Therapist Real Talk: How to Thrive As a Couple in Quarantine

If quarantine is causing some tension with your partner, you're not alone. We asked a relationship coach how couples can make isolation work and how to make it successful.

By Danielle Robin

couple happy outside
Photo by Kelly and Sergio Photography

Danielle Robin is a conscious relationship coach for the modern couple. In this mini series for Zola, she's breaking down exactly how couples can not only survive quarantine, but thrive together throughout it.

You were ready for ‘till death do us part,’ but were you ready for quarantine? It sounds ridiculous but most couples planning to build a life together didn’t anticipate also having to build a double home office in a one-bedroom apartment or starter home. Quarantine has us spending more time than ever with our significant others—and, let’s be honest, that time feels a bit different when it’s mandated.

The good news? You’re definitely not alone. Couples the world over are currently faced with new questions like:

  • How do we share space and still have personal space?

  • How do we meet each others’ needs, and also our own, during this incredible emotional and challenging time?

  • Where do we turn to meet the social needs that once kept us sane(brunch, boxing classes, farmer’s market runs, mornings at the dog park) aren’t available?

Suddenly the physical people and places we used to evenly distribute our energy into aren’t immediately available and we’re left focusing that energy entirely on our partners. That’s a lot to give and it’s certainly a lot to take.

This quarantine can be a really positive thing for couples, though. With some ground rules, this period of isolated time can be more about successfully coexisting and spending valuable time together and much less about tension and issues.

Consider the space.

First things first, it’s important to stay cognizant of the impact your actual space can have on your relationship. In small spaces, little arguments can feel a lot bigger and, therefore, can last a lot longer. It’s crucial to be aware of that fact alone and try to exercise patience as small tensions arise.

Again, with a few important pillars in place, this becomes a lot easier.

Create Structure

There is a lot of unknown in the world right now and no way to control that. That said, creating structure within this new framework will allow you to feel much more settled, and it’s a wonderful activity to take on with a partner.

What is your new temporary normal and your couple agreements to ensure an environment in which you can both thrive together, and individually?

In addition to creating a sense of safety, adding structure will also reduce tension and friction that can arise from two people suddenly working and living under one roof together, 24/7. When one person is trying to have a normal workday and the other one wants to hang out, you’re on the fast track to an argument.

How to Create Structure

Here are some questions that will help you create some structure in your relationship:

Which days are presumed workdays? Which days are presumed not?

I recommend keeping normal Monday-Friday work days if you can, and then checking in on how much time you want to spend together over the weekends. Of course, this depends on your jobs or current professional roles and responsibilities.

Where can you each have your own space?

If you can, set up your own space within your home. Create a desk area, and with it, a way to delineate “I’m at work” from “I’m available.”

What is the workday schedule? How do you honor that?

In my relationship, we can see each other’s calendars so we know when the other one is on calls. Sometimes, we’ll check in on each other with a wave, but from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. there’s never any expectation that the other one is available for any conversation or hanging out. If we want to check in on something, we’ll write it in our joint slack channel, which the other person can check at their convenience.

When are you eating together?

Again, this is up to you to decide. What has worked for us is to presume we are eating dinner together, but not any other meals. If you’re making a meal and have the time to make a little more, it’s kind to ask your partner if they may want to partake, but it’s totally up to you!

If you both agree on a structure and it feels right, then whatever plan of action you come up with together is perfect. The most important thing is to have these conversations and not make assumptions. There is usually an argument hiding in every assumption.

Put your mask on first.

A beautiful thing about partnership is that you have someone there to support you during the hard parts of life. In uncertain times when emotions are high, it can feel tempting to rely completely on your partner for support.

Over these next couple of months, while it may be tempting to just ask your partner to help you meet all your needs for comfort, safety, companionship, and fun, I urge you to try something else entirely. More than ever, it’s crucial to remember to support yourself first, before helping or before asking for help every time you think you might need it.

For example:

  • If you feel like you want more companionship or communication, try setting up a few phone or Zoom dates with friends.

  • If you feel bored, try joining an online class that speaks to you.

  • If you feel sad or angry, find an online meditation or yoga class to help move some of that energy.

See if you can meet your own needs before involving your partner. When we lean too heavily on our partners during a challenging time, we forget that they are also taking care of their own needs, and we may be more prone to overreact if they can’t be there for us in exactly the way we want.

Taking that extra emotional responsibility means that you will show up more grounded for each other. You’re less likely to run into tension that arises when we place too much expectation on another person… expectation that sets them up to fail. Let’s give each other the chance to succeed.

Take space.

Seems counterintuitive in a time when we’re being pushed physically closer than ever, right? That said, space is actually one of your greatest relationship allies right now.

Creating some space allows for individuality to be maintained, it creates an opportunity for each of you to take care of your own needs, and it creates some tension between the two of you—the good kind of tension, the kind every romantic relationship needs to thrive.

Some ideas for making and taking space:

  • Maintain a morning routine. A great way to create space is to each have your own morning routine, and to really respect the boundaries of each other’s individual routine. Morning routines are also an incredible way to add structure to your day. Rather than trying to coordinate, allow the first 15-60 minutes of the day to be completely your own. You’ll both feel fresher, more grounded, and ready for your best day, whatever that looks like.

  • Keep your weeknight activities (sort of). Another great way to add some space is to choose a weeknight for friends or personal activities. You know how you used to grab dinner or drinks with your respective friends on Wednesdays? Keep doing that—virtually, of course. And, you know how nice it would be to arrive home and see each other after those drinks? Taking some space will allow you to keep creating that feeling.

Assume this is a marathon, not a sprint. Set yourself up for a new normal now by creating structure, learning to care for your own needs first, and making an effort to create space. Your relationship will thank you. From a strong baseline, you can start to explore and even have fun in your quarantine. But, most importantly, you’ll find harmony and calm in the middle of a storm.