Valentine’s Day is nearly here—a day when many couples set aside time in their busy schedules to be together. Except this year, during the COVID-19 pandemic, those busy schedules have, in large part, vanished. And we’ve been together with our partners every single day.
The result in many homes, says Dr. Laurie Watson, a local certified sex therapist, psychotherapist and owner of the Awakenings Center, is frazzled partners who are exhausted from the stress of the pandemic as they attempt to juggle work and child care.
In fact, Watson’s own business has been so busy during COVID as couples seek help that she’s added new locations in the Durham and Chapel Hill area and Boone. A Charlotte location also will open later this year. She also has offices in Raleigh and Greensboro. And her podcast, FOREPLAY Radio – Couples & Sex Therapy is a top-rated podcast on iTunes.
“There is a lot of stress,” said Watson, who also is the mom of three adult sons. “In some ways, it’s really causing people to examine the relationships that they’ve got because it’s in their face. They have to look at their relationships, and that’s kind of for the good and for the better and for the worse.”
In relationships, we need closeness and connection, Watson said. But we also need some independence and opportunities to do our own thing. And, in each relationship, there’s typically one person, most often women in heterosexual relationships, who needs more connection, she said. They’re considered the “pursuer.” And the other half, usually the man in those same relationships, needs more independence, They’re called the “withdrawer.”
“Often, in our primary relationship, we get focused on one aspect or the other,” Watson said. “We’re really centered on connection and closeness and feeling safe. Or we’re focused on doing our own thing—having space, having breathing room. And right now, we don’t have so much breathing room for any of us. This is an additional stressor on every single relationship. Good relationships are able to stand this. But the ones that kind of already had some cracks in them, this pandemic is feeling suffocating because they just can’t get away from the problems. They can’t even get any of that breathing room that’s natural.”
Understanding your own needs in a relationship is vital to keeping it healthy, Watson said. Depending on who you are in the relationship, here are healthy ways to approach common conflicts.
Partners can shut down when the pursuer in a relationship keeps seeking out connection and closeness. And that can anger the pursuer, which only causes their partner to shut down even more as they attempt to reduce conflict.
Watson advises pursuers to start conversations softly. “Let me begin my conversations knowing that confrontations are difficult for you,” she said. “Let me even say that out loud to you. I know it’s really tough when I come on strong, but I feel like we need to rebalance this, and I feel like I’m going to need your help here.”
So, if you need some help with the kids on Thursday evenings when you go for a walk with neighbors, put your needs, simply stated, on the table in a calm, gentle way, Watson recommends.
It’s natural for pursuers to get angry when their partner doesn’t respond in the ways they need. “I understand why people resort to that, but it’s an ineffective strategy,” Watson said. It just makes your partner defensive.
Take no for an answer
Sometimes your partner can’t deliver absolutely everything you need, Watson said. In those cases, it’s time to get creative so the needs of the family are met.
Maybe your preference would be for the family to have dinner together, but the kids are hungry at 5 p.m. and your husband can’t get home until 7 p.m. So, said Watson, feed the kids at 5 p.m. and start getting them ready for bed. That family time shifts to 7 p.m. as you tuck the kids in together. And then you enjoy an adult dinner time.
“If we have honesty from our partner, we can be flexible for the needs that are truly there,” Watson said.
Let them go
Withdrawing partners need some space and downtime to recharge, but that can leave their significant other hurt and enraged.
“We have got to respect that people have needs other than us,” Watson said. “That we actually need a balance of friendships and hobbies and interests. That makes us more interesting people.”
Under promise and over deliver
It might not feel entirely natural, but you’ll need to take some initiative to nurture your partner, Watson said, and bring up some conflict.
“This is their hardest thing,” she said. “What they will do is they will overpromise and under deliver.”
So if their partner tells them that they could really use their help with the kids on Thursday evenings, they’ll promise to wrap up work at 6:30 p.m. every Thursday. They might know they won’t be able to deliver on the promise, but, in the moment, they will have delayed a fight.
Instead, Watson said, they need to under promise and over deliver. “It’s way better to tell your partner, ‘I’m going to get home from work every day at 7 o’clock,’ and you walk through the door at 6:45 and you’re a hero,” Watson said. “Just set that time out a little bit further and then always be reliable. That’s what the withdrawing partner can do is learn to be reliable.”
Speak up about your needs
You likely need some time on your own — whether it’s a run through the neighborhood, meeting up for coffee with a friend or just focusing on work that needs to get done around the house.
Speak up, Watson said, and own those needs. If your significant other craves more connection after you’ve spent a full day together as a family, and you just want to organize your home office, let them know. And set a time with your partner for the next day or later in the week when you can spend some one-on-one time.
It’s not that the withdrawing partner doesn’t care about their partners needs, Watson said. It’s just that they are trying to balance their own needs too. And now it’s their turn to do what they want on their own, so they can be ready to devote time to their significant other later on.
As we move into the second year of the pandemic, Watson said it’s critical that both partners work to set aside time for personal connection. Find a time when the kids are occupied or asleep, and resist the desire to multi-talk, Watson said.
These days, a traditional date night, with dinner and a movie, may be tricky. Watson recommends looking for creative ways to be together.
For couples with kids who can be home on their own for an hour or so, pick up food from a restaurant and eat it together in your car. If you need to be closer to home, set up a date night in your driveway. “Tell the kids, only come to get us if there’s blood,” she said. “And you go away and have some sense of the children can’t hear us.”
Create little rituals that draw you closer to your partner. Watson and her husband have coffee and take their vitamins together every morning. In her relationship, her husband is the withdrawing partner, so she has encouraged him talk for 10 minutes, uninterrupted, each morning. “In the beginning, it was really hard for him,” said Watson, who encouraged him by telling him that she didn’t care what he talked about. “It’s been such an interesting conversation. He’s made himself really stretch in terms of things to think up and discuss.”
Fall back on schedules to create routines that you look forward too, Watson said. It doesn’t have to be fancy. She and her husband, for example, pick up coffee every Saturday morning.
“It’s regularity that’s more important than elaborate kinds of planning,” she said.
Set aside time for intimacy. (And put a lock on that bedroom door if you have kids.)
“We have so many stressors,” she said. “If you don’t plan for sex, especially with small children, it’s not going to happen.”
And celebrate Valentine’s Day this year, Watson recommends. Make cookies as a family, write notes and cards, send funny texts, plan a special meal.
“Any opportunity we have to celebrate right now, we have to take advantage of it,” she said. “It’s a good thing to break up the monotony of what’s happening on a day-to-day basis.”
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