According to Citizens Advice, the pandemic has created an “enormous strain” on relationships in 2021, with website searches on separation guidance and ‘ending a relationship’ up by 25% compared to the same time period in 2019.
Divorce solicitors often see a spike in spouses seeking advice after summer holidays fail to deliver hopes of refreshed romance. This year the crunch may be caused, at least in part by the lack of time out or holidays together. For some couples who were already having a bumpy relationship ride, lockdown proved the last straw. Family life began to feel like a thankless road of domestic tedium, unrelieved by fun with friends and family. With law firm Slater and Gordon reporting that the pandemic has “exacerbated” marriage problems, how can you rescue a relationship that seems to be on the brink of break-up?
You may not have lost the spark
Try normalising negative feelings. This has been a really challenging year for everyone. You may know of couples apparently pulling together really well right now, growing closer as they’ve spent more time together. Those enviable Facebook or Instagram couples seem to represent everything you haven’t achieved. But the truth is behind the screen they have also bickered and bumbled through months of work worry, school closures and financial hardship. It’s OK to acknowledge that this time is really tough for everyone.
Be kind to yourself and your partner. Offer three positives to every negative comment when talking to each other. Check out John Gottman’s relationship blog and learn to avoid what he calls the Four Horsemen of Marital apocalypse: Criticism, Contempt, Defensiveness and Stonewalling.
Recognise that it’s not he or she who’s suddenly grown dull but that these are dreary times of social isolation and pedalling hard to stand still. Introduce some fun into the relationship, taking it in turns to suggest a new activity to do together, a song the other one won’t have heard. Set a pretty table every now and then and actually have dinner together without looking at phones or the TV. Add a fresh herb to the old dried pasta that needs using up. Reach out with a kiss or a hand on the shoulder. The spark may not be lost, just hidden under the whirlwind this year has been.
Sometimes bickering is healthy
Arguments are not always unhealthy and couples who avoid confrontation could actually be less close and content than those who sometimes bicker and make up. A productive argument allows you to clear the air and negotiate a way through a specific problem. But repetitive arguments that escalate into verbal attacks, name-calling and humiliation are always damaging and destructive. Remember that if one of you has to win the battle then the relationship loses and really no one has won.
Confine your argument to a single issue. Don’t descend into broad put-downs such as ‘You never’ or ‘You always’ which criticise the whole person and not a particular piece of behaviour.
If the argument is getting heated after 5 or 10 minutes, agree to end it for the time being as it’s going nowhere positive. Agree a specific time in the near future when you can revisit the issue in a calmer state.
A great book to read about this is Daniel B Wile’s ‘After the Fight – Using Your Disagreements to build a Stronger Relationship’. Buy it here.
Take responsibility for your own happiness
When life seems to be veering out of control, you may well want to blame someone. It’s not easy to take ownership of feeling downhearted and disgruntled. You fix on your nearest and dearest because the Prime Minister or your Company CEO seems too remote. But is it really your partner’s job to mend everything from the kettle to your low mood? What if they’re struggling with the same dispirited feelings, perhaps teetering on anxiety or depression?
Try a 5 minute morning daily meditation on Insight Timer. No one’s asking you to transform into a spiritual guru but a brief focus on deep breathing, on self-worth and positivity could set you up for the day. Do it for a week then ask your partner if they notice anything different about you.
Try something new – just one thing that could add colour to this drab year: loading the couch to 5k app and getting out in the fresh air might energise you. Join a book club, walk a dog for the Cinnamon Trust, grow your own chilli pepper plant. Drape fairy lights along the mantelpiece. Suggest that your partner tries out a cheer-up remedy of their own. Share and compare the results.
Polish up communication
They say that silence is golden, but communication is the crown jewel of any relationship. In dark times it’s easy to fall out of the habit of meaningful conversation and talk only about the recycling bin or who’s making dinner. It’s said that we each have 80,000 thoughts a day. How many do you share with your partner? How can you understand each other without sharing some of those psychological workings in the margin? Kickstart talk that really matters by:
- Each making a wish list of what you’d like to have seen and done together in 5 years’ time. Or 10 years if you prefer. Then compare your lists … How might you make shared dreams come true? What’s the first step on the road to making them reality?
- Look out old photos and see how far you’ve come together. What are the highlights of your journey so far? Remind yourself of shared delights and the closeness you shared creating them. Hold in mind that good times, great times will come again. Remind yourself of your strengths as a couple.
- Listen actively and attentively to what you hear, listen to how they feel to validate those emotions.
- Draw up a family tree together. Add not just the names of parents and grandparents, but the myths, stories and sayings that defined them. Looking into your personal histories can help you understand your own patterns of behaviour and how you’ve developed personal values, beliefs and behaviours. This is a great exercise to do with a counsellor as a guide.
Forgiveness, fortitude and forbearance
Try adding these virtues to your emotional vocabulary, at least for the time being. Maybe your partner is really irritating you by slobbing around in trackie bottoms, ducking out of domestic tasks, forgetting your mother’s birthday or to book a car service. COVID has made us all a little distracted at times. Try to distinguish between small flaws and transgressions, and the stuff that is genuinely worth sweating over… like the risk of infection when there’s someone vulnerable in the family. Ask yourself how much that irritating thing will really matter next month or next year. Is it of world-stopping importance? Then the truth is that even in the dark nights of winter maybe things aren’t actually as bad as they might be.
Could this be the year you learn to say ‘sorry’ and mean it? Inability to apologise may not be a deal breaker, but owning up to saying something mean or cutting can go a long way to melting your partner’s bad mood. So many of us are judging ourselves harshly… whether it’s for our COVID belly from eating junk, for lowered income, or loss of job or exercising routine that boosted our sense of identity. Don’t add to a partner’s self-loathing at this time. Catch them doing something right, not wrong for a change. Dropping in a feel-good compliment can be a spritzer to the soul.
Dealing with dealbreakers
Some people have found these testing times infinitely more challenging than others. Has your partner started drinking a whole lot more? Has he or she been found out in an affair that old, pre-pandemic routines covered up? Are episodes of coercive control or domestic violence leaving you fearful? Is your relationship now in a very dark place compounded by lack of close comfort and support from family, friends and professional services?
Know that there is zero tolerance for verbal, emotional and financial abuse as well as physical or sexual. Contact Refuge’s National Domestic Abuse Helpline for free and confidential advice, 24 hours a day on 0808 2000 247.
If you’re in immediate danger you should dial 999 and key 55 if unable to talk.
For help with alcohol misuse you can go to: https://www.nhs.uk/service-search/other-services/Alcohol-addiction/LocationSearch/1805
Before you start throwing shoes at, or your partner out for cheating, read Esther Perel’s ‘The State of Affairs’. She takes an unusually non-judgemental view of contemporary infidelity and its social background, and she suggests possibilities for moving forward beyond the hurt and betrayal to rebuilding togetherness and trust.
We hope you found this helpful and use these tips to rebuild a broken relationship in your life. If you give these a go and still feel like the relationship is unsalvageable, krysallis relate-trained therapists are here to help. We offer specialist counselling for couples, families and individuals face to face and online.
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