Getting Along with our Lover in the Age of Social Distancing

I’ve worked extensively on what I called The Strategies of Intimacy, a project that modeled successful relationships to determine what makes them work when they do, and what makes them fail when they don’t. In the course of that research, I often would politely interrupt a couple who seemed to be getting along well and ask them questions. The information was by definition anecdotal, yes, but let’s be honest: surveys always are. I was in a hotel in Seattle, having coffee one morning before heading to a client’s site when I noticed an older couple who behaved as though they were newlyweds…almost. Intrigued as I people-watched, I became very curious as to how a couple in their seventies just met and fell in love.

I smiled at them several times and once they’d smiled back, I approached them and, as politely as I could, told them why they intrigued me, told them my interest in successful relationships, and confessed that their “honeymooning” attitudes had me smiling. The joke was on me. They’d been married forty-two years! Serendipity is a funny thing, so, though I was taken aback, they apparently took pity on my utter failure in assessing their relationship. They kindly spoke with me about the things that had made them successful. The things that made them appear to be newlyweds. That conversation, as so many like it, yielded wisdom it would have taken me many lifetimes to have found on my own.

I thought about them the other day when I realized that so many of us are working from home, if we’re fortunate enough to be working at all. Being home-bound presents challenges many of us have never experienced before. A relationship with a spouse or partner that flourished with multiple “breaks” from one another throughout the day and week now may be challenged with no such breaks at all…

Haven’t you heard of a person retiring, being at home all the time, and his or her spouse threatening to kill them? There is a system they created and maintained for years, possibly decades, and now that system has been grossly disrupted. Now, “he’s always HERE, in my face!” That’s a quote from another couple I interviewed, and some of you can relate to it, having either known a couple going through it…or perhaps you yourself are living it!

So what about this so-called age of Social Distancing? We no longer run out to the store to get a breather, a moment of even the illusion of independence. We no longer have “girls’ nights out” or the male equivalent. Those things are from another era at this point! Now…we are home…and so is our partner. All. The. Time.

This is our partner, a person we count on, and who counts on us. So we don’t want to leave this to chance. Let’s talk about a few things you can do to maintain your sanity as well as your relationship, as we all get through this crazy pandemic business!

Since our attention here is quite focused–getting along with and appreciating our partner when in close quarters (as in, during a crisis)–we won’t go into every strategy I learned from all those amazing couples. And there were literally hundreds. Further, many more than I could have met in person were gracious enough to answer via questionaire, providing we students with the wisdom we need to accomplish what they have.

Also since our attention is focused here, I’m going to assume that your kids are grown or you don’t have any. Dealing with two adults working in close quarters is tough enough without adding children to the mix. We can explore that at another time. Let’s just deal with the relationship you share with your significant other right now.

I’m going to split this situation into one of two scenarios. This article will focus on you and your partner both working from home. In the next, we’ll explore when only one is doing so. For those of you who’ve tried working from home alongside your partner, you’ll understand why this differentiation matters. Working in that scenario introduces a multitude of new complexities we may never have encountered before.

Okay, so you and your partner are working from home, doing calls, etc.

And they are always there. Think about that. Granted, if this is your situation, you likely already think about it. A lot! Humans are social creatures, true, but we all need at least a little alone time. During a crisis such as this pandemic, that may be in shorter supply than working ventilators. (That joke will only be funny for about 60 days, so I reserve the right to edit it out once that time has passed.)

Work is one thing. Each of you needs a place to work where you will be uninterrupted. If you’re fortunate enough to have a separate room dedicated to this, great! That room is now your workplace, and your partner must agree to respect that. Meaning no running the vacuum or music nearby without checking in. It may be necessary to close the door, and it’s important that both of you appreciate the uniqueness of this situation. If you are both lucky enough to be working, I’d suggest focusing on that fact instead of butting heads.

Many of us won’t have that luxury and we’ll have to appropriate a room to that purpose. It may be a dining room, a living room…some place where one person’s conference calls won’t interfere with those of the other. In such a situation, the separation is even harder. So it becomes more crucial that we respect one another’s work. If your partner is in the dining room on a business call, it’s important that you not trudge through, speaking on your cell phone, then pop into the kitchen and start the microwave oven–resulting in annoying beeps and other sounds that could make your partner appear less than professional. Respect is very important here.

