Jenna LaFreniere explains how couples can avoid miscommunication during the pandemic.
With people across the country continuing to live through stay-at-home orders during the coronavirus outbreak, they likely are spending more time with people close to them than they are used to.
For some, this new normal means spending more time in close quarters with their significant other while they both try to adjust to working from home, avoiding boredom and staying safe. This closeness might not be something either person is used to, which can lead to communication issues.
Jenna LaFreniere, an assistant professor in the College of Media & Communication at Texas Tech University, said to avoid these issues, couples need to be aware of heightened emotions and how they are expressing their feelings. She offers suggestions for how people can do this and help the relationship stays happy and healthy.
With couples spending more time at home together during the pandemic, what are some
issues that may arise in terms of communication?
Since most couples typically don't both work from home, it's important to remember that everyone's "normal" is being disrupted right now. We aren't used to seeing each other all day, every day. This could lead to a handful of communication issues when dealing with potential feelings of being smothered, dealing with boredom or not having sufficient space or privacy zones.
Couples need to be particularly aware of heightened emotions and the potential for communication troubles right now so they can work to be intentional regarding their own communication and their communication with one another. Having awareness of your own emotions is key.
A growing number of parents have become homeschool teachers overnight, in addition to taking care of their own jobs and household responsibilities. This likely is draining and creates the potential for increased frustration and decreased patience. This is an easy recipe for conflict. Because there is physically less room for "alone space" with offices and schoolwork moved home, parents should be mindful of carving out a space, even if temporary, where each person can take those few precious minutes to be alone and cool off. Taking time to breathe and collect yourself can help when you feel emotionally flooded. Parents should leave time for themselves individually, as well as time to focus on themselves as a couple. You cannot be a good relational partner if you are not in a good place yourself.
How can couples ensure they are communicating effectively during this time?
Let your partner know it's OK that this is a time of uncertainty and discuss future events, outings, trips, etc. Thinking about the future after isolation will give couples something to look forward to, rather than simply ruminating on what they're missing out on right now. Although you shouldn't book tickets, collaborating on ideas might remind you there will be a day when we aren't isolated in our homes.
Use what we call "prosocial maintenance behaviors." Be positive and enjoyable to talk with or be around; do not mope, complain or constantly sound depressed. Talk routinely and openly. Be honest about your feelings rather than suppressing your emotions or pretending they aren't there. Your feelings are valid, and a good partner should be supportive of discussing your emotions. For couples who are apart during this time, remind your partner that you are still committed, even if you aren't able to see him/her for a while. Our minds often play tricks on us and loneliness can really tear away at some people. Remember that your partner's mind could be left to wander during this strange season of loneliness and separation if there is not routine communication, so do what you can to affirm your feelings for them. Go out of your way when you're apart to remind them you care about them and look forward to the future. Researchers have found all of these maintenance behaviors can increase relational satisfaction.
Encourage each other and find things you can do together or "together-apart." For instance, if you aren't able to see each other, start a movie at the same time from your respective homes, then connect afterward over a call or FaceTime to play the role of movie critics.
If you're together, create some routine during a time when nothing feels predictable. Maybe this is getting curbside dinner delivery on Fridays to celebrate the end of the workweek, playing a board game every weekend or walking the dog each night when you're both done with work. This will set a rhythm and add some stability, as well as things to look forward to.
You need to be honest with each other. If you are worried, tell them. If you are annoyed, tell them. But do so respectfully, and ask them how they are doing so it is not one-sided.
What tips do you have for couples to maintain effective communication while apart
during this time?
If you're apart, still respect each other's space – don't call during the day unless you know they are available to talk. Don't assume that because he or she is working from home they are available to have their work day interrupted or that they should be immediately available to answer your texts or messages.
Have grace and patience with each other, whether you're in the same space or isolated apart. Remind yourself that people react differently to tense or uncomfortable situations, some with stress or anxiety, others with anger or fear. Tell your partner you are there for them and you are a safe space to discuss those feelings, while also being sure not to feed into their negative emotions. In other words, don't continually send them news articles if they are already dealing with worry or anxiety about the pandemic.
Little things can go a long way in reminding the other person you care. Find fun ways to send surprises. Write a love letter and mail it to them. Leave a surprise at their doorstep – their favorite candy, a picture you drew or something else that might have special value and show you're thinking about them.
Make time to connect every day, especially if you're apart and not seeing each other. Schedule time for a phone date and put away all distractions so you can focus on each other.
What advice would you give to couples who are both working from home?
Discuss rules for working from home and do this as soon as possible (rather than after you're each annoyed). These rules might include closing the door when on a call, not washing dishes or using the noisy blender during the lunch hour if one is working from the kitchen and respecting your volume (whether this is your music, the television or your Zoom calls) during work hours, especially if they are different hours from each other.
Give each other space. Absence makes the heart grow fonder, even when you're a room apart. Give your spouse room to miss you. Don't work from the same room or invade each other's space often.
Spread some cheer via text or an encouraging email to your new at-home co-worker. Leave Post-it notes around the house for your spouse that they can find when they "go to work the next day," whether that's in the kitchen or in the living room or at their workspace.
If you have kids, split your parenting/teaching responsibilities so one parent is not over-burdened. It could be helpful to discuss each of your upcoming work schedules at the beginning of the week so each parent can be "on duty" as needed if the other parent is on a call or online meeting. Setting those expectations early can help prevent frustration later.
How can couples make the most out of this time together?
Have a date night! Do a picnic out on the porch or agree to dress up and order in a fancy dinner with candles. This is a time to be romantic and communicate affection, which everyone could likely use an extra dose of during such a stressful time. You can do this online, too, with FaceTime or Zoom. Order in their favorite food to show you're prioritizing them and wanting to put a smile on their face.
Get moving together, even it's just mentally. Go on a walk at the end of each work day to get out of the house (your dog will love you for it, too). Do a puzzle or board game; don't just get lost in binge watching TV shows together. That likely will get old quickly. Spruce up your yard on the weekends or do a deep clean of your house and mark a space to donate things once you're able to leave the house again.
Use this time to talk about things other than work or the coronavirus. Learn more about each other and ask heartfelt questions.
Is there anything else you would like to add?
Write letters for friends or those away from you. Who doesn't love a thoughtful, hand-written note in their mailbox?
Take advantage of supporting a local restaurant and tell your friends, your parents or your significant other not to make dinner one night. Then surprise them with a dinner delivery to their house. You don't have to break the bank doing this for them, either. It's the thought that counts. There are a lot of places that can deliver something smaller such as cookies or ice cream, too.