How to Support Your Partner Through Continually Uncertain Times
It’s no secret that 2020 has taken a toll on our collective mental health. Social distancing mandates, stay at home orders, and the cancellation of events and gatherings have caused dramatic increases in loneliness, anxiety and depression.
Balancing homeschooling with working remotely has been tough on parents, as has the extra stress of not knowing when kids will be able to return to in person learning. People have been isolated from their families and unsure of when they can safely travel for a visit. And there are many uncertainties when it comes to the future of jobs, weddings, vacations, graduations, and other life events.
Heading into 2021, there are many of these questions still left to face. You are likely feeling the effects of this, and, if you’re in a relationship, have probably noticed that your partner has as well. Here are some tips for how to be as supportive as possible through a difficult time, to ensure that your relationship, and the people in it, come out stronger on the other side.
Why you should have your partner’s back – more than ever – right now
For most people, relationships are a top source of contentment in life, according to Dr. Gail Saltz, an associate professor of psychiatry at the NY Presbyterian Hospital Weill-Cornell School of medicine and host of the Personology podcast, and stable long-term relationships are good for both mental health and physical health.
“Mutual support through difficult times is part of the glue that sustains a relationship, builds trust between partners, allows each person to be their more authentic self and feel truly loved,” she explains. “And during this particularly difficult time, having the support of your partner can make a huge difference in mood and decreasing anxiety.”
Susan Trombetti, matchmaker and CEO of Exclusive Matchmaking, adds that it’s important for a couple to support each other throughout the unknowns because it reaffirms the commitment you made. “It's easy to be there for each other in the good times,” she says, “but it's [during] the hard times that a couple needs to support each other and feel that someone is there for them.”
Adds Dr. Tony Ortega, a Brooklyn-based psychologist and author of #AreYouHereYet? How to STFU and Show Up for Yourself, cohabitating couples may very well be the other person's sole support system during the isolation of the pandemic.
“Many couples are working from home and not going into offices to interact with others as they used to; for the moment, you are all they have,” he says. Therefore it's important for both of you to vocalize what you need from the other — as well as keep an eye out for ways you can support your significant other through uncertainty.
While there is no rulebook for how to help someone cope during a global pandemic, many therapists and relationship experts have found a few tricks that have been working for their clients throughout the past year. Here are some of their tips on how to be a support system for your significant other throughout a second year of ever-changing pandemic protocols.
Check in: “Asking your partner how they are coping and what they need on a regular basis is a good way to show caring and support,” says Trombetti. It’s worked for Samantha Finegan, 29, founder of My Bold Life. “Every few weeks, we sit down with one another in a quiet space and talk about the impact 2020 has had on us,” she says. “Being able to share your thoughts and feelings with your partner is cathartic.”
Actively listen: “Put aside your own agenda and sync into what your partner is sharing,” says Sofia Robirosa, a licensed marriage and family therapist and author of The Business of Marriage. She notes that the goal of actively listening is to understand, rather than to immediately react: “Many times what gets in the way of actively listening is when the listener challenges the partner's feelings (minimizes them, denies them, compares them to his/her feelings or reality) or gives unwanted advice.” And, she adds, a lack of active listening can result in frequent misunderstandings, arguments, and unfulfilled conversations — all counterproductive to support and trust.
Reprioritize: By defining what they couldn't control, two couples decided to make big changes in areas where they did have some say-so — and they're happier for it. Andrea Jackson, 39, co-owner of Good2Go Veggies, and her husband spent the year restructuring their professional priorities; “Having a mate that shares the same dreams and goals is a true blessing,” she says. And beauty and lifestyle expert Elena Duque, 40, and her husband used the pandemic as an opportunity to rethink their New York address, she says: “We are now happily living in a small town [in Florida] and our kids are attending in-person school and flourishing!”
Forgive: “Everyone is stretched thin these days. Don't do yourself or your partner the disservice of holding a grudge in this uncertain season,” says Jacent Wamala, a licensed marriage and family therapist in Las Vegas. She stresses the importance of making time to communicate regularly about grievances and do forgive with kindness and compassion. “Many of us are not on our A game at the moment and that's okay, as long as we are doing our best.”
