First of all, don’t fret if you and your better half have been struggling a bit through this pandemic. As Dr. Daryl Appleton, LMHC, ED.D, of Polaris Counseling and Consulting in East Greenwich and North Providence declared at the beginning of our Zoom call: “No one has their sh*t together right now.” Even the ‘healthiest’ of couples are dealing with many more downs than ups at the moment, whether they’re internal, external or both. Still, that doesn’t mean you should let these things go unchecked. Read our interview with Dr. Appleton below to learn just how couples can get through this difficult time not only unscathed, but also with maybe an even stronger relationship.
What types of relationship issues are you seeing come up because of all of this?
With everyone being at home and working from home, we’re seeing quarantine fatigue like never before. For men, mostly, it has manifested in anger and depressive symptoms that look a little bit more irritable and not taking care of themselves. For women, it has manifested in depression and anxiety and the more clinical forms of sadness and crying… We are seeing something as simple as not taking care of basic needs and which end up in clinical issues.
Most of the couples who I’ve been working with or seeing are having some sort of tension or discourse, and I think the people who are really successful have a few things going for them. The first is incredibly good communication. They are sitting down and naming what is stressing them out. They have the space to do that and they’re putting action steps together in order to figure out what next. Second, I think successful couples are also being kind to themselves. They are working on their own issues and they are taking time to self-care, whether that is quite literally remembering to eat something when it’s lunchtime, being sure to get some fresh air or just saying, “We can’t do any wedding planning right now because it’s stressing me out. Let’s take a break from it.”
It gets more complicated the more we pile on top, but when you really break it down… If you see yourself as a human being and you see your partner as a human being and you treat each other like so, it gets a little bit easier.
Quarantine is essentially ensuring that couples are stuck together 24/7, something they probably aren’t accustomed to — how can they ask each other for some much-needed alone time?
I think what you said is beautiful — you do need to ask for it. Your partner cannot possibly read your mind and it’s not their job to read your mind. It is 1000 percent our jobs to figure out what we want and need and allow our partner to understand that. Because if I don’t tell my husband, “Hey, I need fifteen minutes alone,” and he tries to guess if and when I need it? He’s either leaving me alone and I’m annoyed or not doing it and I’m annoyed. So you need to tell them.
But if I say to my husband, “Jimmy, give me fifteen minutes,” and he says, “No,” then it’s like, “Okay, we need to discuss why you don’t value that I’m telling you I need something. That’s a boundary you just crossed.” Boundaries are very important in saying what you want and what you need. Also holding firm to that; if you say you need an hour alone but you snuggle up with your significant other instead, you’re giving a mixed message and that’s not cool, either. So, take your hour if you need an hour. If your partner is freaking out about it, ask them, “What makes this hard? How can I make you feel better about this? ‘Cause I’m starting to get a little worried that it’s something more than just me being alone for an hour.”
How can couples overcome (or, in other words, not blow up over) minor, everyday annoyances — i.e. a partner’s obnoxious chewing habits — that might be popping up and amplified during this time?
I’m going to get a little nerdy here: our brains are amazing creatures and we tend to hyper focus on things when we have something that’s so stagnant. And that can be a great thing, meaning if you keep your daily work routine the same, you’re actually better able to work because your brains is like, “This is what we do, let me get into work mode. I’m here and hyper aware.” But if your daily life is the same overall, you’re going to start hyper focus on the chewing or other little things. So, try to mix it up. Try to plan something. Even if it’s like, “We’re having brunch food tonight and there’s a theme so I want you to grab a beret.” Couples with kids often can get away with being more silly, but really we can all be silly. This can help take the focus off of the chewing and the annoying stuff and leave a little bit of room for excitement and fun because when you’re having fun, you are way less likely to be annoyed with something small.
That’s great because I was also going to ask how couples can keep the romance alive… Any creative date night ideas?
Yea, I think everyone in the beginning was having lots of sex and then eventually they were like, “Well, this is boring, I’m tired…” So there has been a little more of a shift into connecting. And it is about being creative. Some people are just not creative because they’re still working or they have kids and it’s hard to find the time and energy to come up with something… But there’s tons of resources online. Just Google ‘quarantine date night ideas’ or ‘no money spent date night.’ It can be simple. You can set up a blanket in your backyard and have a picnic with bologna and cheese sandwiches and have it be romantic.
I think romance is about effort… I don’t even think it’s about how special or how much time you put into it… I think it’s about intentionality. If you are intentional enough to try and put something together, then you’re romantic.
Now onto the topic that most engaged couples dread right now: postponing wedding plans. Do you have any thoughts on how to deal with that?
My poor corona brides! I had so many, too — I feel for them all. It’s really all about keeping the faith. Your wedding is going to be beautiful no matter what day it’s on or what year it’s in. What matters is that you’re marrying the right person. What matters is that you’re the best version of yourself walking down that aisle. This is a really great time to connect with your significant other and get through some hard things together, because if you can get through something like this, you can deepen your connection and you’ll be even less likely to divorce down the line. Hone in on the fact that you want to be a good — and I’m using more female perspectives I suppose in this — you want to be a good wife, you don’t necessarily want to be a good bride. There’s a difference.
