Making sure your relationship is not only hot and fun but also healthy is a difficult emotional task on any given normal day, let alone during a pandemic. However, during a global crisis like the one that we’re all living through currently, it’s even harder to be thoughtful and conscious about how you’re treating the person you’re in a relationship with, and how they’re treating you. This is true of any kind of relationship, including friendships. Still, just because tensions and emotions are running at an all time high, that doesn’t mean it’s not important to do our best to try to be intentional about the way we’re affecting one another.
I’ve been thinking a lot about what we owe to each other, especially during a crisis like this. Mostly, I’ve been thinking about kindness and communication. Despite the fact that I have so many kind people in my life who I love and who I know love me back, I’ve still gotten into fights with loved ones during this high-stress period.
Getting into fights with, snapping at, or being in a bad place with the people we love does not mean that the love is not there. It means that we need to take a step back, take a deep breath, and figure out how to not take stress out on each other. One of my favorite therapy Instagrams recently shared a post saying, “Triggers and conflict are a normal part of healthy relationships. What matters is how they are handled, not that they don’t exist.” That couldn’t be more true than it is right now, during a global crisis when we are basically all on edge.
Sometimes my roommates talk so loudly on the phone while I’m writing that it frustrates me and makes me want to yell. Sometimes my girlfriend does something that annoys or hurts me. When I have these negative, gnawing feelings, I know I could say something to them that might perpetuate my hurt or annoyance. But I also know that I can sit with my feelings, or put headphones in and listen to music, or take a walk, and then both my frustration and theirs disappears, and there’s no need for perpetuating a cycle of stress. So that’s what I do. It’s what we could and should all attempt to do.
To dive into how to keep relationships as healthy as possible during high-stress times, I spoke with queer couples from around the the country about how they’re working on communication and boundaries right now, whether they’re physically together or not.
How couples are working on their relationships right now
I spoke with over a dozen people for this story, and the most consistent thing I heard from couples is how important setting non-negotiable boundaries is right now. For couples who are living together during this high-tension period of time, that means that alone time is a necessity. Getting outside for a walk, speaking with friends, finding a corner of your home to read in, or doing things that you enjoy and that aren’t attached to your partner are highly essential ways to protect and prioritize your own mental health and independence. If your partner asks for space, even if it might hurt you, it’s important to give it to them so they feel they have a place to recuperate from everything going on right now.
If you’re finding it difficult to communicate and set boundaries with your partner in a healthy way right now, you’re not alone. For Shea, a queer woman living in Brooklyn, who decided to stay with her partner at her apartment while everything unfolds in the outside world, learning how she and her girlfriend react to and cope with stress and anxiety has been a journey the last few weeks. “We’ve become a lot more clear about when we need time apart and aren’t taking it so personally,” Shea explains. “We’ve had a few times where we’ve picked up on the other being frustrated. I think we both have tried to ask questions to understand where the other is coming from and what their needs are. We’ve realized not every disagreement needs to be hashed out right then if it’s going to cause more issues in the long run. After snapping a few times we’ve found a balance where we take some time to gain perspective and then get back together and talk.”
Natalie, who lives with her wife Eva in the Bay Area, says that while they are always intentional about how they speak to one another, including during this global crisis, they don’t consider unloading emotions on each other to be a bad thing. “We do unload feelings on each other very regularly in what I call emotional preventative maintenance. It is important in any relationship to not let resentment fester. Right now, it’s beyond paramount. I encourage Eva to tell me if I do anything to annoy her, in a respectful and non-judgemental fashion, and I do the same for her. With regular practice, it’s easier to avoid defensiveness,” Natalie says. While this sounds like a great practice, it’s important to be able to figure out the difference between too much processing and unloading feelings on your partner and doing what Natalie calls emotional preventative maintenance, and just being open with your partner.
That’s not to say that they don’t ever fall prey to being defensive or snappy with one another. “The relationship standard I have been setting for a long time, especially with Eva, is that we will piss each other off. We will fight. We will get angry. So why don’t we build effective strategies to deal with fighting rather than simply seek avoidance? We have de-escalation tactics and phrases. We both take the time to recognize our own failings rather than harp on the failings of each other. Our history of being abused has given us a strong awareness of our states. We afford each other a lot of patience and try to prevent falling into reactionary emotional responses and mindsets.”
One of the best things you can do if you do get into a tiff with a partner, because let’s face it, we’re all human and that’s probably inevitable at some point, is to do what Amy, a queer person living in Sacramento, does: remind your partner that you’re on their team. “We have a phrase we use in our marriage when things feel tense, which is ‘I’m on your team,’” Amy says of her and her wife.
