This is Part 3 of a series that looks at the research-based solutions to navigating this trying time in our lives and marriages—and emerging stronger. Feel free to share this with those who might benefit!
If you listen to the pundits, the conventional wisdom is that this quarantine is fracturing marriages in an unprecedented way. We hear about China’s divorce filings spiking as soon as their lockdown let up, and divorce requests breaking a city’s single-day record. We hear that we too will soon see a wave of divorces.
I think this is missing the big picture—and the much more encouraging truth! Yes, temporary divorce spikes are possible (although I suspect China’s were a function of delayed requests happening all at once). But I believe this time is likely to end up being a far greater blessing for marriages than any of the pundits can imagine.
I want to share why—and how we can purposefully steer our marriages toward emerging from this season stronger and more connected than we were going in. In particular, if you are in a shaky marriage I hope you will see this as an opportunity for healing. (One vital exception: if you are in an abusive household, you need to make your safety and your kids’ safety your priority. Please seek help and get to a safe place. All states say you are not breaking the lockdown!)
Why This Unprecedented Time Is An Unprecedented Opportunity
During “normal” times, our research study for The Surprising Secrets of Highly Happy Marriages found that one of the most sneakily simple actions that makes marriages better is to simply hang out more often.
Well, we’re all hanging out a lot more than we used to, aren’t we?! So why does it matter, and how do we use it to strengthen our marriage?
Why it matters: It turns out, the happiest couples treat each other first and foremost as best friends. Think about it: When you are very, very close friends with someone, you don’t just love each other—you like each other. And you like and care for one other so much that you can and will work through very difficult things in order to keep the friendship intact.
That “liking” is what some shaky marriages have begun to lack—and what they can get back during this time as they strengthen their friendship with each other.
So what is the greatest predictor of friendship? It is easy to think it is “shared values” or “complementary temperaments”, and so on. Actually, all those things matter, but they are secondary. The greatest predictor of friendship is geographic proximity. You are the best friends with the people you see the most often. The more time you spend together, the closer you get—and the less time you spend together, the less intimate even the closest friendships will begin to feel. Just ponder what happened in your relationship when a very close friend moved away, and you’ll see what I mean. (We don’t have space here to unpack this more, but I urge you to see the book for more “to-do’s” and our findings about how to build a vital, happy marriage.)
During “normal” times, we are all so busy and stretched with commitments away from our family that we often grow distant without intending to. Our friendship wanes. Which leaves room for irritations to rise and “liking” to fall. We begin to have conflict, and then avoid each other in order to avoid the conflict—which means we spend less time together. The “best practice” solution among counselors is to ask the couple to purposefully spend some “conflict-free” time together.
One highly successful marriage counselor told me her main prescription, before she takes on a new couple for marriage therapy, is to ask them to spend 30 minutes together each day just talking and reconnecting, with no negativity or fighting. By the time they sit down in her office two weeks later for the start of their sessions, they have rediscovered their friendship and are willing and able to work to grow back together.
Please note: I am not saying that spending time together by itself will solve major marriage problems. But spending time together, if done with goodwill, will rebuild the friendship. And if you are friends with this person you have pledged your life to, you can solve anything.
How to use this time to strengthen our marriages: We are now given the opportunity to rediscover our friendship with our spouse and/or to make it even stronger. Which leads to one huge, main, neon-sign challenge to each of us:
Don’t Waste This Moment
Don’t waste this time. Seize the chance to grow closer by doing things that will connect with your spouse. This might mean deep conversations, but it might mean simply plopping down beside your spouse on the couch as they watch an action movie, even if action movies aren’t really your thing. Simply be together. Pull up photographs of a vacation and reminisce. Ask what their favorite memory was from that time at the beach or the snowshoeing trip. Have your morning coffee together, even if all you do is to sit across from each other and read the morning news and mention an interesting snippet from time to time. Go walking together. Even better, while you’re walking, ask about your spouse’s fears and worries right now and really listen to the heart underneath the surface of their answers. Honor their feelings instead of trying to fix them or think (or say!) that they shouldn’t feel that way.
What we must not do is to find a corner of the house or apartment, closet ourselves, and shut down. Yes, everyone needs some space in times like these—especially those introverts who re-energize by being alone. (And an introvert will appreciate that and emerge more ready to engage.) But giving your spouse or yourself space is not the same thing as emotionally pulling away and just trying to endure these next few weeks or months on your own.
I was doing a radio interview yesterday on how to emerge stronger from this time, and the host issued this challenge to her listeners: “Don’t blow the opportunity by burying yourself in Netflix or gaming!”
I agree, but would adjust that: don’t blow this opportunity by burying yourself in Netflix or gaming—unless that is what your spouse is doing! If they are closeting themselves, ask if you can join them! Watch the Netflix show together. Ask if you can watch your spouse gaming—after all, many others have turned gaming into a spectator sport! (Or find a video game you two can play together.)
Every couple will have a different pattern. The key is to find and pursue those things you can talk about, watch, and do together during this time. Even if it is simply hanging out.
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Shaunti Feldhahn is a Harvard-trained social researcher and best-selling author who is sheltering-in-place in Atlanta with her husband and co-author Jeff, two teenagers who are figuring out how to do college and high school online, and two cats who are thrilled to have even more video meetings to walk in front of each day.
Shameless plug: The Feldhahn’s newest book, Thriving in Love & Money, about how to have a great relationship around money (even in a time of trial), was published right before the National Emergency was declared, and is even more essential now. You can support Shaunti’s research and team during this time by purchasing a copy for someone who needs it.