- “It can be fun to have more family time during a pandemic, but if couples aren’t careful, they can neglect each other,” says Dr. Jason Whiting. Tweet This
- “It's time to acknowledge that Zoom, virtual, and/or telehealth/televideo/tele-education has a place, but it cannot, nor should it, replace all of marriage education, support, or therapy,” Dr. Kelly Roberts says. Tweet This
- "I think the biggest thing for couples to remember is to be kind to yourself and to each other," says Dr. Steven Harris. Tweet This
Last year about this time, my husband and I were eagerly anticipating a weekend away at the Worldwide Marriage Encounter renewal retreat that we’ve attended for the past three years with about 100 other married couples. At the end of February, my mother traveled up from Florida to spend the weekend with the kids, and we drove three hours to the beachside hotel where the retreat is always held. We spent a fun and relaxing weekend, enjoying fellowship with other couples from our marriage group and some much-needed couple time working on our relationship. We returned home feeling refreshed and reconnected—armed with a journal full of our scribbled plans to make a few changes in our busy lives to help us continue strengthening our relationship.
But about two weeks later, the COVID tsunami hit home for us, beginning with the news that our children’s school was closing for an indefinite amount of time. Our lives were turned upside now as we scrambled to balance work and homeschooling two kids amidst the increasing anxiety of the pandemic. Our focus quickly shifted from couple time to family time—all the time.
Needless to say, the plans we had for our marriage fell by the wayside, and much of last year was spent focused on just keeping our family safe. This year, our February marriage retreat at the beach has gone virtual like everything else, and even though our kids are back in school and some things are back to “normal,” we are approaching Valentine’s Day still very much in pandemic mode. Even though reports of a pandemic divorce surge have proven to be unwarranted, and married couples have generally fared better than single individuals, there are no doubt many couples who feel as if they’ve just been getting by over the past year, who could use some ideas on how to bolster their marriage going forward. What better time than National Marriage Week (and Valentine’s Day) to do just that? With this in mind, I asked a few relationship experts who are also IFS contributors to weigh in with some advice.
1. It’s been a hard year, so give yourself and your spouse a break.
“The response to COVID-19 has stripped away many of our regular coping mechanisms,” Dr. Steven Harris, Professor of Family Social Science and Director of the Couple and Family Therapy program at the University of Minnesota, told me. “This includes things we didn't even know were coping mechanisms—the drive to work alone in the car, going out to the theater, sitting in a restaurant and seeing other people (not just ordering food). All of these things contributed to our sense of ‘normal’ and they are gone for many people.”
Dr. Harris, who also serves as associate director of the Minnesota Couples on the Brink Project, said the most important thing for couples to do right now is to:
Be realistic about the stressors you are feeling and the impact it may be having on the marriage. If your marriage is suffering, it may be related to a time-limited but omnipresent stressful situation that 2020 thrust upon us. Now may not be the best time to be making huge relationship decisions, like divorce, that have long term effects.
He added, "I think the biggest things for couples to remember is to be kind to yourself and to your spouse."
2. “Don’t sweat the small stuff” but make an effort to appreciate the little things.
Those of us who have been married more than a few months know how irritating our spouse’s bad habits can be, whether it is him leaving his underwear all over the floor (even though the hamper is right there), or her habitually putting everything away so that he has a hard time finding his stuff, the little things really do add up. The pandemic has aggravated these little irritations with all of us stuck at home together. But as Dr. Harris puts it, “there is more than one way to load a dishwasher.”
"We tend to fight over so many trivial things in marriage just because we each have personal preferences on things that largely don't matter," he noted. "When we get too wedded to our personal preferences and don't see the legitimacy of our partner's preferences, we can easily become disaffected with our spouse."
Instead, Harris advised, “If we can take a more relaxed stance toward things that are actually subjective, we become freer to appreciate the differences between us and ultimately don't need to divide us.”
Even as we try to overlook our spouse’s most irritating traits, we should also make an effort to recognize the positive things our spouse does every day, things we might have taken for granted in the past. And if there is one thing this pandemic has taught us, it is just how much we took for granted—whether it is being able to worship in church, drop our kids off for in-person school, or even find a grocery store shelf full of disinfecting wipes.
Appreciating the little things in our relationships is especially important right now, according to Dr. Kelly Roberts, a therapist with 20 years of clinical and research experience. “The inability to control the large, nebulous state of worldwide emergency has forced more tunnel vision, but sometimes nicely surprising, micro-sized joys,” she told me, suggesting that couples who have been “just getting through” the past year make an effort to “appreciate and even celebrate things about their spouses that they have normally glossed over.”
For Roberts, that means appreciating her husband’s help in the kitchen.: “This past week, I thanked him for making the cutting block shiny, loading and unloading the dishwasher (both!), putting the spices back where I can reach them, and polishing the faucet handles,” she shared. “Cleaning the kitchen became a study in the loving-care details my husband did that were so much more than a task. They were gestures of love.”
