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Tips to get through stay-at-home orders with your marriage intact

Jessica Roy
Los Angeles Times (TNS)

Everyone’s living situation is challenging right now.

People who are socially isolating alone are feeling, well, isolated. Roommates, in addition to the normal squabbles over dishes and whose turn it is to take out the trash, may be discovering the person they met eight months ago on Craigslist doesn’t share their philosophy on what constitutes social distancing or an essential activity.

But the coronavirus outbreak and ensuing shutdown situation can be uniquely hard on marriages.

People living alone can move in with someone else when this is over. Roommates can white-knuckle it through quarantine and plan to part ways once the lease is up. But if you’re married, and had planned to stay that way before the global pandemic took hold, you might find yourself thinking, “Who did I marry? And do I really have to live with this person forever?”

Though there have been jokes about a “coronavirus baby boom,” in China, there has been a post-pandemic divorce boom. Darby Saxbe, an associate professor of psychology at USC and the director of the USC Center for the Changing Family, says we can probably expect one here too.

“For couples that have a healthy relationship, that are doing pretty well, there are some ways this could bring people closer together. Everybody is stressed but in some ways this might lead to some relationship improvements for couples that figure out how to weather this,” said Saxbe, whose work includes research on stress within family relationships. “But for couples who are struggling or don’t communicate as well or don’t share the same values, this situation is going to drive a wedge or exacerbate whatever tension is already there.”

Trapped together: Part of the reason we’re susceptible to driving each other up the wall is that we’re all trapped in the same walls, all the time. Most modern American living spaces aren’t designed for that.

“Our homes are set up to relax and unwind at the end of the day, where we get ready to head out in the morning, staging areas for weekend activities,” Saxbe said, “but for many people you are not used to spending all day every day inside a home space. Like any place that you’re occupying without a break or interruption, it can become tedious or confining.”

And spending that much time together in the same space might be magnifying existing inequalities that were easier to ignore when most of your waking hours were spent elsewhere. In many households, the division of labor is uneven, and women tend to do the bulk of the housework and child-rearing in heterosexual couples. Prior to coronavirus, some of that labor could be outsourced: daycare, babysitters, house cleaners, going out to eat instead of creating another round of dishes at home. But now, all of the responsibilities fall squarely on the adults in the house. The more glaring the inequality in the division of chores, the more the person taking on the bulk of them may start to chafe.

“If one person was really taking care of more of the chores, that’s becoming very clear,” said Jennifer Peepas, who writes the advice blog Captain Awkward. “The things that were not being said and not being handled are going to come to light.”

And a lot of what Saxbe described as “escape valves” that we use to get away from household stress — going to the gym, getting a manicure, going to the movies, visiting friends or relatives — are unavailable. Even small pleasures like wandering the aisles of Target or sampling the Costco cuisine now go against public health recommendations. With everyone eating three meals a day and spending all of their recreational time at home, dishes and clutter pile up faster, and it all feels more in-your-face when it’s, well, right there in your face.

We’re also encountering our spouses in new ways: Suddenly, their persona at work and their persona outside of it have collided. That can be a little jarring.

Extra stress: Other households are contending with job loss and money concerns. Millions of Americans have filed for unemployment in recent weeks. Households may need to renegotiate domestic responsibilities at the same time they’re dealing with the emotional and financial fallout of losing a job, on top of the possibility of sick loved ones or getting sick themselves.

(In some cases, the added stress has escalated domestic violence situations. Even with widespread shutdowns due to coronavirus, there are resources available for people experiencing violence at home. If you or someone you know is experiencing domestic violence, call 800-799-SAFE (7233) for the National Domestic Violence Hotline or L.A. County’s hotline at 800-978-3600.)

It’s a lot to deal with. But experts have some advice for helping your marriage survive coronavirus.

Create opportunities for alone time: You have to share a house, but you don’t have to be together all the time. Each family member should have a place they can retreat to where they won’t be bothered.

“Make a joint decision with your spouse that some time is together time and some time is alone time, even if we must de facto be together,” Peepas, the advice blog writer, said. “Have ‘dates,’ have plans to do together, and have time that’s like, ‘This is not together time. I’m not here, you’re not here.’”

Be intentional about getting your own alone time and giving it to others. It might feel a little awkward if you previously had an open-door no-knocking policy in your house, but it’s worth making the extra effort to be more conscientious housemates right now.

Communicate: Open communication is more important than ever. If something’s bothering you, don’t expect your partner to read your mind. It’s better to be proactive and get ahead of things than to let resentment build up and explode when you’re both already in bad moods.

“It’s really hard for couples to negotiate chores and workload on the fly, in the moment,” Saxbe said. “To whatever extent couples can try to plan ahead and in calm moments say, ‘OK, we’re eating all our meals inside the house and we need to divvy up who’s doing the cooking and dishes or we’re going to go nuts,’ even the old-fashioned chore wheel or spreadsheet or a visual reminder that gets people on the same page, hammering out those systems can be really important.”

You can’t control other people’s moods, but you can take more time to be aware of your own. If you feel yourself getting heated or upset, find some of that critical alone time: Take a bath, go for a walk or a drive, or just announce that you’re going to be in the other room for a little while and you’d like to be left alone.

Let go of perfectionism: In a perfect and coronavirus-free world, a couple of months of working from home without any social obligations would be the ideal time to declutter the garage, repot all your plants, teach the kids to play chess, reorganize the pantry and finally finish a few big projects around the house.

But we don’t live in that world. Let go of what your ideal self would be doing right now and embrace what your actual self is doing to cope under extraordinary circumstances.

“Nobody’s going to win any parenting awards right now, no one’s going to win any housework awards,” Saxbe said. “We’re all trying to get through this one day at a time and not compare ourselves to other people or have really rigid expectations for how we’re going to perform. I think it’s important to not just apply that generosity to ourselves but to our partners. They’re going to disappoint us and we’re going to have to find ways to live with that.”

Accept that this is a strange time and everyone is just doing their best — including you.

“It’s OK if you’re not OK and you’re not feeling OK and if you don’t feel like you’re ‘rising to the occasion,’” Peepas said. “It’s OK if what you’re doing right now is kind of trying to keep yourself alive and keep your (stuff) together a little bit.”

Be kind to each other, and to yourself: It sounds cheesy but the magic words we learned in kindergarten will go a long way right now.

“‘Please.’ ‘You’re welcome.’ ‘I’m sorry.’ Those words make a huge difference to creating a sense of request rather than demand, creating a sense of someone has a choice whether to help you, rather than you just expecting that things happen,” said Lizzie Post, the president of the Emily Post Institute as well as the author of several books — and co-host of a podcast — about modern etiquette.

“Everyone is in this and everyone is handling it a little differently,” Post said.

When you’re communicating with your partner about a tricky subject, break out another classic: “I” statements. Instead of “the bathroom is disgusting and it’s all your fault,” try, “I feel stressed out and overwhelmed when the bathroom is this messy. It would mean a lot to me if you could tackle that tonight.”

Disagreements will happen. The schedule that worked perfectly for you, your spouse and your kids last week might fall to pieces this week. People like routines and consistency, and that’s all been ripped away from us. It’s OK that you’re stressed out about it. The most important thing you can do right now is to practice compassion — toward your spouse and for yourself.