Marriage and domestic partnerships aren’t always easy: As a happily married woman, I would know. Yes, there is true love and companionship — and that’s beautiful. But there are also dishes, and laundry, and in-laws, and “have you fed the dogs yet?!” In other words, relationships — even the best of them — come with ups and downs, good and bad. But then you throw a global pandemic into the mix, and seemingly overnight, millions of couples who are quarantined and working from home together for the first time in their lives have a brand new challenge: navigating how to get work done while also maintaining a healthy bond.

Part of the problem: not having any alone time. “We agree to live together in long-term relationships, but that certainly doesn’t mean we’re committing to spend 24/7 together,” Sarah Melancon, Ph.D., tells Thrive. “If you put any two people in a confined space together, no matter how much they like each other, they will butt heads eventually.”

“The frustration of non-separation is challenging to couples because of the loss of independence and identity,” Clarissa Silva, M.S.W, a researcher and relationship coach, adds. Again, I would know: My husband, the love of my life, and I, have both been working from home together for about a month now, and our constant shared presence is starting to take its toll. I’ve found I lose my temper more easily, frustrated by my lack of control, and take it out on him, since he’s the only person I see anymore. 

Experts assure me that I’m not alone in this. “We each have our own rhythm and way of doing things that feels natural to us as individuals. No matter how much we love another person, their rhythm won’t always sync with yours,” explains Melancon.

Does this temporary “butting heads” mean our relationships are doomed? No. It simply means our routines have been flipped upside down, and we need to find innovative ways to navigate this new normal. One way to do that: “Make sure you are engaged in some independent activity, even at home, and be able to share what you have felt, learned and experienced — even if it is something small like an interesting article you read or new online workout you discovered,” Dr. Moe Gelbart, Ph.D., Director of Practice Development at Sacramento-based Community Psychiatry, suggests.

Another simple, and often overlooked, technique to better connect with your partner while quarantined? Ask questions. “Don’t assume you know how their day went, what they thought about dinner or what show they’d like to watch next,”  Melancon advises. “Asking communicates to your partner that you value their perspective and want to know about their inner world. It also reminds you that they’re a separate being from you, building room for attraction.”

And, of course, make sure to give each other enough space. “Just because you’re both home doesn’t mean privacy and boundaries are unimportant,” says Melancon. For instance, “knock before entering if your partner is working behind a closed door, or give them space while they’re talking on the phone or Skype.”

Most importantly, however, use this time to establish new routines — since routine is key for relationship and mental well-being. According to research, creating and committing to steady rituals helps to maintain healthy marriages, and a study in Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes found that in a moment of anxiety or upset, turning to a ritual or routine is more effective in reducing anxiety than simply trying to calm down. “Relationship rituals can fuel your connection,” says Melancon. “Taking time at the start and end of each day, for instance, to talk about your thoughts, feelings, plans or reflections for the day is one example. Some couples enjoy doing yoga, meditating or praying together to feel more connected.”

If you’re working from home with your partner and looking for ways to improve your relationship as well as your personal well-being, try adopting one (or more!) of these science-backed Microsteps:

Do a morning check-in with your partner before you start your work. Think of it as a morning briefing where you share what’s ahead in your day, like a call with your manager, a big presentation, or a time you’ll need to be focused and quiet.  You’ll ensure you understand each other’s needs and minimize in-the-moment stress.

Create a plan with your partner to make meals for each other. Depending on the demands of your work day, one might be able to cook lunch, while the other can take on dinner. It’s a great way to share the load and find time to connect — and having a plan in advance will help you avoid throwing together last-minute unhealthy meals.

Set time on your shared calendar for an activity that helps you recharge. Holding even five minutes for a check-in will make a difference. Take a stretch break together, make lunch, or grab a few minutes of exercise. 

At the end of your work day, take five minutes to unwind before rejoining your partner. This “buffer time” helps you release stress that’s built up from the day. Taking a few conscious breaths, reading an article or watching a video that has nothing to do with work will help you be your best self with your partner in the evening. 

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