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Love Under Lockdown: How Couples Can Cope During COVID-19

UNLV relationship therapist Katherine Hertlein offers strategies for singles and newly dating, longtime cohabitating, married, separated, and divorced partners to navigate quarantine conflict.
22-Apr-2020 3:20 PM EDT, by University of Nevada, Las Vegas (UNLV)

For many, love has long been associated with flowers, candy, and counting down the hours until they see their crush or significant other again.

During the age of coronavirus? Just like every other part of life, the mechanics of romance have changed. Newly dating partners are longing for one another after weeks apart due to the quarantine; longtime cohabitating and married couples are spending more time together than ever, deepening bonds for many while some could use a breather from seeing their (not so) loved one’s face. And the pandemic has added a new wrinkle for divorced or separated parents who share custody of their children. 

Whatever the case: The COVID-19 crisis has impacted many a romantic relationship, says UNLV Couple and Family Therapy professor Katherine M. Hertlein.

We spoke with the professor to get the low down on strategies for navigating the many facets of romance during this unprecedented time. 

How might the COVID-19 lockdown affect communication, sex, finances, and other areas of a romantic relationship?

The common thing with all these facets of a relationship is that the coronavirus lockdown has ushered in an underwriting of grief for many due to the dramatic change to our daily lives. Meanwhile, our coping mechanisms -- hanging out with friends, shopping at the mall, exercising at the gym -- have been ripped away from us.

For some people, that means disturbances in sleep, while for others it might mean engaging in avoidance behaviors, difficulty concentrating, or depression. All of these things can lead to conflict in a relationship.

What’s more, the lockdown has led to changes in relationship roles. Perhaps one partner has suddenly become the primary caregiver while the children are home from school and another has become the sole breadwinner because their partner was laid off. Conflict can emerge or worsen when couples don’t have control over that definition. 

Another thing is that a changed routine might impact a couple’s sex life. When the kids are constantly around and things are generally more stressful, it can have an impact on decision making and time spent together as a couple. And when the couple is together, they might experience lots of pressure to have a satisfying experience, which naturally inhibits the satisfactory experience.

How do those issues differ based on whether the couple is in a long-distance relationship, dating but not living together, or married/cohabitating?

I think couples who live apart have perhaps been better equipped to manage social distancing because their relationship, in terms of the roles and the amount of time they see each other, hasn't substantially changed as much as the couples who see each other all the time. The couples living apart already have some strategies in place and negotiation techniques built in to manage that.

In addition, those couples who are separated geographically have already had to identify ways to make the technology work for them and built skills about how to talk to each other at a distance.

One downfall, however, is that long-distance couples don’t have the opportunity to perhaps rely on each other or develop a sense of touch that couples who live together do. When we work with couples, we teach them about co-regulation and mindfulness. We’re talking to them about physiological arousal, and how as a couple, there are ways that your partner physiologically reads your inner emotions and their body physiologically responds to you. We can teach you strategies on how to drop your physiological arousal in person, and a lot of times that can be a gentle physical touch or something pretty subtle, calming, or soothing. We don’t have that opportunity with couples who are online and not together.

What are some strategies a couple could use to ease/navigate conflict during self-isolation? 

This situation has created a higher rate of conflict. Maybe there are individual issues going on or maybe the couple is engaging in what we call situational couple violence. This is when a fight escalates to the point that it becomes physical with a couple that normally isn’t physical. So, the first thing you have to do is recognize whether a high risk is present. 

The second thing we have to work on is anxiety reduction. This is about your individual anxiety. What I'm noticing while working with clients is that there’s a heightened level of tension in their bodies in general now. Instead of just moving past that, we talk about recognizing it, feeling it, knowing that it’s there, and understanding that that generalized sense of tension has an impact on your communications with people. Because you’re operating from this hunched, tense place, you need to bring that anxiety down so that you can have productive interactions.

We also teach couples about mindfulness, which can help create intimacy and improve communication. There are actually a couple of video links that walk you through mindfulness activities with couples.  It’s also about acknowledging that your partner is doing the best they can with what they have at the time and operating from a place of good intent. I refer couples to a book by McKay and Fanning called “Messages” about communication and how to negotiate through a four-step process.

And I think you’ve got to also acknowledge and manage grief. You don’t have to do it in isolation; you can do it as a couple to develop more intimacy with your partner.

In terms of improving sexual connection, instead of putting expectation on super huge moments, take that interaction down to something subtle throughout the whole day. Maybe you’re just rubbing backs or holding hands or sitting next to each other the whole day. It’s a continued physical connection instead of putting a lot of emphasis on bigger moments.

How can people with kids maintain partner relationships when they can't necessarily go on a "date night"? How can single parents continue to date during the pandemic?

The best couples are flexible and creative. This is an opportunity for you and your partner to think outside the box about how to make connections throughout the day. You can play a lot of games.

One of the interventions I give my couples is called “electronic fantasy date.” In this scenario, one person is designated to take their partner out on an imaginary date. Another is the Ungame, which asks questions about your life and your perception. And there are tons of websites, including one that has 36 questions that will help you fall in love. If you’re willing to get online and do things, there are ways to cultivate and build intimacy. 