“We try to remind one another that it’s us against whatever we are facing, rather than us against one another. We often try to remind each other when we feel stressed that we are stressed about other things and before expressing frustration, say, ‘I’m frustrated, but not with you.’” This turns out to be a great way to communicate to someone that if you accidentally take out your anger or anxiety on them, the negative feelings are not towards them, even if you’ve unnecessarily directed them at them.
How to practice setting healthy boundaries and better communication, according to a therapist
“What is important is, if you are doing self care you are able to care for others, and if there is one lesson we can learn from this virus is how intricately we are all interconnected and need each other for good or bad,” says Sary Rottenberg, LMHC, a psychotherapist in New York City. If everyone right now can simply consider that we all, on some level, feel anxiety about the uncertainty of everything going on right now, and that we all, on some level, know that we or our loved ones could get sick and die, despite our best efforts, then we can understand that our pain and anxiety is not special. But it is what connects us all. And it is, at the end of the day, what makes it so important to create boundaries for ourselves and ask the people in our lives to create boundaries to take care of each other.
It’s also important to vigilantly practice self care. “During this time self care is more important than usual. If you usually have a self care routine I’m telling people, double the time, double the love, triple the love you give yourself at this time,” says Rottenberg, adding, “We need it, it helps us recalibrate, takes our minds off the buzzing of confusing and scary information that is coming at us constantly.” What might be most helpful right now, Rottenberg explains, is reparenting ourselves – otherwise explained as acknowledging that we all have a young self inside of us who is scared, confused, and in need of love, despite our external advanced age. When we act out, or take out our pain or anxiety on those we love, it’s likely because we’re not taking care of ourselves properly, or working on reparenting ourselves and being there for ourselves.
What does this self care look like exactly? Rottenberg says the main things are making sure to stick to or create exercise routines that make you feel happy and strong, in your living space or if you can get outside in fresh air while keeping serious distance (six feet or more, babes!) from anyone else, as well as some other key ways to practice self care. Another way to care for yourself in order to minimize your own anxiety as well as communication issues with others is to create routines and structures. For example, if you’ve been at the computer staring at a screen all day, consider logging off at 6 PM and doing absolutely nothing for the rest of the day. Whatever it is that you need, ask yourself, “What do I need right now?” and then listen to it.
Feeling like it’s the “end of days” might cause you to drink too much, eat foods that make your body feel bad, or partake in other coping mechanisms that actually end up hurting you, as well as the people in your life who you’re trying to communicate with. “Remember the young one we talked about earlier? Your young one needs care right now, talk to them, tell them it’s normal to feel this way and comfort them in positive ways. What is your comfort?” Last but not least, Rottenberg urges us to all take a deep breath. Taking a breath and pausing can help us figure out what boundaries we need to set for ourselves, and what we’re actually feeling and trying to communicate to others.
Traci, a bisexual woman from Houston who spoke with me about the boundaries she’s been working to set with her partner, says that the best way to be intentional about how you communicate with your partner is to be transparent about what your headspace is like at any given moment. Saying things like, “I hear you, but I can’t actually think that through right now. Can we talk about it when I have more capacity?” can help someone understand that while you don’t want to just brush an issue under the rug, you don’t feel capable of having that conversation right now without reacting in a way that might hurt one or both of you. “We both try to stick to that. Or say, ‘I want to listen to you, but right now I need to push through this deadline for work,’ which is a super common phrase coming from me especially. Sometimes it’s as simple as just continuing to acknowledge that neither of us is actively trying to be an asshole. So we start sentences with ‘I know you aren’t trying to be an asshole’ when we’re upset about something. It works most of the time,” Traci says.
Why practicing healthy communication is especially important right now
These boundaries and intentionality around the way you talk with the people in your life can help you have a more positive and effective communication style right now, and prevent wear and tear of your relationships that don’t need to be soured by crisis right now. “If you’re getting frustrated with someone you love, you might be bickering because you have been spending too much time together, or maybe you are having difficulties with your own feelings and they find their way toward a person you love,” says Rottenberg. “You might be finding fault in the one you love so that you are not feeling as dependent and vulnerable with them during this time when the idea of being sick, and depending on others might bring up mixed feelings. Apologize dear queers, these things happen!”
Ultimately, Rottenberg and all of the couples who I spoke with affirmed that the best way to handle keeping your relationships healthy and happy during a difficult time is to take a breath, look within yourself, and own your feelings. Let the people you love know what’s going on with you. Admit your humanity and move on, because we have more important things to focus on. What we actually all need from each other right now is love and kindness – and that work starts with each of us.