It matters and it’s valid and it’s absolutely real — you can feel all the feelings, but don’t get so caught up in [the disappointment of postponing] that it takes away from the bigger picture of the beauty of the union between two people.
What are some ways couples can navigate and support each other through some of the more difficult situations (i.e. losing a job, financial insecurity, health anxiety or even losing a loved one to COVID-19) that may arise during this time?
I think that’s a great question and it has a simple answer: you don’t need to figure it all out. Sometimes you literally just need to ask , “What do you need?” It’s up to the person on the other end of the question to say what they need. Sometimes it’s just knowing that somebody cares enough to say, “I love you, I care about you, I’m here to help.” And instead of, “Are you okay?” or “Do you need anything?” both of which are yes or no questions, “What do you need?” is much more open ended. It’s not just a simple answer. And if they say, “Nothing,” I usually encourage the partner to say, “Does ‘nothing’ mean you want me to leave you alone right now? Does ‘nothing’ mean you want me to stay and cuddle? Does ‘nothing’ mean you want me to make dinner?” Because I want to define what nothing means. It’s a great way to evoke a response from somebody who might be suffering and it puts them in a position to feel powerful when they feel so disenfranchised, disproportionate to what is and isn’t in their control .
Is there anything we haven’t touched upon here that you wish more people knew?
On the more severe side, drug and alcohol issues have absolutely ticked up and I want people to know there’s still availability for help. Or for people who are suffering from severe mental breaks right now, Butler is still open. Everything’s virtual, for the most part, but there are plenty of resources people can rely on.
On the less severe side, I think for people who are living with their in-laws, it’s incredibly important for partners to come together and making sure that you and your significant other are on the same page. Because if you’re getting married, that’s the union that you need to take care of. You guys need to come first in order for your relationship to work. And that might piss a lot of mother-in-laws off, but at the end of the day, it’s about you and your partner. And navigating that while living under the same roof together and having really intrusive parents or in-laws, it’s a good way to also practice those boundaries around family. Like saying, “Mom, this is actually our date night, we’re going to go have a picnic. Why don’t we have dessert together inside afterwards?” Or “Oh, we just sat down for a movie, can I call you right back? Is it an emergency?” Simple things like that tell parents or family members that this person has my attention right now and they’re a little bit more important so I need to focus on them.
Are you seeing a lot of new couples because of the current situation?
1000%. And I’m glad. I’m so happy people feel comfortable reaching out to people like me because before I think, before, it was, “Nothing is seriously wrong in our relationship or our marriage, we’re not getting divorced, so we don’t need therapy.” I did an article for moms.com talking about something similar to this and they asked me, “When’s the best time for couples to go to therapy?” And I was like, “Immediately.”
Every couple should be in therapy because it’s wonderful — it’s a place and space for you to really figure out who each other is and what you guys need and want to accomplish together. Like what your goals are as a couple. So I’m happy that it’s not being seen as something’s terribly wrong, it’s more about how do we get through this.
So even now, during quarantine, is a good time to start?
Absolutely! Do it now and get it out of the way. Quarantine has done this thing where it has brought all of these areas of improvement to the surface.” That excuse of, “I don’t have time to clean my house” or “I don’t have time to exercise” is out the window. So, I think that what’s really cool is that there is actually time to do these things and if you’re not doing it or you and your partner are not engaging in the things you said you would, from a stay at home standpoint, this is the time to talk about it. When it comes to finding a good couples’ therapist, it’s like dating. It may take a few tries to find the right one for you. Psychologytoday.com is a really great resource where you can see a therapist’s profile and narrow down the choices by clicking on the areas that you want to work on.
As for my business partner and I at my private practice, Polaris, we do couples therapy where we each see one half of the couple for individual therapy and then the four of us sit down together — or hop on a Zoom call like this — for couples. We’ve found that this way helps because one person or another in a couple is always like, “Our therapist likes you better!” So, this has eliminated that kind of weird dynamic where it’s more, “I’m working with you individually and I’m going to call you out on some of your BS — I’m not a light and fluffy therapist and neither is my business partner — but the four of us together, we can take things back into our individual sessions and we can bring them in where there is accountability on both sides. Nobody feels ganged up on and nobody feels like it is a volley; it’s more of a conversation.
I love that you’re talking about this because I think sometimes we as a society think engaged couples are just like, “Yay, woo, happy!” all the time. I’m sure many are, but especially now… To have your wedding taken away and to not be certain when you’re going to marry your significant other… And then even just the mental stress of planning a wedding… It’s a lot! It’s a lot to navigate. So, I love that mental health is being talked about in relation to a period in your life that is normally a really happy time.
I’m a huge believer of ‘the more you know,’ so I’m trying my hardest to just get things out there so we can hopefully have a sane return to whatever normal looks like eventually.