How to Handle Social Distancing With Your Live-In Partner

Local marriage counselors share how couples can get through the Coronavirus pandemic together

Coronavirus 2020

About Coronavirus 2020

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As couples are kept in close quarters in the name of social distancing, tension is sure to arise. We talked to DC-area counselors Karen Osterle, Joseph LaFleur, and Emily Cook about what tips they have for couples to stay strong through this global crisis.

Give each other alone time

Yes, even when social distancing there can be a lack of time alone, especially when you throw kids into the mix. Make sure your partner has time to themselves to de-stress. When you’re alone, Osterle recommends doing some internal scanning about how your relationship is going. What is your partner doing that’s bugging you? How have you accidentally taken things out on your partner? Stopping to self-reflect can help couples pinpoint what issues need fixing before they start to spiral out of control.

Make time to be present

Just because you’re physically together doesn’t mean you’re emotionally present, Osterle says. Carve out at least 10 minutes a day where you’re fully present with one another. Really listen to your partner, and take time to tell them why you love them. LaFleur encourages nightly “state of the union” conversations between couples to assess how the relationship is going. While this is a time to air any grievances, LaFleur also stresses the importance of identifying what’s going right in the relationship as well.

Be clear about your needs

Let your partner know exactly what’s bugging you and how they can fix it instead of making broad, sweeping complaints. And allow your partner to do the same without taking it personally. In times of stress, it’s important not to make assumptions and assume best intentions, Osterle says. Your partner might not know what they’re doing is bothering you until you tell them. LaFleur recommends taking 30 minutes to make a list about what’s bothering you. Then, identify the problems you can address in the present circumstances. Any other issues can be shelved until the pandemic is over.

Give the benefit of the doubt

Stressful times can bring out those “sharp edges,” Cook says. You might find you and your partner snapping at each other, or that memories of old trauma have resurfaced from all the chaos. While couples should do their best to treat each other with respect, cut each other some slack in these abnormal circumstances. Slow down emotional conversations to allow for processing time. Be quick both to forgive and to apologize.

Make a new routine

You might find yourself missing the monotony of your daily commute. Implementing new routines and patterns as much as possible can bring some comfort in an uncertain, overwhelming time. Finding a new normal is especially important for couples with kids who are finding themselves playing the roles of spouse, parent, worker, and teacher all at the same time. Cook recommends visualizing each of your roles as individual hats. You might wake up with your parent hat on to make breakfast, put on your teacher hat to get the kids set up with classes, switch to your worker hat to finish a project, then transition to your spouse hat to check in with your partner.

Split up responsibilities

Partners need to be mindful about splitting up chores and childcare equally, but they also need to take turns with emotional responsibility, Cook says. Couples shouldn’t expect one person to be emotionally stalwart while the other flies off the handle. Take turns being the partner that’s “freaking out” and the partner who’s acting as the rock.

Respect your germaphobe partner

Osterle says it’s likely that one partner is going to be more cautious than the other. Wiping down every surface every hour might seem like overkill to you, but to your partner, it’s the only thing keeping their anxiety at bay. Remind yourself that this is temporary and that showing love and respect is always better than winning a petty argument.

Make time to get it on

In a time where there can be a lack of stimulation, LaFleur says the bedroom can be a great place to release some of your bottled up creativity and explore the ways you express intimacy. Cook says it can also be a comforting part of a new routine: maybe you have sex first thing in the morning or every night before bed to decompress. Or, maybe you take advantage of being home during the day and get some afternoon delight while the kids are napping. Osterle says to remember to respect how partners are feeling, though. Anxiety can increase libido for some and turn it off for others. Intimacy is another form of communication in a relationship that can take many forms other than intercourse. Try a shower together or a relaxing massage.



Jane Recker
Assistant Editor

Jane is a Chicago transplant who now calls Cleveland Park her home. Before joining Washingtonian, she wrote for Smithsonian Magazine and the Chicago Sun-Times. She is a graduate of Northwestern University, where she studied journalism and opera.