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From Social Distancing to Marital Connecting during COVID-19

In my previous blog, I suggested ways of coping during COVID-19, with applications focused primarily on marriages affected by a spouse’s childhood sexual abuse. In this blog, I offer four ideas for couples to move from mere coping during COVID-19 to healthy marital connecting during COVID-19.

Matthew Lieberman in his book Social: Why Our Brains are Wired to Connect, states how some groundbreaking research in neuroscience indicates “our need to connect with other people is even more fundamental, more basic, than our need for food or shelter.” We are made for relationship.

We were made for relationship.

But finding satisfactory and safe relationship connection can be a challenge. This is especially true for some survivors of childhood sexual abuse. Though survivors of sexual abuse need relationship too, many vacillate between their desire for relational connection and their need for distance from that same relationship. This push-and-pull is true in any relationship, but it can function to a greater extreme and intensity in marriages affected by childhood sexual abuse. Some couple relationships can vacillate between reaching for the other to repelling the other.

Some couple relationships can vacillate
between reaching for the other to repelling the other.

The desire for distance introduces a challenge into homes during this season of “stay at home” orders, especially with orders being extended for weeks and maybe into months. Tense and tired individuals who feel trapped by the walls of their own home also wish for more spacious social distancing from their spouse. 

Given this challenge of preferred distance, what can be done to move from mere coping during COVID-19 to healthy marital connecting during COVID-19 and beyond? Here are some ideas.

1. Develop routines for offering space to each other

I know, this first suggestion is an odd idea for connecting. But we need to recognize the need that we and our spouse have for individual space. No healthy relationship is sustained by two people always being together all the time. Grant each other permission to have time and space alone. Consider these two steps for developing a routine.

First, determine when you can be alone or apart from each other. This has been easy to implement in my marriage. I am an earlier riser. My wife says of herself, “I don’t do mornings.” So I take advantage of the hours early in the morning to have “Bill time.” In return, she values and needs to have her first waking hour alone. I’ve learned to honor that and there are times I need to adjust to it. My favorite meal for going out to eat is breakfast. So if we are going to do a “breakfast date,” I make adjustment so that she has first had her alone time.

Determining the “when” in marriages where children are still at home is more challenging. It can be done but it will involve more adjustment and personal sacrifice. If we don’t make the sacrifice in our personal schedule and routine, we end up sacrificing our spouse. Not good!

Second, determine how you can be alone. Specifically, how can you each find your own space? This need gave rise to the “She-Shed” and “Man-Cave.” While humorous, this phenomenon is a reality. Fortunately, we are moving into warmer months so that those with small homes can find their space outdoors.

The routine of withdrawing from each other is never for the purpose of avoiding each other. Its purpose is to be personally replenished for relational connection.

The routine of withdrawing from each other is never
for the purpose of avoiding each other.

Once we are rejuvenated, we can engage and connect with others. Now we are ready for the second idea.

2. Find ways to connect with your spouse

If you are struggling to find safe ways of connecting, go back to earlier times in your relationship when the tension was not as high as it might be now. Identify activities and events that were mutually enjoyed. Current social distancing restrictions might rule out some of those safe activities. But be creative in exploring what you can do. Experiment and discover what does work.

Here’s a few possibilities:

  • Table Games  (Qualification: This is not a good option if you tend to argue when competing in a game)
  • Exercise Together (e.g. walks, runs, bicycling)
  • Movies, Sitcoms, etc.
    For some couples, sitting together watching a movie is about their only connection point. If this is the case for you, try taking it to the next step by sharing your thoughts about the movie. For example, share together how the values depicted in the movie compare to your own values.
  • Watch something that is instructional
    You might enjoy Brene Brown’s The Call to Courage on Netflix. My wife and I have found her story and application of “The story in my head is . . .” to be very helpful in our own communication. TED talks are another great option. After watching a talk, share your impressions.

But be creative in exploring what you can do.
Experiment and discover what does work.

3. Suspend attempts to resolve major issues of conflict

I’m not referring to avoidance and “sweeping issues under the carpet.” During this time when counseling help may not be as accessible, it is reasonable to agree together that your best option is to wait until you have help in order to resume working on any tough issues. Be sure to agree together verbally that you will return to working on the issue when the time is conducive for doing so.

This is no different than some of the current delays for normal medical care. Many of us have routine medical exams and tests that have been suspended for now. Granted, it is not our best option. But right now, it is our only option. So it is with major issues of conflict.

4. Focus on personal development during this time

This is an individual focus aimed toward relational enrichment.

Some couples struggle to identify safe topics; things they can talk about. This can be due to diverse interests or divisive tensions. As we grow personally, however, we increase our repertoire of conversation topics.

My wife is now taking a course online made available and affordable by Yale University. It has opened up new doors of conversation and connection as we have dinner together each night. As empty-nesters, this invigorates our relationship. The same can happen for all of us as we focus on personal development.

If you are not ready to commit to a course, here are three book suggestions from books I’ve recently read:

Take time right now to jot down three action steps that you will implement in the coming weeks of COVID-19 with the longer-term goal of developing healthy habits.

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