Are our relationships in a pandemic rut?

with love in bright orange lights relationships

The reality of our relationships (whether together or apart) in a pandemic.

Lit up heart in a door - hope in the pandemic

With us now being over 10 months into the pandemic, it is safe to say that many of us are on autopilot and navigating the day to day as best we can.  Whilst the rules and recommendations from country to country or even town to town might be different, we are all dealing with unprecedented times in our own way.  At the start of coronavirus, we were all acutely aware of the stress for ourselves, our partners, our families and kids, but now it feels (to me, at least) that we may have almost forgotten that these times are still challenging for us all.  

Now more than ever, our relationships are critical for our emotional and physical health. And I also know I am certainly guilty of this and taking my partner for granted and having got into a bit of a pandemic rut.  

Of course every relationship is unique and there are endless situations and combinations.  Any relationship can be challenging at times, and they have been put under even more pressure during the varying stages of lockdown. Our partners can sometimes be one of the only real-life in-person adult connections we have right now.  It is important that we recognise that this is still a stressful situation and give ourselves, and each other, some grace on a  day to day basis. Whilst the light of hope to the end of all this is there, it is still at varying degrees of brightness depending on our own situation and where we are in the world.

Dealing with the pandemic can be even more difficult for those that are living overseas as an expat, immigrant or nomad – without your extended family or friends around you (although many people are currently in a similar situation right now).  There are also many families that are stuck in difficult temporary situations unable to move, return to their native country, are currently split for weeks or months at a time, or are now constantly together.  All of these situations (and many more) are obviously in addition to the current stresses of life during covid-19 with its health, economic, family and logistical challenges, whether you are working from home or the kids are at school or not.  The bottom line is that the situation is still hard and we need to remember this in our relationships with ourselves and those closest to us.

That said, could it also be true that expats, immigrants or nomads are better equipped to deal with this kind of stressful situation? By which I mean that by living far away from ‘home’ we are more used to relying on our partners, being more dependent or attached to each other and operating in a small unit with less outside support. Do we have more skills to equip us for these times? Like stronger and more open communication, more resilience – a greater ability to deal with change and uncertainty and therefore our relationships have firmer foundations? Are we now putting these skills into further practice? Or could we also guilty of being complacent or slipping into a rut?

orange light at the end of the tunnel - hope

Re-evaluating relationships in Covid-19 times

By re-evaluating where we are with the current situation and being honest and kind to ourselves and each other we can strengthen our relationships.  Then we can get what all of us need most – connection, safety, a sense of belonging.  

My husband and I only recently realised that this is the longest time that we have ever been together!  In the whole time we have been married (and lived together) he has always been away at least once a month for a week or more.  Now he permanently works from home, his last trip was 11 months ago and there are no business trips in sight.  I have to admit that whilst it can be a challenge having a partner that travels a lot, especially with kids, it can also bring some benefits!   I am used to (and enjoy) my independence, space and exploring my own interests and, some time apart can certainly help make the relationship more exciting (especially after 26 years together!).

Whilst we have always explored our own interests separately and had quality time together, a few months back we realised that we no longer were doing our ‘own’ thing as much and each evening we watched tv together, chatted or sorted out family/finances/admin stuff. All this might be fine, but we realised we still needed space to watch our own tv/movies, listen to podcasts, read a book or whatever outside of the work day.  First, we just had to realise what we had drifted into and then be open about what we wanted – to be a strong connected couple, but also have our own separate interests and space.  That requires some self-knowledge and also a willingness to be honest and open with our partners.   It has led me on a path of more research and  discovery……….

refocus glasses with skyline in distance

Healthy relationships – the foundation is with ourselves

The first part in all this is to actually know what we want and need, instead of expecting our partners to fulfil our needs, know what we want or be the answer to everything. This misplaced ideal  has certainly not been helped by our romanticised western culture that our partner has to be our ‘other half’, that they ‘complete us’ and love should be easy.  Instead we should look at our lives, events and relationships as an invitation to look at what is inside us first, rather than always outside.  Now that is sadly not something we hear about very often.   

