6 minutes read time.
Dr. David H. Demmer, Senior Clinical Psychologist
Many people’s relationships are struggling, especially after two years of COVID-19 lockdowns.
If you and your partner are spending less time together, communicating less, or letting disagreements go unresolved, your relationship may be in for trouble.
There are several steps you can take to talk about relationship problems with your partner, and to strengthen your foundation to navigate future challenges.
The last few years have been rough for relationships. COVID-19 lockdowns forced couples closer together – literally. Suddenly you had to navigate living and working side-by-side, often with little room for either person to breathe. Some new couples, fearing the possibility of extended isolation from each other, bypassed the traditional dating route and moved in together earlier than they normally would have.
And that’s just the pandemic. It’s not like relationships were hassle-free before COVID-19. Even the best relationships can run into problems or break down.
So what are the signs your relationship is in trouble. How can you navigate conflict with your partner?
It will be years before we know the full impact the pandemic has had on relationships. Some buckled under the strain of lockdown. Others seemed to flourish.
Some divorce lawyers in the US anecdotally reported increased demand for their services.
Several cities in China saw record divorce filings after lockdown restrictions were lifted.
Yet a majority of couples in Spain reported lockdown strengthened their relationship.
Many couples faced two specific challenges during lockdown:
Many couples had to navigate duelling expectations of who does what. It’s no secret the pandemic affected women far more than men when it comes to job loss. Women also bore a heavier burden of responsibilities at home. Negotiating roles when partners aren’t on the same page can fuel relationship breakdown.
COVID-19 prompted many couples to hit the ‘go faster’ button on their relationships. For example, more than 1 in 3 UK couples reached a significant relational milestone, like moving in together, sooner than originally planned. One in 5 LGBTQ+ couples in one study chose to move in together specifically because of the pandemic.
The impact early cohabitation had on these couples appears mixed:
Living together protected some from the worst effects of the pandemic itself, but it did not always lead to happier relationships.
Many couples zoomed through the usual ‘honeymoon phase’ and went straight into a serious relationship, without developing all the tools needed to handle the inevitable challenges of living together.
Constant proximity made it harder to avoid certain stressors or triggers. To quote one study: ‘As cohabiting couples spend greater time together and adjust to new responsibilities and routines, they are more vulnerable to new disagreements and resurfacing of old issues.’
Whether your relationship challenges are COVID-19-related or not, there are some warning signs that may indicate trouble on the horizon:
Spending less time together, or going out of your way to avoid being with each other
Communicating less with one another
Difficulty listening – tuning each other out, talking over the other person, getting distracted when they are talking
Lingering, unresolved disagreement over how to manage finances, share household responsibilities, or some other issue
Not having fun or laughing together
Talking down the other person to your friends
If any of these sound familiar, it’s time for you and your partner to act. The longer you leave things unresolved, the more your relationship will break down.
When a relationship runs into trouble, it’s important to address it. But how you do so matters just as much.
First, try to identify the issue behind the issue. What’s really making you feel the way you do?
Often the problem right in front of you – the forgotten birthday, the bill that wasn’t paid, the chore that wasn’t done – is merely the latest straw, not the real problem.
Most relational conflict comes down to our desire to feel safe, secure or valued. Conflict happens when one of these needs isn’t met. For example, let’s say you think your partner isn’t doing their fair share around the house. The deeper issue may be that you feel like your time for other activities (work, socialising, relaxing, etc) isn’t valued as much as theirs.
Next, think about your desired outcome. Do you want to reconnect with your partner? Feel affirmed or understood? Is there something you want them to change? Anything you’re willing to change? Knowing your ideal destination (and your partner’s) will increase your chances of reaching it.
Yes, like an actual appointment – especially if you’re not spending as much time together these days. This will help avoid the temptation to hash things out in the moment, when emotions are running high.
Find a time to talk when you are both calm and relaxed. If that’s not possible, wait 10 minutes before saying something. Take a break from the conversation if things get heated. Choose a public space to talk, like a park or coffee shop. This may help both of you keep your emotions in check.