Another note is that if you have a “home office” you can use for this purpose, it’s relatively easy to put the work away after the work day is done. Not quite as simple when you were using the kitchen or the den. Now that workspace shares duties with family meals or entertainment. Respect for one another is just as important, but you also much learn to respect the differentiation of those roles. Once work is over. it’s vital that you allow that room’s typical purpose to reclaim the space. Otherwise, you may begin to feel that much of your home has become a work area, and your desire to retreat after work and recreate may suffer. We all need recreation every bit as much as we need work itself.

Further, when work is “over” for the day, you are uniquely positioned to benefit. No commute back home, no traffic, what’s not to love? Simple–that person has been around you all day and…here they still are! Time to consider it from another perspective.

And before we do that, let’s play a quick game that takes seconds–and as you begin using it, you will reap massive rewards. The game is simple: you look at a present situation and you consider: What will the outcome be if nothing else changes, in one year? In five years? In TEN years? Do you see the point?

Let’s say I’ve been stuck in a small home office (or a make-shift one) and am at wit’s end. I just want to scream in frustration, and my partner, who’s had a great work day, is even wondering whether after this pandemic business has passed, whether they can continue to work from home because this is so great, pops in and say, “Hi, Hon!”

I may want to vent my frustrations. But if I do, how will that make her feel? What will be the immediate impact on the woman I love, with whom I’m sharing my life? Then, if I don’t change that behavior, and I keep doing it, what will the outcome likely be in a year? What would the cumulative effect on her be if I kept snapping at her, hurting her, in five years? Assuming she stays that long, anyway. That little game, which once you’ve taught your mind to do it, can happen in mere seconds (your brain is much faster than you think), and might you wind up choosing a different course of action when you did such an exercise? I’d hope so. That game is just a “fast-forward” if you will. In NLP, we call it a “timeline” and some brilliant innovators have developed a number of different techniques to use with such timelines. Use this game, notice the benefits before taking an action and it will save you from impulsiveness and rash decisions. Such as saying things you will later regret. And perhaps have a lifetime of consequences.

So the work day ends. After perhaps a few rough starts, you’ve learned to respect one another’s work space. You’ve learned that you can in fact work in the same place and not go crazy. Good start.

But now what?

The work day has ended. Now all the post-work tasks are ready for you. Who starts dinner? Who clears away all signs from the common living ares of any evidence of work? That part is not to be overlooked, by the way, as anyone who telecommutes can verify. See a reminder that you could get a jump-start on that project that really doesn’t need to begin until tomorrow, and you may be tempted to do just that. You as an individual need down-time. But as the focus here is on your intimate relationship, your relationship really needs some down-time as well. Time together for recreating. If you’ve managed your work days well, it shouldn’t feel as though you’ve been around one another all the time. So this should feel much as it does when you each return home after the work day is complete. Conversation, flirting, sharing, whatever is your norm–this is the time. Maybe you make dinner together, maybe you divide the tasks. But you go through what works for you and you have some more down-time. Do you watch TV? A movie? Do you take some alone time to pursue a hobby? Maybe he builds model ships or is studying a nascent technology that will likely be relevant at work soon enough. Maybe she’s working on a genealogy, a photography hobby that may one day be a side business, or writing a book. Whatever that is, clear communication is vital. Each must understand what the other is doing and why it matters to them. Preventing misunderstandings and hurt feelings is always relevant, but more so in a time of crisis. The stress can make monsters of us all unless we guard against that. Or direct that energy more positively…

Do we make love? Talk in bed? Whatever it is that feels right for us–do that. And here’s a big one. Ask yourself often: “What do I love about this amazing person beside me?” Remember that questions direct our minds. So asking a high-quality question will lead us in a direction we wish to go. Consider where your own mind goes when you ask yourself the following questions:

  1. What is really great about my partner?
  2. What does my partner do that makes me smile every time?
  3. What makes that person the greatest person for me in the whole world?
  4. What makes me want to kiss that person every moment? A laugh? A smile? They way they speak to me?

Versus, notice how the following questions direct your mind in a very different direction:

  1. What does my partner need to improve?
  2. What is wrong with my partner?
  3. Why doesn’t my partner listen?
  4. What makes me wish my partner would just go away so I could find someone better?

Do you notice the different direction your emotions take you when you seriously consider those different classes of questions?

Not that each doesn’t have a place. If you want to fall out of love with your partner, that second group is a great place to begin.

For the rest of us, we have a head start toward dealing with a complicated situation and growing closer to our partner.

(To be continued, as there is much more to do!)

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