3. Be intentional and creative about spending time together.
One positive change from the pandemic lockdowns is that we have enjoyed more family time, and this was certainly a plus for our family. We found new and fun things to do together, including a “staycation,” where we did a different outdoor activity each day, like going to the beach, canoeing down a local river, seeing a movie at an outdoor theater, and having a backyard campout.
But as Dr. Jason Whiting, professor of family therapy at Brigham Young University, pointed out, couple time can get crowded out by family time.
“It can be fun to have more family time during a pandemic, but if couples aren’t careful, they can neglect each other,” he told me. “It is easy to get in a rut of Netflix until collapse every evening, but it is better to block out some evenings for conversations or fun, even if that involves simply laying together and sharing updates and dreams.”
Because carving out this time together with children in the house can be tough, Dr. Whiting recommends setting boundaries like “saying no to requests from children, or locking a bedroom door and putting up a do not disturb sign.” He added, “These small marriage efforts will help cooped up spouses survive the pandemic and come out stronger.”
Dr. Harris emphasizes that communicating about the struggle to find time together and how it is impacting the marriage is also key. “Even saying to your spouse, ‘We haven't had any time to ourselves, without kids, and I miss that’ would go a long way in sending the message that you acknowledge that now is not the best time for you as a couple and that you miss when the two of you could be out together,” he said.
Because research shows that date nights are linked to healthier relationships, and that it is important for children to see their parents enjoying their marriage, Dr. Roberts recommends making the kids part of a date night at home.
“It is especially essential, in a time when your children are observing you the closest, to prioritize your relationship and enjoin them if need be,” she said. “Have them help you have dedicated time, cook you a meal, maybe—have them be creative for you. Then do it.”
She added, “Establishing time for a couple takes more than just looking at the clock. It takes an outward gesture of dressing, walking outdoors, walking back in, and kissing goodnight.”
4. Stay connected to other married couples.
During one of the first Marriage Encounter retreats my husband and I attended, the wife of one of the older married couples in our small group reached over and patted me on the knee, “Whatever you do, stay in community,” she advised, “don’t get disconnected.”
Indeed, support from wiser, older couples can be a lifeline for struggling marriages. But staying connected is difficult in a world of social distancing. Our marriage group that typically meets in person once a month went virtual back in April of last year, and although a virtual meeting is better than nothing at all, screen time just cannot compete with in-person communication.
“It's time to acknowledge that Zoom, virtual, and/or telehealth/televideo/tele-education has a place, but it cannot, nor should it, replace all of marriage education, marriage support, or marriage therapy,” Roberts said. “I think it’s time to go on a video-break, just like we prescribe for our children, and recall what’s worked throughout history for couples.”
As an alternative to only Zoom meetings, she recommends writing letters to married couples who can offer wisdom and support.
“Sit down and co-write a letter to a couple you admire. Ask them about something going on in your current life-course stage. Be patient waiting for the answer. Take joy in going to the mailbox.” She added, “Just the fact that you co-write the letter gives you intentional and dedicated time together.”
Whatever way you choose to stay connected with other married couples in your life, it’s important to make that effort. As I’ve written previously, “Spending time with long-married couples in healthy relationships not only gives us hope that true love exists but also gives us a standard to reach for.”
5. Reach out for help when you need it.
We have vast amount of research on healthy marriage and relationships compared to generations before us. Couples today also have a variety of marriage education programming and resources available at their fingertips. None of us have to go it alone.
One of the best, and perhaps untapped, resources for building healthy families is the faith community. We’ve covered this point time and again on this blog, but the powerful link between religious practice and marital health is worth repeating. In a post last year, BYU professors David Dollahite and Loren Marks highlighted their research on the benefits of healthy religious practice in the home, pointing to the “large and growing body of empirical evidence demonstrates that faith in God and meaningful engagement in a faith community both provide tangible, measurable benefits to mental, relational, and physical health—including longevity.”
Church-based marriage programs have successfully helped reduce divorce rates in some communities, and research shows that highly religious couples, or those who attend church frequently, are more likely to enjoy higher-quality unions. Furthermore, shared religious practices like prayer are linked to healthier family relationships. For example, one BYU study found that shared prayer “enabled family members to address problems or stresses they were facing, as well as reduced tensions in their relationships.”
In addition to religious communities, there are countless national, state, and local organizations working to promote healthy marriages. These organizations offer workshops, small groups, seminars, retreats, and even connections to therapists. Just a few of these organizations include National Marriage Week USA, Worldwide Marriage Encounter, Re|Engage, First Things First, Georgia Center for Opportunity, Retrouvaille, and Communio, among many others. The Institute for Family Studies also has some great marriage and relationship education articles that can be accessed here.
For all of the disappointment, anxiety, and loss this pandemic has brought us, it has also caused us to treasure our relationships more than we ever did before—especially our relationship with our spouse. As we prepare to celebrate what is likely to be a very different Valentine’s Day from the one we spent last year, it is encouraging to know that there are some steps we can take to refresh our marriages and make them stronger for the years to come.