By Madiha Tahseen, Ph.D.
Anaya is rushing to meet an urgent work deadline when Malik rushes in to tell her some news about his project at work. Anaya, frustrated with being interrupted, tells Malik to leave her alone since she barely gets time to work without their toddler driving her crazy. Malik responds angrily, “you never have time for me” and storms out of the room. Later that evening, Anaya and Malik have a quiet dinner with few words said between them. Sound familiar? This situation has become all too common for many of us who are navigating our marriages while working from home during this pandemic (and potentially having children who are also schooling at the same time!). In no time, Anaya and Malik’s seemingly minor issues can morph into serious marital issues— a trend that has been recently reported by research and many marriage therapists*. But, it’s never too late to change our habits and use this time to build resilience in each other and in our marriages. Let’s talk about 4 strategies that couples can try as the world moves through this pandemic:
1. Create and respect boundaries.
Now that you are both home all the time, you are in each other’s space and face all day. But, it doesn’t mean you are available to each other— or that you don’t have the need for your own space. Establish boundaries about your work and personal spaces, and about when you are available during the workday. Discuss together what these boundaries look like and how to maintain them. Most importantly, respect each other’s time and thoughts. In the case of our couple above, Anaya could simply post a sign on her door to let Malik know when she cannot be interrupted versus when she’s working but is approachable.
2. Self-care, spouse-care, marriage-care.
What does this mean? Find time, no matter what it takes and even if for just a few minutes, to do some tender loving care of your soul and your being. It’s an inside job— so be your own advocate! You will not be able to give to your marriage if you are working on an empty cup. Then allow your partner to do the same— create whatever routine or schedule that allows them to also do their own self-care. When you both are able to care for yourselves, then you’ll have the right frame of mind to care for your marital relationship. Many couples set apart some time for date night but without having time for self-care, both spouses come to that date night with empty tanks— resulting in an unfulfilling time together. Sitting on screens is not self-care. Get back to the basics: find ways to love your mind, body, soul, and spirit.
3. Accept your spouse for how they feel and how they cope.
If your spouse has responded to this pandemic with anxiety (shopping!) whereas you are more calm and relaxed, that is totally normal. You are not your spouse and your spouse is not you. Based on a variety of factors, spouses may respond to stress and uncertainty very differently. If your spouse is feeling worse about it than you— let them. Rather than “stop freaking out, it’s going to be fine!”, show some empathy and try to understand why your partner feels that way. Use each other’s coping styles to enhance how you, as a couple, respond to stress, rather than shaming each other for them. For example, Malik who has taken the pandemic more lightly than Anaya, can bring in some levity and comedy to diffuse the stress (without being dismissive). Anaya, on the other hand, can redirect her anxious energy to ensuring that they are engaging in healthy habits as a family to stay safe.
4. Emotions are contagious. Guard your tongue and speak with kindness— or not at all.
Just as being around others at a fun gathering can make you giddy and happy, being around someone who is critical or irritated can be contagious too. If emotions are running high, feel them but with grace: say something like “I’m feeling cranky right now and going to step away for a bit so I don’t take it out on you”. Then, use that space to get back to being calm. Being in each other’s space so much these days may make you even more irritated with that one habit of your spouse’s— or make you discover 10 more quirks! Now is the time to show each other compassion and appreciation— tone down the criticism! Guard your tongue as our Prophet (S) has taught us by finding something appreciative to say or staying silent. Look for what your spouse is doing right and express it— keep a gratitude journal if that helps or express your appreciation every night as you wind down from the day. Work together with your spouse to create an emotionally healthy home.
Does trying these tips mean you won’t have any conflict in your marriage? Absolutely not. But, they do ensure that as you experience struggles with each other during these trying times of social isolation and pandemic fatigue, you have a toolbox of healthy coping skills at your disposal. These strategies will not only help you move through this pandemic— but will build resilience in you and strengthen the foundation of your marriage. May Allah (SWT) grant us patience, compassion, and understanding with our spouses, now and in the future, Ameen.