Relationships have been sorely tested during the pandemic. Therapists report a huge rise in requests for couples’ work, and lawyers cite a noticeable increase in queries about how to instigate divorce or separation
But it’s not all bad news. A survey of 2,559 parents carried out by Harry Benson for charity Marriage Foundation last November found that while 9 per cent of couples reported their relationship had worsened, 20 per cent said it had improved. Benson concluded the UK lockdown hasn’t created the divorce boom many had predicted.
These conflicting findings illustrate the push-pull so many couples experienced last year. Almost everyone felt trapped and irritated after spending months with a partner and/or children in a space that had effectively "shrunk" because it had to serve as home, classroom and workspace. This, plus uncertainties about health and jobs raised cortisol levels and lowered testosterone, causing libido to plummet and interpersonal conflict to increase.
At the same time, however, the overwhelming uncertainty made many couples feel too frightened to take major decisions. As a result they simply remained in spent relationships.
Finding the connect all over again
Now, as restrictions ease, there’s a chance to rekindle your relationship. What’s the best way?
The first step is to spend more time apart. Britons are still being asked to work from home if possible, and if you haven’t already, it’s still worth establishing a clear workspace for each of you – equal space, even if one of you works fewer hours than the other or is going back to the office part-time.
Hopefully you can find places to work without seeing your partner; if not, face away from one another. The aim is to make it feel like you’re each "at your office" when working.
Now that you can, meet friends outside your home and pursue permitted activities you enjoy. You’ll probably want to do some things together, but make sure each of you spends substantial time with your own friends and pursues your own activities. That way, when you come back together you’ll have new experiences to talk about, making time spent together interesting again. Prioritise relaxing activities, as this will encourage cortisol levels to dip, allowing libido to return.
When you’re together, capitalise on your rekindled mutual interests by asking questions that allow you to discover new things about one other. When Arthur Aron and colleagues at SUNY paired participants and asked them to discuss questions that encouraged positive self-disclosure – for example, "What’s your most treasured memory?" or "What’s something you’ve always hoped to do?", couples subsequently reported feeling closer to one another.
Look for opportunities to touch one another in ways you both enjoy. Loving touch stimulates the production of oxytocin which in turn increases feelings of trust and intimacy.
Finally, and most importantly, thank your partner for any kindnesses you notice. Showing mutual appreciation and respect will do more than anything to reawaken intimacy.
How to stay together
We know a lot about the causes of relationship breakups, thanks largely to the work of John Gottman at the University of Oregon. In one study of couples with nursery-age children, his team were able to predict with 93.6 per cent accuracy which pairs would split up within three years. In another - this time with newlyweds - the team predicted with 87 per cent accuracy which pairs would separate within 4-6 years. In interviews, Gottman identified warning signs – one was when couples recalled more negative than positive memories.
Five ways to build a strong and positive relationship
• Treat your relationship as if it’s a living thing, something that needs regular attention to thrive.
• Show your partner often you respect and value them.
• Spend time sharing activities and working towards goals, but also encourage one another to pursue individual interests.
• Set aside regular times to work on unresolved conflicts. Listen to one another, try to understand the other’s point of view, offer compromises, and learn to manage differences.
• Show tolerance. After all, you probably tell bad jokes too.