorcing. One spouse was adamant that masks be worn inside the home and the other spouse refused. A defense mechanism known as “displacement” can also cause contention. Displacement occurs when a person takes out their frustration on someone that wasn’t the cause of it. For example, being frustrated by the pandemic and taking it out on your partner. Unfortunately, incidents of domestic violence rose dramatically over the course of the pandemic.

Upon being forced to spend time together, some couples found they just didn’t have anything in common anymore. In the field of marriage and family therapy we have long known about the Empty Nest Syndrome. This occurs when couples struggle coping with their children finally leaving the home. Feelings of sadness, loneliness, and relationship dissatisfaction are common. The relationship dissatisfaction part of this comes from realizing that the connection between the partners just isn’t what it was before kids arrived. With the pandemic, some couples experienced this effect prematurely, in what I’ve come to call Compulsory Nest Syndrome. In this case, similar feelings occur as with empty nesting. However, they are also combined with contention and sometimes resentment because the cause was unexpected and unwanted. People felt they were forced into a situation they didn’t like or didn’t agree with. This set the stage for contention.

What Can You Do?

Before going too much further, I should note, that some couples actually saw improvements in their relationship during these difficult times. This is most likely attributable to them having a strong relationship with solid communication patterns before the pandemic. These couples may have weathered the storm without significant problems. If you are in a relationship like this, rejoice! If not, let’s look at some things that can be done to get back to a better place.

Knowing

The acronym KAT summarizes some of the most fundamental aspects of couples health. The first principle involves fulfilling the function of love characterized by knowing and being known. People have a complex inner world, much of which is closed off to other people. Secretly, many of us fear that if people knew everything we think and feel it would drive others away. One of the best things about intimate relationships is that someone does know most everything about you and still accepts you for who you are. If you’ve drifted from each other and lost connection, spend some time catching up on each other’s interests, hobbies, hopes, dreams, perspectives, opinions, etc. Make time and be deliberate in this effort.

Affirmation

Affirmation is what the second letter in the acronym stands for. This refers to the idea that people crave hearing about what they do well. When couples drift apart criticism can become pervasive and destructive.

Several years ago, one of my kids yelled “Bingo!” while we were driving and startled me. Naturally, I wanted to know what the heck was going on. I asked him why he said that. He indicated that it’s a car game where you call out every time you see a yellow car. The first person that sees a yellow car gets a point. The first person to get 10 points wins the game. I decided to play along. At first I struggled to find any yellow cars, but after about a week I could spot a yellow car tucked away in an alley from four blocks away! Look for the positive in your partner and tell them what you see. As you try to see the positive you will notice more of it, just like I suddenly started noticing all the yellow cars.

Turning

The last letter stands for turning. This represents the idea of looking toward your partner to help meet your relationship needs instead of turning away from them. When conflict is high, people start to look for other way to meet needs. Whether it is spending more time at work or prioritizing friendships. While this can provide some short term reduction in distress, in the long run it increases problems. Additionally, it causes far more difficulties than it solves.

If you find yourself resonating with this idea, make a deliberate effort to seek closeness with your partner. Sometimes this means that you will have to allow yourself to be influenced by them. For example, you may not think that something is important. However, you can decide to elevate its importance because it is important to your partner. To this day I think there is nothing wrong with leaving the shower curtain open. Despite this, I always close it because it makes my spouse feel more at ease. It doesn’t cost me much to accommodate her and the benefit of feeling close to her is far better than what I would gain from digging in my heels.

Couples Therapy

Couples therapy has this reputation of being a “last ditch effort” to saving a marriage or relationship. However, it doesn’t have to be. Couple’s counseling helps teach a lot of the skills mentioned above. So, whether you need help right now or are looking to build preventative skills, reach out to Covenant Family Solutions. We have many qualified providers who would be happy to help you and your partner navigate these rough waters you may be facing.

To summarize some of this, I think we can all agree that things haven’t been easy for awhile now. For some that has led to problems in their romantic relationships. While this is an unfortunate side effect of the pandemic, it doesn’t mean we have to just accept this as a sort of new normal. By spending time making sure we know each other, recognizing and highlighting positive qualities, and turning our hearts back to our partner we can overcome some of these challenges and get back to a much better place.

Additionally, we have a self-guided course for couples that addresses common issues, potential solutions, and tips for strengthening the relationship. Check it out.

Jacob Christenson, PhD, LMFT
Jacob Christenson, PhD, LMFT
Dr. Jacob Christenson founded Covenant Family Solutions in 2013 to meet the need for quality behavioral health services designed to strengthen families. Before moving to Iowa, he worked as a wilderness therapist at Aspen Achievement Academy in Utah. Dr. Christenson served in the Utah National Guard and was deployed to Afghanistan in support of Operation Enduring Freedom. Throughout his career he has been active in research and service to his profession.
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Jacob Christenson, PhD, LMFT
Jacob Christenson, PhD, LMFT
Dr. Jacob Christenson founded Covenant Family Solutions in 2013 to meet the need for quality behavioral health services designed to strengthen families. Before moving to Iowa, he worked as a wilderness therapist at Aspen Achievement Academy in Utah. Dr. Christenson served in the Utah National Guard and was deployed to Afghanistan in support of Operation Enduring Freedom. Throughout his career he has been active in research and service to his profession.
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