If you’re a human being and living with your partner, there’s a high likelihood that you’ve come close to killing them a few times since March. In fact, the things that used to only slightly annoy you might now feel at such epic proportions that divorce (or the slightly less messy smothering your partner in their sleep) may have seemed like a good option after they made heinous mistakes like putting an almost-empty container of milk back in the fridge (and not even writing it on the shopping list) or, gasp, when you had to ask them a second time to take out the dog.
Biological anthropologists have shown that homo sapiens (aka: people) have evolved to a place where we’re driven to mate and share our life with a primary partner, but there’s no way nature thought it would be all day, every day. She never would have went for that!
Since the dawn of human pair bonding, we’ve parted ways during the day to each do our daily tasks. Whether that was Grog going to hunt while Aga stayed back in the cave crushing seeds or when Ward Cleaver went to the office every day and little old June stayed back taking care of the house and Beaver (if you don’t get that reference, it means you’re very young and your body hasn’t betrayed you yet, but I’ll try not to hate you).
No matter the era in history we’re talking about, everyone would reconvene in the evenings, share a meal, maybe get in a little nookie (that’s a reference to sex for you young folks out there) and then get some much-needed sleep. Hell, weekends weren’t even a thing until about 80 years ago! People used to just work seven days a week! You know, like moms, but men did it too. (OK, that was a little snarky, but it doesn’t make it any less true).😁
Simply put, we are NOT built to share our time all day long, day after day, with our partners. The problem is that quarantine doesn’t know that.
What’s happening to couples with shelter-in-place is very similar to what I’ve seen happen to couples when someone retires. Suddenly, your spouse isn’t going to work and it’s just mano a mano day after live-long day; 30 and 40 year marriages are suddenly tested on a whole new level. I read an awesome article about this in Forbes awhile back that was titled, “I married you for better or worse, but not for lunch.” Ain’t that the truth.
So, here’s the good news: once you figure out how to peacefully co-exist (and even thrive?) with your partner in quarantine, retirement will be a peace of cake! (there’s a pun there, not a typo). So, my job is to get you through this now, so you can enjoy that blissful retirement together later.
But Why is it So Hard Right Now, Abby?!
There are two main reasons why this sheltering-in-place with your partner feels so hard right now. The first has to do with your willpower and your emotional bandwidth. I’ve already written about it in great detail (and don’t want to repeat myself) so you can read all about it right here.
The second reason it’s so hard is that you’re succumbing to something called the negativity effect. Even when things are going great, the negativity effect is one of the biggest threats to any relationship, so you can imagine how critical it is right now.
I’ve talked about the negativity effect before because it’s so key to a satisfied, happy life.
Basically, the negativity effect is your brain’s tendency to respond more strongly to negative events and emotions than to positive ones. In the end, the bad stuff is way stronger that the good stuff.
Research has shown that a negative event (like your partner blowing up at you about the Visa bill) has at least three times the impact of a positive event (like when your partner told you that you looked sexy as hell in that shirt).
In their book, The Power of Bad: How the Negativity Effect Rules Us and How We Can Rule It, authors John Tierney and Roy Baumeister talk about something called “The Rule of Four.” Basically, four good things need to happen to overcome one bad thing. Now, this research has been around awhile. Barbara Fredrickson’s research pointed to something she called “the Positivity Ratio,” which said this same thing except the numbers were 3:1. And marriage guru and researcher, John Gottman, says the ratio in romantic relationships is 5:1 (likely because of our higher expectations of a love partner versus what you expect at work from Bob in Accounting).
The negativity effect is basically magnifying all the issues you have with your partner.
Let’s talk about one of the biggest problems you’re likely experiencing, and one of the main complaints I hear from my clients: not feeling appreciated. Your brain is working against you here too with something related to the negativity effect. And this is basically your brain’s tendency to magnify all the stuff you do, while minimizing all the stuff your partner does! (Your brain can really be unfair!) Then you end up thinking things like, “How can he be so selfish?!” or “How does she not see all the great things I do?!”
If you’ve ever had thoughts like these, it’s likely that you’re not seeing things realistically, but through the lens of your self-absorbed brain.
So, What Do We Do, Abby?!
Tip #1: Give Your Partner the Benefit of the Doubt
Stop blaming your partner for things in the moment. This takes some mindful practices because you have to be able to notice when you want to react to something your partner is doing (or not doing). You’ve got to stop yourself and act, not react.
There’s something at play here that we psychologists call the “fundamental attribution error.” When you do something wrong yourself, you’ll have a tendency to blame it on something outside yourself – on some external, temporary situation (“I would never eat all this food if it wasn’t for this quarantine” or “Sure I’ve snapped at my partner more than usual, but this shelter-in-place would make anyone crazy!”).
This is all well and good except when your partner screws up, you’ll tend to attribute it to some permanent character flaw they have (“I can’t believe you snapped at me! You have no self-control, you’re always doing stuff like this – you never hear what I’m saying – you don’t really care about me!”).
The way you explain a negative event to yourself is called your attributional or explanatory style. Research has shown that attributing your partner’s screw ups to a character flaw they have led to greater marital unhappiness and a higher likelihood of divorce.
So, before you decide your partner is a jerk, doesn’t appreciate you, never considers your feelings, is selfish or any other lovely such thought – try instead to give them the benefit of the doubt. What else could be true? Have the most generous interpretation of what they did that you can muster. It’ll help you both in the end.
Tip #2: It’s All About You!
I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: the one in the most pain needs to change first!
Instead of focusing on what your partner is doing, I want you to get curious about what you’re doing.
If you’re thinking that your partner isn’t listening to you or understanding you, focus on asking them questions. Focus on getting to know why they’re reacting the way they are to what you’re saying. In these instances, you can ask things like:
- “What did you just hear me say?”
- “Can you tell me more about X?”
- “What are you feeling right now while we discuss this?”
- “What else do you think about what I’m saying?”
If you want your partner to listen to you, listen to them first. If you want your partner to appreciate and love you, appreciate and love them first. And you’ve got to go all in! Really make sure they feel what you’re putting out there and don’t focus on what you’re getting back. Focus on the give.
Tip #3: Focus on Not Screwing Up
Here’s the deal (and this is backed by research!). You get almost no credit for doing more than you promised, for going above and beyond, but you get heavily punished for what you don’t do or follow through on.
So, you’ll get really pissed off when your partner doesn’t do what they promised to do but, if they do something extra, you’re not going to be equally appreciative of it. So, I want you to focus on eliminating the negative stuff you do (or don’t do) versus trying to focus on doing the good stuff.
In other words, promise less and make sure you deliver on that instead of promising more and falling short.