Do this before the conversation gets going. It will help keep things constructive and ensure you treat each other with respect. Your ground rules should include:
No talking over each other
No sweeping statements about the other person (‘you never…’)
Don’t expect your partner to ‘just know’ what’s wrong. Tell them why you’re hurt and what you need from them.
This doesn’t mean putting the other person on blast with a laundry list of unresolved grievances or blaming them for everything that’s gone wrong. That approach is likely to put your partner on the defensive, leading them to shut down or go on the counterattack.
Share how their actions make you feel. Focus on impact, rather than making judgements about their character or intent.
Don’t say: ‘You always forget our anniversary because you’re so thoughtless’.
Do say: ‘Forgetting our anniversary last week made me feel unimportant’.
Remember, talk about the problem, not the person. Address the behaviour instead of criticising the individual.
Once you’ve said your piece, give your partner a chance to respond. They may need a few minutes to process – that’s ok. Resist the urge to fill the silence.
When they do speak, listen actively. Don’t be formulating your response in your head while they’re still talking. Don’t interject. Repeat back what you hear to make sure you understand what they’re trying to say. (It’s also a good way to show their perspective matters to you.)
This is not about agreeing with everything they say. It’s about listening to each other.
You and your partner may not see eye to eye on everything. It’s important to know your deal-breakers (more on that below), but it’s also important to know where you can flex.
Remember, compromise should be a two-way street – you and your partner should work to move toward each other wherever possible.
You may not find common ground right away. That’s normal. Don’t insist on trying to solve the issue in one take.
Give each other the right to call a time-out, especially if things get heated or you’re going in circles. Commit to keeping the doors open, continuing to communicate until you do find common ground.
Take a moment to remind yourselves what drew you to each other in the first place. Remember, a lot of relational conflict is rooted in the fear we don’t matter to the other person, or our desire for safety.
Don’t assume your partner knows they matter to you. Communicate it. Talk about what you like in the other person. Express gratitude for each other. It’s not a magic fix, but it can help you stay grounded as you navigate challenges together.
When things are going smoothly, that’s not time to sit back and cruise. Every relationship will face some kind of challenge eventually. But there are ways you and your partner can prepare.
Chances are, what makes your partner different from you is part of what attracted you to them in the first place. Over time, however, some of those ‘endearing quirks’ turn into ‘annoying habits’.
Make peace with the fact that you and your partner are two distinct people. You don’t have to ‘complete each other’. You don’t have to do everything together, or do everything the same way. You don’t have to like all the same things.
In fact, your relationship may prove stronger if you maintain distinct identities – intertwined but not entirely dependent on each other.
The flip side to embracing difference is identifying what your deal-breakers are. It could be a personal habit like smoking or drinking. Or maybe certain religious or political differences are a bridge too far.
Whatever your deal-breakers are, it’s important to know them. Make sure your partner knows them too, and that you know theirs – so you know that you can live within each other’s boundaries before things get serious.
Keep in mind, sometimes our deal-breakers change over time – that’s ok! Make sure you continue to communicate about them so your partner isn’t left to guess.
It’s not the stuff of sizzling romance, but setting shared expectations – around money, monogamy, sex, conflict resolution, and more – can help prevent future relationship troubles, or at least help you resolve them more quickly.
Plan regular times to see how both of you are feeling and to make sure you’re meeting the other person’s needs. The key word here is ‘plan’. Don’t leave check-ins to chance. Put them on the calendar.
Make a point to remind yourself – and your partner – of the positive things you see in them. You’ll both benefit from this practice. Research has shown that ‘people who feel more appreciated by their romantic partners report being more appreciative of their partners’.
It’s just as important to know when a relationship is headed into abusive or otherwise unacceptable territory, when to get outside help, and when to walk away. Not every relationship is going to last. Sometimes the best thing you can do is to end one chapter of your life and start a new one.
But if you and your partner are equally committed to each other and to your wellbeing, you can use these steps to navigate the inevitable relationship challenges you will face.