Love isn’t the only thing in the air as we approach Valentine’s Day. The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has changed and strained many aspects of relationships.
“Financially it might be a situation where couples can’t stay in the same place like they used to, or it might be a situation where couples may have to move in together as a consequence,” says Dr. Katherine Hertlein, a Professor in the Couple and Family Therapy Program in UNLV’s School of Medicine.
“You’ve got a number of stressors that have really impacted what’s happening with couple relationships,’ Hertlein says.
Other challenging factors that can be exuberated by the pandemic include changes in roles, expectations, employment, and isolation from partners as a result of quarantining.
We spoke with Hertlein for advice on how couples can overcome any hurdles caused by the pandemic.
An ever-changing pandemic requires couples to be flexible and willing to adapt to change.
“If COVID has taught us anything it is that we have had to deal with change on an ongoing basis,” Hertlein says. “Couples who do best are couples who are flexible and couples who are supportive of one another. And flexible meaning, they have the ability to adapt.”
Being flexible may include adjusting your level of emotional support during this time for your partner, and discussing changed rules and expectations.
“Couples who are able to be more supportive to one another during this time are going to be better off,” she says.
Co-Regulation is Crucial
Co-regulation―the ability to identify and regulate emotion in each other―is especially important for couples in quarantine.
“This is going to be around improving your communication, noticing what’s happening, labeling what’s happening, and labeling it without judging it,” Hertlein says.
It’s also important for couples to identify and acknowledge grief or hardship brought on by the pandemic. Otherwise, it may cause tensions to deepen.
“If they don’t feel like that there’s space to experience that grief or to have it acknowledged, then that’s going to be an opportunity for more division in a relationship,” she says.
The pandemic can increase anxiety, but Hertlein believes it’s important to reduce stress when possible by recognizing it in yourself and each other.
“A lot of times [couples] start to interact with each other without recognizing that their body is carrying a lot of stress,” Hertlein says.
Couples can reduce anxiety by being mindful of each other and doing visual body scans for triggering factors.
“You have to do body scans and understand what your alarms are in your body that go off that let you know that you’re in a high-stress time,” Hertlein says.
Understand What’s in Control, What’s Not
The COVID-19 pandemic has created various uncontrollable situations for people including changes in employment, financial standing, and either being forced to quarantine in isolation or with a partner for extended amounts of time.
These new situations can also increase tension between partners.
“Because people have been robbed of many ways where they used to have control of their world, they sometimes take it out on their partnerships—especially in quarantine,” says Hertlein.
Hertlein instead, recommends that couples take time to identify areas of control.
“Identify the areas you have control, and create new areas where you can have control if you don’t already,” she says.
Prioritize Couple Time
While some couples may be forced to spend more time together in lockdown, others may not see each other as frequently due to COVID-protocols. Either way, Hertlein says that couple-time is important one way or the other.
“Maybe it’s about texting each other more frequently during the day, or texting each other things reminiscing about previous times in the relationship, or spending emails,” says Hertlein.
No couple is completely the same though, and other factors including kids being home more often due to virtual-learning present unique challenges. Still, it all comes down to being creative, regardless of each couples’ situation.
”You’ve really got to be creative about cultivating that relational space,” Hertlein says. “I tell people to use their technology to help them to be creative.”
Katherine M. Hertlein, Ph.D., is a professor in the Couple and Family Therapy Program in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Health at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas (UNLV) School of Medicine. Dr. Hertlein lectures nationally and internationally on couples, technology, and sexuality, and is an editor-in-chief for the Journal of Couple and Relationship Therapy. She maintains a private practice in Las Vegas.