As psychologist and relationship expert, Sheryl Paul says:

“We’re always being asked to turn inward.  In a world that encourages us to track outward from the time we’re born, most people abdicate their sense of self early in life and look to others to fill their inner well.  This never works, for the well that tracks outward is a bottomless bucket’ it’s only when we learn to turn inward and trust ourselves that the need for external approval, perfectionism and self-doubt fall away and the inner waters regenerate themselves.   

If there was ever a time to turn inwards, it’s now”.

Powerful stuff.

You are here in bright lights mindful

Our culture certainly does not talk about this much at all, although it is increasingly talking about mindfulness, meditation and general mental health – this is usually more of a means to negate stress or be more calm, rather than to really connect to our true selves and then each other.

So how do we turn inwards?

This is different for everyone, it might be going for a walk in nature, sitting still and taking some deep breaths to check in with ourselves, meditating, journaling, yoga, dance or any form of exercise where you feel connected to your body – to really tune into ourselves and listen to what we want and need. Only then can we really be in touch with ourselves or grounded to then be able to connect with our partners and the world around us.

Strengthening relationships with our partner – from survive to thrive

old fashioned phones to communicate on a wall

The key part to all relationships is obviously communication which is critical, otherwise we never really know where each other is. 

So first by listening to ourselves we know where we are , we can then communicate with our partners on a regular basis.  This regular communication in person, by phone, Whatsapp, Skype, whatever is so crucial and needs to include  – the  good, the bad and (all too often) the mundane.  Finding one on one time, away from distractions, work, the kids and really communicating and listening is crucial to lead to more intimacy. In turn this will then lead to fewer arguments or outbursts (sometimes that we didn’t even realise were brewing) and ultimately more connection and intimacy.  More on some suggested ways to go about that are below.

The other thing that research has shown is that healthy relationships are founded when we focus on the positive things and the things that are working – and show gratitude for them.  Whether it is being thankful for a cup of tea or that the washing was put away, focusing on the positive rather than what hasn’t been done or the negative, helps relationships stay healthy and not in a vicious negative cycle.  That is obviously not to say you don’t bring up things that aren’t working, but you first and foremost focus on what is good, no matter how small it might be.  This can feel a bit clunky or weird to start with, but if you talk about your intention and even joke about it it can be less awkward and start to become a habit.

What you focus on grows! – Kelli Wilson.

Mug with words See the Good - positive focus

Finding boundaries and space for ourselves and our relationships

Another key to healthy partnerships according to relationship expert,  Terri Cole are boundaries:

“Boundaries are  the only foundation for healthy relationships.   The only way that a relationship can work and people can get their needs met is if you’re actually talking about what your needs, wants, and desires are.”

Sound easy?  These conversations are not always straightforward, it requires a willingness to be open and vulnerable which can be scary. But without it we can be left feeling lonely isolated, especially during these Covid times.  Cole continues:

“You have to be committed to having the hard conversations and letting your truth be known.” 

This might be easier if we start off small with some simple and easy to resolve before we build up to bigger wants or needs.  For example, saying: “I am feeling like we need to reevaluate the household tasks as I have a lot on with work/the kids/am feeling a bit overwhelmed/ or whatever.”  And then give small concrete examples of what they can do to help like: “If you could take out the rubbish/hang out the washing/whatever without me having to ask/on Tuesdays, I would appreciate it.”  

It is often easier to have these conversations when we are doing something else, like going out for a walk, in the car or cooking together,  so it doesn’t feel like a major ‘let’s have a sit down and talk’ talk.

