6 Ways To Keep Your Relationship Strong As One Person Goes Back To Work

Contributing Sex & Relationships Editor By Kelly Gonsalves
Contributing Sex & Relationships Editor
Kelly Gonsalves is a sex educator, relationship coach, and journalist. She received her journalism degree from Northwestern University, and her writings on sex, relationships, identity, and wellness have appeared at The Cut, Vice, Teen Vogue, Cosmopolitan, and elsewhere.
Young Couple Resting On The Couch

Just as many of us were finally starting to adjust to our new reality, change is upon us again. As some states and cities begin easing their lockdown measures, some people who've been isolating at home for the last few months are beginning to return to work—despite the fact that the risks of catching and spreading the coronavirus are still high in many places. For some couples, this will pose a particularly unique challenge: What do you do when one person is starting to come and go from the outside world daily while the other is remaining home?

In addition to increasing the household's risk of infection, these couples will be transitioning from the bizarre experience of being together 24/7 to another bizarre experience: One person now faces the daily risks of returning to work, while the other stays home safe but with the now-magnified loneliness of being in quarantine while their partner gets to reenter the world.

COVID-19 has already proved to be a huge challenge for couples being forced to spend a lot more time together, alongside increased financial stress and child care responsibilities. Here's how couples can manage the inevitable turbulence from this next phase of change:

1. Have a conversation about this new transition.

Once it's confirmed that one of you is returning to work outside the home, it's important to sit down and have an open conversation about this so you can directly address the complex emotions that may come up.

"Changes to your day-to-day routines can bring up many different challenging feelings, such as confusion, anxiety, anger, frustration, grief, surprise, and fear," sex and relationships therapist Shadeen Francis, LMFT, tells mbg. "Any of these feelings can be present as members return to work after being sheltered or quarantined. It may be challenging for folks to hold these feelings on their own, and that can be amplified if their partners are not able to empathize."

Make some space to just talk and listen to each other, Francis recommends. What are you worried about? What is making you sad or angry or frustrated about this transition? What are you looking forward to?

"Couples do not need to feel the same way about their circumstances, but it will be extra important for partners to be listening nonjudgmentally and allowing one another to express how they are feeling," Francis adds. "If you have the bandwidth to do more than listen, check in on what support they might need. And don't forget to ask for help when you need it."


2. Agree on safety precautions.

The behavior of the person returning to work directly affects how much risk the person staying at home will experience. This creates an unbalanced dynamic, and the person who's leaving the house should recognize that they're responsible for the safety of more than just themselves during this time.

"I recommend, if you're going back to work, you take all necessary precautions while at work, including wearing a mask, maintaining 6-foot distance if possible, frequent hand-washing, and more," board-certified physician Bindiya Gandhi, M.D., tells mbg. "If you are interacting with many people, then take a change of clothes to switch into before you get into your car [to come home]."

Alternatively, Gandhi says you can remove all your clothes in the garage or entryway of your home, keep them separately to be washed immediately, and take a shower before interacting with your partner and other household members.

"The chances of people getting it vastly increases if one person is at home while one works," Gandhi explains, but she notes: "As long as everyone involved is following the necessary protocols, then you should be OK. It's hard to gauge who will get the virus and not, but maintaining a healthy lifestyle and immune system and taking all necessary precautions should hopefully keep the virus away."

3. Be compassionate when discussing disagreements about risk.

"Everyone has their own needs and beliefs about safety. How safe we feel is an accumulation of many things, including our past experiences, the identities we hold, our personalities, and what we were taught," Francis explains.

You and your partner may not agree about what actions are necessary to maintain safety, and that's OK. What matters is that you can be sensitive to each other's fears and needs and discuss them compassionately, rather than judgmentally.

"If your partner has concerns, please remember that these are not judgments of you but an expression of their fears; they want you both to be safe," says Francis. "Conversely, if your partner is doing something that seems unsafe or unwise, remember that we all have different aversions to risk, and something that is scary for you might not be as fear-inducing for them."

Communicate about what exactly your fears are and what behaviors make you feel unsafe. If you have differing levels of aversion to risk, prioritize trying to make everyone feel safe and comfortable in addition to following the current COVID-19 guidelines recommended by health professionals. Remember: Psychological immunity is just as important as physical immunity when it comes to protecting your health. Likewise, vigilance is healthy, but hypervigilance can exhaust. See how you can find the balance.

"Also remember that if you are asking for a change in routine behaviors, it may not be second-nature, so be patient," Francis adds. "Set yourselves up for success with lots of supports and reminders, for example, a note on the door to remind yourselves to wash your hands."

4. Avoid comparisons.

The person who's staying home may feel tempted to compare how much risk each person is inviting into their shared lives. As your partner begins to come and go from outside the home daily, you might feel like you "deserve" to be able to go out more often too—to see your friends, to go to your favorite restaurants, or to attend other types of get-togethers in person.

Resist the draw of scorekeeping. Yes, it's not "fair" that your partner gets to regularly interact with other human beings again while you're stuck spending almost all your time at home, now by yourself. But that doesn't mean you need to compensate by adding social meetups to your calendar. You further increase your shared risk when both of you are spending increased time outside the home, instead of just one of you, Gandhi notes.

Remember that staying home is about both minimizing your own risk and minimizing the odds of you spreading the virus to others. Even if your partner now has to go to work each day, you continuing to stay home as much as possible is still minimizing the overall amount of contact your household is having with other people. You're still supporting broader public health by staying home—and continuing to minimize your household's risk of acquiring the virus.


5. Maintain relationship rituals.

You and your partner are going to be having very different cadences in your daily lives for the time being. So it's important to consciously nurture your connection to one another amid this period of distance and disconnect.

"Protect time and energy for bonding," Francis stresses. "What are things that you both enjoy? What have been the moments when the two of you have felt connected while sheltered in place? Making meals together? Taking walks? Playing board games? Don't let these moments disappear just because your schedules are changing."

Rituals can help us stay connected in a way that's often effortless and natural, Francis says. "If brushing your teeth together in the morning is a nice moment, save it and savor it."

Here are some stay-at-home date ideas for more inspiration.

6. Give yourselves some grace.

Francis recommends adopting a growth mindset. Some days will go better than others, she says. Some days you'll feel connected as a couple, and some days you won't. "Pay attention to what works and what doesn't work, and focus on trying to maximize the positives while minimizing the impact of the barriers," she says.

Try to go easy on each other as much as possible. Cut each other slack when you can. When in doubt, default to kindness.

"You are maintaining a relationship in the midst of a global crisis, a time full of complicated feelings like grief, fear, and loneliness. Be gentle with yourselves," Francis says. "Research suggests that the biggest predictor of long-term relationship satisfaction is kindness. If all else fails, cushion your relationship with some extra resolve to be kind."

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