The other thing is we can still turn off our phones. I know that there’s such an emphasis on being connected. And now it’s never ending -- that boundary between home and work is removed. You can, however, put it back by turning off the phone for a night. 

For singles who are trying to date, you’ve just got to be really clear about your expectations. When dating online under normal circumstances, there’s a feature where people can click specific criteria they’re looking for. That can be really challenging because, first of all, I think there’s a lot of skepticism around whether how people checked boxes is really accurate to who they are as a person. There’s a lot of research that talks about how people meet folks online who weren’t who they said they would be. This also becomes really limiting. If you meet people in person, you don’t have that same screening process -- you don’t give people a questionnaire before you begin talking to them. You organically develop those connections. So I would say if you’re going to be doing the online dating thing, great! But just recognize that based on the boxes you pick, you might be limiting your pile.

Here’s a little caveat: when we talk to people via text and type things out we tend to disclose a lot because we’re trying to describe our environment -- I’m sad or I’m upset or whatever the case may be. When we do that, it draws us closer to people and we feel much closer to them much more quickly than we do in offline settings. This is why people say they’ve fallen in love after a month of chatting on Facebook -- it’s less about the person and more about the fact that you did all these disclosures, without realizing you were doing so. 

If you’re going to communicate with people digitally, make no mistake about it, you’re going to be intimately connected to that person by the end of this. You want to make sure, however, that you’re being thoughtful about your disclosures so you don’t make connections with the wrong people.

How do split families work during this time: For example, if you're divorced with shared custody, how do you ensure you're doing the right thing if your former partner has a different perspective? 

When we’re communicating to both our partners and our children, we want to make sure we understand the motivation for what’s happening. It’s not, “Well, you have to social distance so don’t have your girlfriend over because I don’t like her.” It’s social distance so we can protect our children from becoming sick. I’ve had a lot of conversations with couples around just reorienting the motivation. 

For example, I had a case where the mom and dad disagreed about the daughter’s boyfriend coming over during the quarantine. The dad thought it was OK as long as they were 6 feet apart and the mom didn’t want the boyfriend to come over at all.

You have to get couples to a common point. In this case, the common point was the kids’ welfare. What are we trying to say: Is 6 feet enough, is 17 feet enough? Come up with a compromise and err on the side of caution, which typically means going with the most conservative estimate. We’re not framing it as partners’ rules vs partners’ rules -- which is where egos get involved. We’re trying to agree on what’s in the best interest for the children. In this case, they agreed to allow the daughter’s boyfriend to visit once the pandemic ends.

There have been social media reports of exes reaching out to ease lockdown loneliness or, in some cases, attempting to rekindle romances. Is this a common occurrence when people are navigating difficult times in their lives and, if so, why?

Yes, it becomes an excuse to make contact with the one who got away -- 100 percent.

Their motivation can lack genuineness. People might tell you it’s because “I don’t want to feel so lonely” or it was altruistic so “I wanted to check on you.” Sometimes it’s about manipulation. Sometimes they were waiting for an excuse to talk to you and now they get one. It really depends on the person’s pathology and what their true motivation is in reaching out.

If you’re able to psychologically have a boundary around that relationship, and you’re able to say, “I’m doing fine. Thanks. How are you?” have that conversation. If you’re not able to have that psychological boundary, you’ve got to do the physical one and not answer.

Regarding intimate partner violence, how might the quarantine affect these instances and how can couples cope?

I think it’s going to increase the situational couple violence instances that we see and I think it’s going to be really challenging to navigate that for couples because they won’t be able to get the resources they need. Often, people in a high-conflict situation might leave the house and go to work. Now you don’t see people doing that as much. 

In terms of responding to it, you’ve got to make sure that you’re taking a time out even when you don’t think you need it. Research shows that people need at least 20 minutes to calm down before they physiologically engage in a conversation again. I tell clients 45 minutes, but the key is making sure you circle back after calming down. So, I suggest taking 45 minutes, which allows everybody time to go to a safe space then reconvene and have a conversation. If you need more time, the couple can agree on more time -- you can’t just leave somebody hanging though. People are entitled to circle back around to that conversation if you take a break.

And remember: take the 45-minute break before you think you need it. By the time you think you need it, it’s probably too late.

Have you heard stories of people whose circumstances were unexpectedly changed due to the lockdown? 

I do have a couple that was separating up until the pandemic lockdown blew things out of the water. In that case, we do a relationship separation contract (which can also be used with couples who are together to help restructure their relationships). It outlines each person’s role with each other and with the kids, and what’s permitted in terms of time together and dating.

I don’t think the pandemic will lead to more divorces because mass unemployment means no one can afford to leave. I think we’ll see more arrangements where couples naturally physically separate themselves in their space and emotionally separate themselves if they’re not able to do so by moving out.

I suggest couples take the uncertainty off the table, instead of waiting for the pandemic to lift, and say to your partner: Through August, our relationship is going to look like this. That way the ambiguity is off the table, roles are defined, and you know how long it’s going to last. And if the lockdown’s over sooner, it’s over sooner. But if not, you’ve got something in place instead of wondering every week and trying to re-up your agreement. Make up your own damn rules.

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