Covid Couples Therapy: Expert Tips on How to Talk About the Tough Stuff

Covid-19 has added unique pressures to our relationships. Here's how to talk it out with your partner, without losing your cool.

Eight months into the global pandemic, how is your relationship faring? The number of couples seeking a divorce in Canada has increased during the coronavirus – which isn’t surprising. Navigating new territory can be difficult for any couple; add whatever pandemic-based issues you’re dealing with and marital stress is a no-brainer. We asked experts for the tools we need to talk about the tough stuff.

(Related: ‘It’s Just One Thing After Another’: Can Our Relationships Survive Covid-19?)

Feeling overwhelmed? Identify the issues

There’s so much to choose from on the COVID-19 Sucks bingo card being stuck in close quarters, changes to finances, increased household anxiety, health fears, lack of child care, no alone time, intimacy issues. There is no right or wrong way to react to an unprecedented event, but it is important to figure out what your issues are and which ones need to be addressed most urgently.

“Sometimes I give the couples I work with a reflecting task,” says Dr. Gina Ko, a PhD doctorate in educational leadership and a Calgary-based registered psychologist. “What are you able to accept? What things are unacceptable?… I also ask couples if they’re open to writing letters to express what was bothering them. They don’t necessarily have to share them, but it can be helpful.” Because there are so many possible stressors, identifying what the issues are, why they are happening and how they make you feel is necessary for the next step: talking about it.

(Related: Covid-19 Made For a Rocky Start For Our Blended Family — Here’s How We Managed)

Playing the blame game? Make “I” statements vs. “you” statements

Talking about your emotions is a vulnerable act, and people react differently to feeling exposed. It’s easy to blame each other with accusatory language: “You left the dishes on the counter again, and you know that makes me mad! Why do you do that?” But for open communication, both parties need to take responsibility for their actions and feelings. Making “I” and “you” statements facilitates this.

“An ‘I’ statement forces us to take responsibility for what we are thinking and feeling, and prevents us from blaming our partner,” says psychotherapist La’Tarra Tynes, owner of The Butterfly Effect Counselling and Psychotherapy Services, based in Mississauga, Ont. “When we’re using ‘I’ statements, that doesn’t mean we can’t be assertive. It just forces you not to concentrate on judging what your partner did, but more so on how it makes you feel.” So: “I feel mad when you leave the dishes out. It makes me mad because I feel better when things are tidy.” See the difference?

(Related: The Importance of Making Memories During Pandemic Life)

Running out of patience? Schedule structured time to talk

Arrange a time for you to discuss what is bothering you both and commit to listening. “If you’re busy working all day, it’s hard to be able to communicate all your thoughts and feelings,” says Tynes. “It can get left unresolved, which is another issue.” If things become heated, take a break. Explain that you’re feeling emotional or gently point out your partner’s rising emotions, and go for a short walk alone or take deep grounding breaths. Be sure to return to the discussion within a reasonable time, once you feel settled and ready, otherwise it’s an avoidant behaviour.

Ko also recommends scheduling a timed “listening and respecting” period. “One partner gets a full three to five minutes to say how they are feeling using ‘I’ statements. Then the other responds, ‘I heard you, or I heard that it was hard, etc.’ And then they switch,” says Ko. “It’s about having structure to open up and say how you feel, and having the other person reflect what they heard.”

(Related: 5 Factors Linked to Successful Relationships, According to Science)

Mismatched desire? Meet in the middle

What if one of you needs space to recharge and the other craves intimacy to feel human again? Come up with boundaries that work for you both. “When you have sex with your partner, those feel-good hormonal levels increase, which increases satisfaction in your relationship as well,” says Tynes.

If sex and physical affection are necessary for one partner, then the other should be open to finding a way to make that work. Intimacy isn’t limited to sex; cuddling, hugging, kissing and holding hands are all ways to show affection. It is important that both partners express what they need to feel loved and commit to fulfilling that need.

If you aren’t sure what you need right now, there’s a quiz for that! The Five Love Languages, a 1992 bestseller by marriage counsellor Dr. Gary Chapman, discusses how everyone needs to feel loved in five different ways — words of affirmation, gifts, acts of service, quality time and physical touch. Both Ko and Tynes use it in their practices. “It’s important to know what your partner appreciates. Sometimes…we assume the other person needs what we need,” says Ko, and this can lead to disagreements. Try doing the assessment together as a date-night activity to explore what you may be missing. Setting boundaries or scheduling sex may seem counterintuitive to intimacy, but when a global pandemic is playing third wheel in your relationship, a little extra help can’t hurt.

Next: 6 Guaranteed Ways to Change Up Pandemic Life