Couples & COVID: Plus 5 Steps to Handle Relationship Stress

2020 has had a tumultuous start. With threats of quarantine looming, what happens when couples have extended time together under stress? How can couples manage the newfound time and conflict? Besides the financial, career and logistics changes, this time will prove to be a crucible for relationships, a severe test that can bring focus and change.

Starting with the facts, we’re being asked to stay isolated in our homes, to keep a safe social distance. Social distancing is the remedy, but when you’re confined to the same home 24/7, how do couples handle the stress? The anxiety? As a marriage counselor in MN with over 15 years of experience, I have helped hundreds of couples answer these questions that may help you thrive in this crucible. Here’s my guidance for couples:



slowdown sign

We can jump to conclusions and overreact (ex. panic buying) when we get caught up in anxiety, stress, anger, etc. Almost always, when we slow down, we’re able to see the reality of the situation with more clarity.
SLOW DOWN. Take a minute to realize that the marital issue you’re feeling swept up in probably does not actually demand an answer right then. So simply take a pause, a deep breath. When we focus on our breathing, we come back into the present moment, and we can reset our focus. Remember, you and your partner are on the same team.



woman meditating after argument

Take a page out of the idea of social distancing, and consider distancing your aggression during a conflict. Couples often misuse their timeouts or breaks from each other by taking the time to build their side of the argument. If your goal is to win, then have at it, come up with every piece of ammunition you can. BUT, if your goal is a better relationship, then your job is to RELAX (self-soothe with some breathing, meditation, a walk, etc) and to come back to the conversation with a desire to UNDERSTAND your partner. What are their important points and feelings? Hopefully if you’ve both read this, you’ll both come back wanting to understand.

Here’s how to best take a break:


First, perhaps you need a code word, one you agree on prior to a conflict. A code word should initiate an automatic pause in the discussion.
Second, agree on a set amount of time for pause (ex. 15 or 30 minutes). Not too much time, just enough to do the next steps.
Third, self-soothe during that time by taking a walk, doing a short guided meditation (there are hundreds of apps – i.e. Calm or Headspace) or deep breathing.
Fourth, focus on your partner. What are you not understanding about why they are upset? Remember you are on the same side.
Now you’re set to go back and try again!’



husband treating wife

Seems simple when you say it, right? But this can be difficult if we have a history of unresolved issues, resentment and possibly contempt for our partner. If our interactions become habitually negative, then our feeling of disconnection will only continue to grow. A fight over how to load the dishwasher is not the core of the issue, it’s likely 8 other things than happened before.
So where do you begin? It starts with small decisions to be nice to your partner. Leave a post-it on their mirror with a positive message. Make their favorite meal. Buy that thing they’ve been putting off. Then rinse, wash, repeat. Start a snowball effect down the other side of the mountain by building habits of positivity.


BONUS – Use this time for discovery, and go online to take the 5 Love Languages quiz. If you know what THEIR love language is and start speaking that language, you might connect more easily and on a whole new level.




clarifying sphere

If you find yourself confused about your partner’s perspective, or if you’re assuming the worst, check in with them. Clarify what they’re talking about and feeling. Repeat back what they’re telling you by saying, “What I’m hearing you say is ____________.” Then LISTEN to what they say and trust they’re being honest with you. We sometimes assume we know what they mean and tune out. Don’t do that. Keep asking questions until you can honestly say, “I understand why you feel that way.”



headphones on man


Turn off your phone (or put it on silent and put it face down), turn off the news and spend some quality time together (one of the 5 Love Languages, by the way).

It doesn’t matter what specifically you do as long as you show interest in your partner. Start small if you need to. Remember, there’s a difference between time together and quality time together. The point is to let each other know they are your highest priority. That alone will make them feel special and start to mend your connection.



When it comes to relationships, it’s not too late; it never really is. It’s a matter of whether you are willing to do something different, or at least to be conscious and intentional about doing things that will bring you closer rather than drive you further apart.

Few of us are naturally able to do this while under stress, so if you are not getting the results you want, it’s OK to ask for help. Everyone can benefit from therapy (including therapists). Even right now, being stuck in your home, therapists such as myself are ahead of the game by offering telehealth or video therapy (yes, even for couples). And it’s just as effective as in-person.

We’re all in this together. We’re always all in it together, especially you and your partner. You’re on the same team. ‘WE’ is always greater than “ME.’

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