Practice gratitude. “A little appreciation goes a long way,” suggests Kristin Meekhof, a licensed master social worker and author of A Widow's Guide to Healing. “When you're purposely looking for things to tell your partner that you are grateful for, it means you're taking off the ‘critical spouse’ hat and seeing things through a better lens,” she adds.
Try statements like: "Thank you for taking that call from the teacher. I know you're more concise and that seems to help. It made my day easier.” Being specific, says Meekhof, will add to the sincerity of your appreciation.
Understand what type of support your partner wants/needs most: Maybe they don’t want advice, suggestions or solutions. Do they want compassion and empathy? Do they just need to vent for a few minutes? Do they need to feel like you’re on their side and backing them up?
“If you don’t know, ask,” says Amber Trueblood, a licensed marriage and family therapist and author of Stretch Marks: A Self-Development Tool for Mothers Who are Being Stretched in Every Direction. Try a question like, “What can I do best to support you right now?” As Trueblood points out, “Some individuals might need a cozy snuggle, others might need some alone time or a walk outside with the dog” — and facilitating that will prove you care.
Find the fun: You may not be able to eat at restaurant or go to a concert together right now. But try to focus on the small things that bring you pleasure every day. Anita Chlipala, a licensed marriage and author of First Comes Us: The Busy Couple's Guide to Lasting Love, says you can still find some fun by creating experiences and attempting to add spontaneity to the rut many of us are in.
“Look for the things that are at hand—that cup of coffee that you share in the morning, the cold air on your morning walk, the feel of your partner’s body as your snuggling on the couch,” she explains. “Instead of a dinner in front of the TV, take out the fancy china and light some candles.”
Create no-pressure communication: If asking for what you need feels tough, create a jar where you can put in requests both sexy and mundane. Suggests Spicy Mari, a relationship expert and matchmaker, “Once a week, you each put in the jar something spicy, like a fun activity that you want to try with your partner: ‘I want to have a champagne bubble bath.’ And then, she says, you also put in a tip that will help facilitate something you need to feel more loved: “Can you help me fold the laundry more often?” Pull one out weekly and act on it.
Never underestimate the power of touch: Trombetti says touching your partner, whether it's a kiss in the morning or a hand on their shoulder, can go a long way in providing support. “Don't ever forget that a hug can work wonders for your relationship as well as fuel your partner's sense of well-being,” she explains.
Give each other a break: Jessica Caver Lindholm, founder of To Living Free, and her husband, Luke, have found that spending some time alone has helped them both to recharge this year. “If I’m working upstairs, Luke will sometimes go downstairs and play video games or [work out]. I’ll often go and read by myself or play with the dogs. Either way, we’ve learned the value of taking care of ourselves as individuals so that we can come together and be better for our relationship,” she adds.
Do stress coping activities together: “Dealing with this level of stress requires tools to help,”says Saltz, which can include aerobic exercise, deep breathing and meditation. One great way to support your partner and yourself is by doing some of these practices together. “It shows that you want your partner to feel better and encourages both of you to help each other and make the time for support,” she explains.
Have a weekly team meeting: “Talk about simple things – meal planning, what’s coming up for the week, future plans, budget,” says San-Francisco-based, licensed marriage and family therapist Andrea Dindinger. She adds that many times, plans like gift-giving fall onto one person. “When you have a weekly discussion, it takes the pressure off of that person and also allows the other partner to be more involved.”
Do something nice for your partner: “Whether it is running an errand, planning a date night, or making a pot of coffee in the morning, allocate time to thinking about what your significant other may value and do it,” says Robirosa. “In times of stress, these gestures can register loudly.”
Remember these are extraordinary times that won't last forever: Kathryn Moore, Ph.D., psychologist at Providence Saint John's Child and Family Development Center, says to focus on the things you can still do and control, versus focusing on what you can’t.
“Let the things you can't do anymore slip away and remember that you will be able to do them someday soon,” she says. Moore also suggests finding meaningful ways to recreate rituals and special routines that allow for you still to acknowledge what life "used" to be like and will return to again.