Even the best relationships have been challenged by quarantine. PEOPLE asked therapists too explain how to keep your partnership on track despite the constant close quarters.

By Sara Gaynes Levy
October 07, 2020 11:10 AM
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Ask a Doctor is PEOPLE’s series getting you the answers to the medical, health and personal questions that you always wanted to know but weren’t sure who to ask.

When the coronavirus pandemic began six months ago, many couples welcomed the chance to spend more time together— after years of hectic commuting schedules and long hours, we were finally all under one roof! Bring on the cozy family meals and reconnection over jigsaw puzzles!

But half a year later, that together time might have started to feel a bit, uh, smothering. It’s understandable: your romantic partner is no longer just your significant other, but a roommate, coworker, friend, and potentially the only adult you’ve seen on a regular basis in months. It’s natural to get a little stir-crazy, (and, OK, maybe even a teeny bit resentful) when you’re spending so much time with one person, even a person you love. So PEOPLE asked therapists specializing in relationships how you can keep your partnership going strong during quarantine— and whatever 2020 throws at us next. 

I love my partner, but I find myself getting annoyed with them over the littlest things because we’re together so much. Is there any way I can get them to stop driving me crazy?

“No matter how close couples are, they still need alone time,” says Karen Waldman, PhD, a Houston-based psychologist specializing in relationships. Rather than waiting until you feel annoyed with them, proactively carve out space apart each and every day, whether that’s taking a solo walk or FaceTiming with your brother in a room with the door closed.

The important thing is framing your time apart as something that will benefit you, not something you’re doing because you’re sick of the other person. “You really want to be caring and sensitive in terms of expressing the emotional space you need— what will make you feel good, rather than a rejection of them,” says Jane Greer, PhD, a New York-based marriage and family therapist and author of What About Me? Stop Selfishness From Ruining Your Relationship.

Try saying something like “I love you, but I feel a lot of pressure in the mornings, so that is a time I need some breathing room. And then after work, I’ll be much more able to relax and watch TV with you.”

We’re sharing a small space, and it feels like my partner is always in my way. How can we negotiate our territory better?

First, figure out your needs independently, both time-wise and space-wise. How many hours a day do you need to work? Where do you like to do that work? Where do you like to unwind? Then, compare those schedules, says Dr. Greer.

“If one person wants to be working in the kitchen, and one person wants to be in there to make dinner at the same time, that’s a conflict of interest. It’s really essential to talk that out,” she says. “Ask them ‘how do we work it out so we both have that time [in the kitchen]?’ Acknowledge your partner’s needs, and consider them in your own agenda.”

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Being around my partner 24/7, we feel more like roommates than significant others these days—especially because our usual date nights are off the table. How can I improve our time together?

“People think that just because you are together, it counts for spending time together, but it doesn’t!” says Dr. Greer. Both experts agree that a little physical intimacy— a kiss, or a long hug— goes a long way, and it can easily fit into even the craziest day (or occur even at peak annoyance levels with your partner).

Another good trick: think about what date night used to be, says Dr. Greer. That is to say, not the actual act of going to a movie or eating in a restaurant, but instead what it symbolized for your relationship.

“Date night is about putting your best self forward and letting your partner know how much you desire them,” she says. “Making sure they know they’re loved and cared about is all it takes. Those compliments are powerful— they can really help sustain the other person.”

And even if your “date night” just turns into watching Netflix on the couch (again), you can still find a way to make it special— maybe by setting up your kids with snacks and a different movie so you can watch something more adult, or sending each other flirty texts while you sit next to one another. “Focus on things that remind you of when you were dating,” suggests Dr. Waldman. “You have to put the relationship first.”

I feel like my partner isn’t appreciating how much more I have to do around the house now that we’re home so much. How can I make them realize this is really hard for me?

Again, it all comes back to communication. Tell them how you’re feeling, making sure to focus on how you’re affected rather than what you think they’re doing wrong. (For example: “I’ve taken on a lot of extra childcare, and I’m feeling very burnt out by that,” is likely to lead to a more productive conversation than “You don’t appreciate how much I do for the kids!”)

You can also foster what experts call an “attitude of gratitude” by leading the way: try thanking your partner for the things they do for you—including things they’ve always done, or do every day, like unloading the dishwasher—that may encourage them to recognize your efforts, too.

It’s also important to take a moment to appreciate yourself for all you’re doing. “Have self-compassion,” says Dr. Waldman. “Validate any changes or losses you’ve had. This is an unwanted new normal for everyone.”