Most of us have spent more time with our partners in the past year than we ever have before. Let’s be frank, we are tired of each other. Even the strongest relationships have felt the strain. Now, as restrictions are being lifted and we are no longer in crisis mode, this is the perfect opportunity to take stock and give your relationship some badly needed TLC.
Ask what you both want from your relationship from now on
It’s time to start talking about how you want your relationship to look moving forwards. What did you like about the past year? What, ideally, would you change? Invite your partner to share their views — honestly. Sit down together. Be interested in what the other person has to say, rather than saying: “This is what I want.”
Discover what you can agree on. Ask them what they will miss now that life is hopefully becoming more “normal”. Perhaps you took to going to bed earlier because you were both so tired, and the bedroom became your shared sanctuary. So now, what might you do to maintain that? Just asking the question will have a positive effect on your entire dynamic.
Vocalise your built-up irritations (tactfully)
If small resentments are causing problems, it’s likely that they already existed but have been made worse under the sustained pressure of lockdown. But noticing the niggle is only the first step. The second step is to admit what’s bothering you — and how hard can that be relative to what you’ve just endured? Consider what it’s worth to you to rid your relationship of that frustration. One or two difficult conversations?
It can help to imagine what your marriage would look like if you had the use of a magic wand. Being able to visualise your preferred reality is half the battle. Then it’s easier to focus on how to achieve it. Approach any talk with self-awareness. First, identify how you feel and why you feel that way. Passive aggression, blame and defensiveness sabotage good communication. Remember that this is the person you once wanted to tell everything: your feelings, your hopes, your dreams. Let that inform how you speak to them now.
Discuss your approaches to lockdown easing
Your partner is planning outdoor dinners for six, pub garden meet-ups and a huge party in July. You think it’s too much too soon and your frosty disapproval is causing tension. This anxiety is totally understandable. Everything is changing again. And most of us fear change. We don’t know how we’ll handle it, we can’t control it and its outcome is uncertain. It feels safer to maintain the status quo. But if you want to keep up a loving relationship, do not be the martyr, emanating silent waves of passive aggression. Tell the other person how you feel.
Acting out the dramatic charade of “I’m not happy” and forcing them to guess why certainly gets their attention but is counterproductive. You can only reach compromise if you know the other’s view. Not “I don’t want this” and “You never listen” but “I feel this way because” and “Could we maybe do X?” Our freedoms are increasing, and most of us are truly grateful for those freedoms. But it’s also important to take into account other people’s sensitivities.
Make plans to socialise separately
If you are feeling wary about the world opening up again, you might prefer to venture out in a pair. This is a reflex it would be helpful to overcome. In the past year we’ve been standing nose to nose with our partner and it’s almost as if our personalities have shrunk because we’ve had so little exposure to the wider world. So especially now, it’s beneficial for each partner to begin to socialise on their own. You explore a different part of your personality. You return with more to talk about. You’ve had an experience your partner didn’t have.
It’s so beneficial for your bond that if you’re genuinely resisting socialising apart, I’d suspect an underlying lack of trust — even if it’s only the worry they’ll talk about you. Intimacy should never be stifling. You should be able to see the world with your own eyes and be able to share your view, where you are neither a separate entity nor too merged. If you know everything about someone it is boring. When some elements of their life are separate it makes them more interesting; it adds glitter and spark. We’ve all learnt that the hard way this year.
Ditch the tracksuit to revive your love life
If sex has gone off the boil and your partner is anxious about getting back to being intimate, there are several things you need to consider. Simply saying, “The kids are at school, fancy a quickie?” might not cut it. Your libido may be thawing fast but reheating your sex life can take longer.
To get it simmering again, rather than fret about recovering the mystery after a year of close proximity, consider how you can make yourselves more attractive to each other again. Part of this entails snipping nose hair and changing out of your joggers occasionally (which isn’t just about looks but a respectful attitude). But mainly it’s about engaging in touch, affection, togetherness and fostering a sense of belonging and security. For most long-term couples these are the components that lead to sex.
As we emerge from survival mode we have more mental space to attend to detail. And if we want to enjoy greater intimacy, these factors are important because they matter as much as sex to most of us, if not more so. Daily life kills romance if we stomp charmlessly through it.
Establish rules for WFH for the long haul
It may only be one or two days a week, or it might be full time, but if both partners are going to continue to work from home for the long term it’s important to discuss this. Silence never works because assumptions are made and offence is taken. It is so, so important for each person to have a working space, and for that workspace to be respected. Ideally you’d both have a permanent spot by now but if that’s not possible, you might each take, for instance, three hours at the dining room table. That’s to say, no one should have the monopoly of dining room table while the other person sits in the bedroom.
There has to be equality, regardless of whether one is the company chief executive and the other is an HR assistant. Both partners contribute, to the best of their abilities, to the household. And while one of you might well be the chief executive at work, neither of you is the chief executive of the relationship. If you demand preferential treatment, you’re telling your partner that they are inferior to you. That’s not what you want to convey. It’s also important to agree to let each other know when you can’t or don’t want to spend time together, and how to do that tactfully. It’s fine to say: “Today I’ve got to get my head down, I hope you don’t mind.”
Be kind about lockdown coping habits such as drinking
It may be that your partner was drinking heartily before the pandemic and this year gave them a valid reason to drink more. But now the situation is less fraught, the behaviour may be a source of friction in the relationship. The truth is, our coping mechanisms kick up a gear in stressful times if we are unwilling to tackle the issues that underpin them. That drinking, binge-eating or overexercising is to anaesthetise an internal pain. No wonder it’s difficult to let go of. But shaming or blaming a person who is struggling to cope will cause resentment and won’t get the result you want.
For now, encourage them into more positive habits together. You might say, “Let’s try not to drink Mondays to Fridays,” or, “Let’s eat healthily in the week.” Be kind, be understanding, to your partner and to yourself. Allow yourselves time to recover. We’ve endured a significant traumatic event, and even if we were fortunate enough to avoid the tragedies many have suffered, it’s important to appreciate the pandemic’s emotional impact, to remember that many of us still feel fragile.
Men, speak up — we are all self-aware now
I see many women in my practice, especially at the moment, who are tired of always being the one to raise an issue that needs discussing. Considering men are usually just as frustrated, it would benefit both parties if they spoke up too. Without our usual distractions we’ve all had the chance to become more aware of how we feel over the past months. Because everyone has asked themselves: “How am I going to cope with this?” Every time a new rule is announced we’ve had the opportunity to go a little deeper within ourselves.
So this is the perfect time to break out of those same tired patterns of conversations and reactions. If we unthinkingly tread the same path, very little will change. I suggest a role switch. Remember that just by initiating a conversation (because you want to improve your connection rather than expend anger and score points) you are showing your partner that you care. Use humour wisely, and when they speak, really listen and try to understand what they’re saying; don’t just watch until their mouth stops moving and react with your reflex answer. Repeat what they say, to ensure that you’ve heard it correctly.
And finally: celebrate your relationship
This was a world event that affected all of us. If you’ve come through this year with your relationship intact, appreciate what you’ve managed as a partnership and be grateful. If this doesn’t prove your strength and give you confidence as a couple, what will? Now remember what you are capable of as a pair, and look forward to facing more sunnier days — together.
As told to Anna Maxted. The Saturday Times, Saturday, April 10 2021 – How to reboot your relationship after lockdown