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  • Change, worry, and exhaustion create the perfect conditions for nasty comments, criticism, cold distance, or avoidance—all things that damage emotional safety. Tweet This
  • 3 keys to keeping your relationship healthy: Do your part, decide don't slide, and make it safe to connect. Tweet This
  • COVID-19 has introduced massive uncertainties and stress into our lives. So many things feel out of control because they are. Here are some ways to protect our relationships. Tweet This

Editor’s Note: The following essay is the final post in our week-long symposium on how the COVID-19 pandemic will affect family life. It is an abridged version of a longer essay that appeared first at Psychology Today.

The coronavirus raises new challenges for our most cherished relationships. There are three, simple and potent keys that my colleagues and I have stressed in our work to help couples.1 These three keys could frame a public health campaign, but I am focused here on a relationship health campaign. 

1. Do Your Part

COVID-19 has introduced massive uncertainties and stress into our lives. So many things feel out of control because they are. As ever, we do best when we focus on what we can do in our relationship over what we think our partner should do. I can influence my partner, but I can only control myself (if I am in a healthy relationship). To be sure, there are times when one partner needs to confront, challenge, or nudge the other about a behavior. But, in day-to-day moments, we do best to focus on what we can do to make a difference. 

2. Decide, Don’t Slide

There are two applications of this key, one about transitions and one about moments. 

Transitions: People often slide through potentially life-altering relationship transitions. To understand how much this can matter, consider two fundamental aspects of commitment: dedication and constraint. Dedication is about the “want to.” It encompasses the desire for a future together, the will to sacrifice for one another, and having an identity of being a couple (in addition to being individuals). In contrast, constraints reflect the mix of things that would be either costs and losses of leaving or poor alternatives. Constraints can be good or bad, depending on the quality of a relationship. 

Constraints can be chosen or not, and that makes all the difference in understanding commitment. 

Commitment is making a choice to give up other choices. It is deciding by choosing to be constrained because you believe in the path you are choosing. In contrast, sliding often increases constraints but they are not chosen as much as experienced as inertia creeps up to continue forward on a path not clearly chosen. When a transition can deeply impact what follows, it’s worth deciding and not sliding. 

COVID-19 presents a massive transitional moment, maybe unrivaled since World War II. At home, routines are disrupted, and roles that have worked great for years may not work well now. With disruption, it’s time for discussions and decisions, such as: 

  • Who does what in the home? 
  • How does working remotely affect you as a couple?
  • If one of you is still working outside the home, how does that affect your family? Is there added risk and concern? 
  • What does positive time together look like, now? 

Moments: “Decide, don’t slide” also pertains to moments where you could either let something hurtful happen, decide to let something go, or even do something to show you care. 

Many are on edge and worried. Fuses are short. One says X, the other hears Y, and off you go into an argument or, almost worse, a missed opportunity to connect. In these moments, sliding is the easy but costly path. My colleagues and I teach couples to take time outs to protect their relationship from things going awry: not “go-sit-in-the-corner” social distancing, but instead, the type of time out a team calls when they need to stop their ragged play and reset their game. 

3. Make It Safe to Connect

Types of safety can describe the foundations of good relationships. Physical safety is freedom from fear, physical harm, and control. If you feel unsafe in your relationship, there are people at the National Domestic Violence Hotline who would want to help (US number): 1-800-799-7233. 

Emotional safety is being able to talk and share, and to feel that you are accepted. It is what most people want deeply in their closest relationship. It’s also easily damaged. 

Change, worry, and exhaustion create the perfect conditions for nasty comments, criticism, cold distance, or avoidance—all things that damage emotional safety. Escalation, where little arguments grow to big conflicts, is a hallmark of a couple not being able to maintain emotional safety. My colleagues and I have written for decades about various patterns that represent “communication danger signs,” while similar patterns were more creatively named the “four horsemen of the apocalypse” by John Gottman. 

You make it safe to connect by ensuring you both feel heard, loved, accepted, and secure. That means communicating well, reigning in harsh words, listening, and showing care.2

Consider this the moment in your life where you have the opportunity to raise your game as a couple and a family with these three keys. You might only need one key to get through the gate. 

Scott M. Stanley is a research professor at the University of Denver and a senior fellow of the Institute for Family Studies (@DecideOrSlide). 

1. For example, in our books such as Fighting for Your Marriage, and our relationship education approach for couples, PREP (the Prevention and Relationship Enhancement Program). I am a researcher at the University of Denver, but my colleague, Howard Markman, and I also own a business that disseminates adaptations of PREP. I note this as a conflict of interest statement. 

2. If you struggle to communicate well, there are many ways to learn how, such as this YouTube video. If you have a little extra time to learn some strategies for strengthening your relationship, check out this online version of our program for couples at lovetakeslearning.com.