Love in the Time of Coronavirus: How to Stay Home Without Ruining Your Relationship

As the COVID-19 virus requires most Americans to hunker down at home, even the hottest relationships are under pressure. Being confined in close quarters means couples have to develop new ways to work, parent and love. Here’s advice from some business and relationship experts about how to set your household (and your love life) up for success.

Matthew Fenton of Chicago is the founder and president of Three Deuce Branding and has been working from home for over 20 years. A self-described “animal” for productivity, he has developed a series of practices that have made his business a success and his work life fulfilling. But those practices are being challenged now that his wife is at home. The Fentons vacationed in Scotland, and upon their return last week, Kara, an occupational therapist, was asked by her employer to self isolate for two weeks. Now Fenton shares his workspace, their two-bedroom West Loop condo, 24/7 with a partner who suddenly has no work of her own. “We are learning some new rules,” he says. “I enjoy my wife’s company and the biggest temptation is fighting the desire to treat this like vacation. We have to have the discipline to say, okay we’re in the same space but we can’t hang out.”

The Fentons are navigating their change in circumstances by discussing what needs to be done for work, home and togetherness and developing a plan for the day ahead of time. “Have a schedule, share that schedule, and as needed work on the schedule together,” advises the consultant, who admits it might be more challenging for those who are parents. “In many ways we’re lucky that we don’t have children—and God bless the people who are navigating that situation right now.”

Rachel Moore of Evanston, Illinois, is one of those people. Moore and her husband Fred, both attorneys, have two daughters aged four and one-and-a-half. Moore is a divorce attorney and mediator and, unless she’s with clients, often works from home. “I love working from home normally,” she says. But normally the girls and her husband are gone during the day. “Now my husband is camped out in my home office and my kids are here,” she says as her daughter screams for strawberries in the background. “It’s much harder to work. With kids this age, we have to meet their needs minute to minute.” But, sharing responsibilities has given the Moores new appreciation for each other. “I see that my husband works really hard at his job and he sees how hard it is to be with the kids. We both appreciate that the other person is helping and we both enjoy being alone together at night,” says Moore.

As a mediator, Moore is used to working with couples in conflict. Does she have any advice for spouses in these challenging times? “Pray and drink,” she jokes. On a serious note, “I would caution people, just because you hate your spouse right this minute does not mean you need to get divorced,” she says. “Everyone is stressed. So often people in some other crisis will contact me about divorce and I caution them about making two big decisions at the same time.” Moore’s line of work might be just the thing for couples who need help trying to navigate this new situation. “You can mediate any conflict or decision making,” she says. A neutral party can help partners negotiate the roles and responsibilities of their new living circumstances and, bonus, it can all be done through videoconference or telephone.

In the San Francisco Bay area, Licensed Clinical Social Worker Mary Ellen Lemieux isn’t having a problem working from home with her husband, because he’s currently staying put after a trip to Colorado. Her two large dogs are driving her nuts though. As a family therapist, she shares some practical advice for couples and families as they shelter in place.

For starters, says Lemieux, “lower expectations about productivity for everybody, including the kids.” Lemieux thinks establishing a loose schedule with time for academics, work, meals and exercise is beneficial, noting that everybody, including teenagers, will benefit from the structure. Another tool for parents is to have control of when the internet is on—and off—so kids aren’t scrolling on their phones all night long.

She recommends couples establish separate work areas so each person has their own space, avoiding high traffic spots like the kitchen island. And for parents, teamwork is a must, “Stagger who’s going to be working when, if you can,” says Lemieux. “If your partner has an important conference, call will you be available to take the kids outdoors or engage with them?” The focus should be: how can we make this work for both of us?

Do your best to be understanding. “Try to have empathy for your partner,” says Lemieux. “People respond to stress in different ways. Some people try to control everything as a way to try to manage their anxiety. For partners who are worried about losing their job or their business falling off, try to understand where the irritation or inflexibility is coming from.” Finally, she says, it’s OK to take time to yourself. “Don’t feel like you need to do everything together. But remember that this is temporary and try to focus on the things that you do like to do together.”

Certified Parent Coach Beth Miller of Wilmette, Illinois, agrees that setting a schedule together helps a family structure a productive day, manages everybody’s expectations and gives kids ownership over the plan. However, don’t forget time for your relationship. “As you create this schedule, be sure to consider what works for mom and dad,” she says. Prioritizing your relationship isn’t selfish, it’s good parenting. “Modeling intimacy is truly a gift you give your children,” says Miller. “So many parents feel uncomfortable with the idea that their children know or understand they have an intimate relationship.  Yet your relationship gives you an opportunity to model many things for your children: commitment, effective communication, physical and verbal affection, and healthy intimacy.”

This may include cuddling or kissing on the couch in front of the kids, lighting some candles and dancing in living room, or closing (and locking) the bedroom door. But desiring time alone with your partner shouldn’t be a secret. “Honor your need for time with your partner. Be intentional about this need and desire. State your intention together. Say it out loud. It is helpful for your kids to see you taking care of your relationship,” advises Miller.

Marjie KilleenMarjie Killeen is a Chicago-based freelance writer and speaker specializing in professional communication, personal relationships, and healthy aging. After a career in marketing, she began writing in her 40s, launching Better’s original relationship column, Sex & the Suburbs. Marjie has discovered that every stage of life brings new surprises and delights. Whether it’s a new home, a new outfit, or a new calling, writing is a wonderful way to explore it all. She supports the Greater Chicago Food Depositoryand is a proud member of Impact Grants Chicago and the Human Rights Campaign. Follow her on Instagram.

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