Navigating (Strengthening) Your Relationship During a Crisis

From videos of sweet spouses showing love to jokes about divorce rates in China after lockdown, social media is abuzz with others’ relationship stories in our current time of crisis and lockdown. Some likely land for you while others leave you scratching your head (or, in my case, screaming WTF—just me?). While these posts offer a snapshot and insight into others’ relationships, and give you some insight into what you’d like out of your own, they don’t support you in creating the intimate, exciting, and fulfilling relationship you desire. This is particularly true for folx living in urban areas, for relationships where one partner is deemed an essential worker, for parents, for poor folx, and for anyone who does not have the privilege of space—indoors and out—in which to take some alone time.

As someone living at the epicenter of the pandemic in NYC, whose relationship narrative has long been, “we’re fiercely independent,” AND who happens to be a sex coach and couple’s counselor, here is some wisdom to reflect on and incorporate as you navigate the many ups and downs of our current crisis—and whatever the future holds.

There is no normal way to navigate a crisis

Crises kick up everyone’s baggage and trauma if it’s present. They also highlight societal inequities, which can contribute to feelings of shame. I invite you to be curious, rather than judgmental, about what’s coming up for you and your beau(s) and be gentle with yourselves.

Being gentle doesn’t mean you don’t have boundaries—now more than ever, these are essential! From the practical boundary of staying 6 feet apart if you must venture outside your home to setting limits on the media you consume, the Zoom calls you take, and the conversations you have, boundaries are a form of being gentle with yourself!

It also doesn’t mean that you should give, give, give and not take care of yourself. Give, certainly, and more than you think you can—in the forms of check-ins, self-care, money, and anything else that feels nourishing to you. Just make sure to include yourself as well as your loved ones and your community in that giving. 

Don’t be surprised if your libido changes

It may increase, disappear altogether, or do something in between. Whatever direction it goes—and even if it stays the same—is normal and ok. Change in sexual desire is just one way that your body navigates stress.

I know telling you to “not to let this bother you” is probably moot. Can you meet these changes with compassion instead of judgment? After all, everyone’s libido has ups and downs throughout their lives. Being in the midst of a crisis is certainly a time when this is expected and unsurprising.

You have the right to both alone time and connection—and so does your beau

It’s up to the two of you to determine how much of each serves you;  to meet those needs for yourself and each other; to communicate when something isn’t working; and, to express gratitude to each other when the other person does a good job.

Map out chores and let go of perfection and “normal” expectations

Much has already been written about the gender inequalities facing heterosexual couples in lockdown together, as well as how pandemics are typically a major setback for feminism. Parents in particular are struggling right now. And yet—it doesn’t have to be this way! 

As many of the memes say—the best time to begin addressing this in your relationship was in the past and the second best time to start is now! As I often share with my couple’s counseling clients: it’s not fair to blame your partner for centuries of patriarchal programming but it is fair to ask them to begin addressing and unlearning their own biases and problematic behaviors.  

Put some structure around check-ins

One common relationship dynamic involves one partner who withdraws when Big Feels and/or stress arises while the other pursues more attention. As you can imagine, this can lead to a lot of tension! 

Being more intentional with daily and weekly check-ins can help mitigate this as opposed to attempting to handle it in the moment. Instead of, “Babe are you ok? Come on, tell me what’s wrong!” you have an intentional space to reconnect, share what’s emotionally alive for you, address any struggles or issues that have come up, and celebrate your wins. 

Let yourself feel Big Feels

If you find yourself crying at the Ewoks’ and Pidges’ cuteness (guilty) or another “silly” reason that you usually wouldn’t cry, you aren’t alone. Same goes for other Big Feels that pop up randomly or from sources that never would normally incite them. 

Remember that in addition to the grief and loss resulting from the pandemic, life itself continues. Health issues, strained relationships and breakups, work challenges, mental health struggles—these heartbreaks continue and feel even worse in the midst of chaos.

Of course, this isn’t a free pass to treat people poorly or lash out. All of your feelings are valid and deserve to be met with care and love. Practices like meditation, mindful movement, workouts, journaling, and working with a helping professional—a counselor, therapist, chaplain, religious figure, etc—can support you in feeling these feels.

This is personal, interpersonal, and societal

Your sex life and relationship have never existed as an island. However, being in a crisis highlights the interconnectedness of each part of your life to every other. If you notice sex and/or relationship, use them as a check to assess the other aspects of your life, from self-care to work, friendships, and pleasure.

Discernment, communication, and boundaries

At the end of the day, these are the keys to successful relationships that navigate the rambles of life with relative ease. Looking inward and reflecting on your wants and needs, as well as your hard-nos and deal breakers; communicating what those are to the people you’re in a relationship with; and upholding your boundaries if they’re crossed or on the verge of being crossed. 

Embodying these isn’t simple, of course. Your identities, life experiences, past relationships, family, etc., all impact the ease and safety with which you can practice these. Plus, each shifts over time, as you grow, change, and heal alongside your life circumstances. No matter where you are in the process, there’s an opportunity to take one tiny step in any of these areas. A step that feels scary but safe; uncomfortable but not threatening. You know better than any expert what that can be—but if you want support, someone to hold space for you to ask the questions, there are lots of us out there who can offer it. 

Not just for crises

The tools and insights shared here aren’t just for the now. They’re the building blocks of strong relationships and you likely have been doing them already. I share them so that you can show up fully for yourself, your partner(s), and your relationships, in the ways that you like, now and in the future.

If you or a loved one is not safe at home, visit Futures without Violence to find services for those experiencing domestic, intimate partner, and gender-based violence.

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