Remember how strange it was to be alone at home with your significant other 24/7 after the coronavirus first surfaced? Or how uncomfortable it was to get to know a new romantic partner with a mask on in what felt like a vacuum?
More than a year into the pandemic, many couples have finally found their footing. But don’t get too comfortable – all that’s about to change. Again.
Vaccinations are becoming increasingly available, restrictions are being lifted or revisited, and people are getting more comfortable with the idea of coming out of their cocoons. Many couples will face more adjustments.
“Most couples I’m seeing are looking forward to the post-pandemic period,” said Kimberly Panganiban, a marriage and family therapist based in San Diego. “Some of these couples I believe will be able to navigate this time well, as they are talking openly about it and the changes that may come. Others are unaware of how it may impact them as the excitement of other things takes the focus.”
How can you prep your partnership for the post-pandemic period?
“The conversation and negotiation of navigating a post-pandemic world is critical for couples and should occur as soon as possible,” said Jess Carbino, an online dating expert who has a doctorate in sociology. She is also a former sociologist for the dating apps Tinder and Bumble.
“If couples are unable to discuss and prepare for the challenges they may face, it may lead them to a heightened degree of conflict,” Carbino said.
Experts suggest prioritizing communication during this time of transition. “Make time and space for ongoing discussions about one another’s feelings and needs as our lives change yet again,” Panganiban said. “We’ll all experience a range of emotions. Supporting each other through this time is crucial to the health of the relationship.”
First, acknowledge the issues that could arise. There may be conflicting comfort levels when it comes to taking health risks, opposing opinions about the vaccine, different vaccination statuses, and separation anxiety.
Sharon Gilchrest O’Neill, a marriage and family therapist based in Ridgefield, Connecticut, and author of “A Short Guide to a Happy Marriage” and “A Short Guide to a Happy Divorce,” suggests jotting down concerns together, without trying to sort out any differences just yet. Over a few weeks, revisit these lists together and add to or refine them as necessary. “In a ‘next’ discussion, begin to look at the differences and how to accommodate each other’s needs,” she said.
There are a few changes that will likely affect all couples. “For many people, it will be very challenging to go from spending lots of time together to much less time together,” Panganiban said. “Creating rituals that will help keep partners connected even when they aren’t together as much can help. And planning ongoing time with one another can help ease this transition.”
Nick Bognar, a marriage and family therapist based in Pasadena, California, agrees. “I suspect couples will need to readjust to not seeing one another all the time and being apart for large portions of the day,” he said. “After a year of sharing space with someone, even while wearing headphones or working in different rooms, people are probably pretty acclimated to feeling close to one another all the time.” Bognar suggested “more frequent checking in and connecting” as a solution.
Panganiban is seeing many couples in which one partner is content in the couple-cocoon, while the other is ready to emerge. “If one person is ready to branch out sooner, it’s important that they take turns sharing how they’re feeling and what they need,” she said. “Make sure both feel completely heard and understood before discussing what to actually do about it.”
For couples in this space, Gilchrest suggests “keeping their partner’s needs in mind and considering how they can reestablish the importance of the relationship and the two of them being a team again at home and out in the bigger, new world.”
Carbino is worried about couples in which one partner is more or less isolated than the other. “As individuals return to the labor force, couples should be attuned to whether one partner has to return to the labor force more quickly than the other and the associated isolation they may feel,” she said.
Isolation could also be caused by each other’s social circles; one partner’s friends or family might be ready to socialize while the other’s aren’t. “If one member of a couple finds themselves more isolated than the other, Carbino said, “they should work together to find safe ways for the more isolated partner to socialize.”
One issue that has plagued couples throughout quarantine is opposing opinions about Covid safety. “We all have our own feelings and level of comfort regarding safety in the pandemic – these issues will continue to arise,” Panganiban said. “Being honest with themselves and their partner about how they feel is important. If they disagree, the best thing to do is take time to hear and understand one another.”
Carbino said “couples may not necessarily be aligned about the risks they are willing to assume publicly. One partner may feel less comfortable socializing with individuals who have not been vaccinated.”
To help resolve any disagreements, couples “should openly communicate about why they are concerned about a certain activity and why a certain activity is important to them,” Carbino said. “This dialogue will ideally foster a better understanding and in turn, lead to a healthy degree of compromise.”
Carbino suggests that long-term couples who live together “should have a discussion around what elements of pre-pandemic and pandemic life they would like to incorporate into their post-pandemic lives together.”
Couples that met during quarantine should prepare for another discovery phase. “They only know one another through the pandemic lens,” Panganiban said. “It will be important to enter this period with the knowledge that as the world opens back up, they will be learning new things about one another – things they enjoy and things that are challenges. Making sure to keep the lines of communication open during this time will be important.”
Carbino urges newer couples to have a conversation about how their life was structured before the pandemic and how they would like to structure their lives moving ahead. “Perhaps they were early risers who went to the gym before going to the office, worked at the office 12 hours a day, and then went out for drinks with colleagues after work,” she said. “This routine-related information would have been revealed organically relatively quickly in a prepandemic world but may not have been during quarantine when many of these activities and social interactions have not been possible.”
No matter what the current status of your relationship – new, old, struggling, thriving – you will be retested as you emerge from quarantine. If the pandemic period was more of a burden for your partnership, Panganiban suggests “continuing to work on managing challenges in the relationship as best as possible as you wait for things to begin to shift.” Now is a good time, she said, to start “processing some of the hurts that have occurred during this period and discussing what you want things to look like moving forward.”
[This article originally appeared in The New York Times.]