It may be hard sometimes, but if we don’t start to have these conversations, where does it leave us and our relationship?

couple communicating in pandemic by a lake in nature

Practical ways to reconnect, communicate and strengthen our relationships

One of the most effective ways to help grow healthy relationships, according to many experts is to have a daily or weekly check in with each other about how we are doing and how we feel about the relationship – the good and bad.  I admit, this does sounds  bit contrived, but it has been proven to work time and time again and does feel less awkward after time (especially if you find your own personal quirky way of doing it e.g. starting with gratitude or a funny story of something you have done together).  It doesn’t have to be a big deal and can just involve daily highlights and lowlights and anything else that is bothering us (outside the relationship).   

The key to these conversations is to listen and validate each other, without having to solve a problem or try and talk the other person out of something. Alternatively nodding your head or asking for more information enables either one of you to talk more freely.  Great questions can lead to some great discussions and then further connection. For example, if we ask: “Why is this so important to you?”, “Does this situation remind you of something else in your past?”, or  “What can I do to support you?” it shows we are listening and open to finding out more and being there for each other, even if it does sound a little like a therapy session at first!

Some good tips and ideas on regular check ins are are also here.

Having these conversations develops stronger connections and relationships which inevitably leads to more satisfaction, intimacy and a stronger foundation for the whole family and beyond.

Another way to connect, learn and bond is to share experiences together and talk about them whether it is a book, film, tv programme or whatever.  A great source of discussion is Esther Perel’s podcast, Where should we begin? – These real-life relationship counselling sessions provide really interesting insights from relationships (plus who doesn’t love to be a fly on the wall?) It can also help us in our own relationships and provide a different talking point too (makes a change from the kids or daily covid figures?!)

with love in bright orange lights relationships

Making our relationships work for us is more important than ever

We can choose to plod on with every day life during this pandemic, get through each day as best we can.  We can also choose to look at things again, with fresh eyes, to see where we might have got stuck in a rut or things are not as connected as we would like them to be.  

The truth is all relationships can be improved upon, whether with ourselves or our significant other.   We just need to be honest with ourselves.

I started writing this post today thinking I was going to write about long distance relationships and connecting. We have had a lot of experience with that and I know several people who are currently in a split-family situation due to their expat move or work situation and I can only imagine how hard it must be. Now having spent the day researching and thinking I realise that we can still not be as connected as we could be even if we are in the same home. We may have lived far from ‘home’ for nearly 15 years, but, right now, we aren’t building on the foundations we laid and edged into a bit of a rut. Not an easy thing to admit, but one I know that we can now act on.

Humans are social animals, we need connection, we live for it, we thrive on it.  As we all know, a lot of it this connection with those nearest and dearest is not possible, especially not as much as we would like it right now. The irony of this is that we need each other now more than ever.  We need to come back full circle to where we were nearly a year ago – be kind, gentle with ourselves, each other. We need to get close to our emotions, talk about them like we did with all the vulnerability and openness that we did at the very start of the pandemic.  Before we get stuck in a rut or drift further apart it is even more important that we cultivate and nurture our closest relationship with as much compassion, respect and care as we possibly can muster.  Then we can truly weather and beat this (very long) storm together and hopefully all come out stronger on the other side.

Small white heart with open written on it in a window

For anyone that is in an abusive relationship or is worried about someone that is. Please visit here.

Thank you to readers, Addie and Danny for also suggesting this really useful page for additional resources, particularly around dealing with domestic violence:

Next time some more lightweight (!) reading, some fun ideas to reconnect, reinvigorate and strengthen our relationships whether together or apart right now.

Here are some practical tips of how to strengthen relationships with family and friends when far apart.

What do you think about relationships and the pandemic? Do you think expats / immigrants / migrants are more used to stressful situations like these and/or are more resilient? What has helped strengthen your relationships during this uncertain times whether you are together or apart?
I would LOVE to hear from you……

Photos credits: Wth love Marcus Byrne, Phone -Pavan Trikutam, Connect – Priscilla Du Preez , Open heart – cyrus gomez, You are here – Aleks Marinkovic, Heart – Cathal Mac an Bheatha, Refocus – Elena Taranenko,

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