Two Marriage Counselors Give the Advice All Married Couples Need to Hear Right Now

When it comes to marriages in the United States, the coronavirus has acted like a magnifying glass, accentuating a marriage’s strengths and weaknesses. According to the American Family Survey, this added intensity has had mixed results. About half of the husbands and wives they surveyed reported stronger unions, while the other half did not.

To help us join the former half, marriage counselors Jill Sieverts ’86 and Eden West ’07 are here to share the advice they’ve been giving to their own clients during the pandemic, so we, too, can enjoy stronger unions in this time of crisis.

Come Up with an Action Plan to Take Care of Your People

During this pandemic, spouses have needed to constantly redefine what safety, childcare, education, friendships, familial relationships and even grocery shopping look like. They are also setting boundaries and creating protocols that weren’t necessary before. “All of these changes are adding stress in marital relationships, especially in cases where spouses do not agree on a course of action,” says Sieverts. “Listening well and being willing to compromise are critical in avoiding unnecessary tension and resentment.”

The best way to reach a compromise is to plan ahead. “Be proactive rather than reactive,” cautions West. “Long before the deadline came up, my husband and I discussed whether or not we wanted to send our three-year-old son to preschool. You need to give yourself the time and luxury to sleep on it and talk things through. The more you can be on the same page, the better it’s going to go for everyone.”

Get in the Habit of Practicing Good Marital Hygiene

“COVID-19 has taught us a lot about the importance of good hygiene practices. In general, we should be washing our hands frequently and staying home when we are sick,” says West. “At the same time, we should be practicing good marital hygiene. We may be seeing each other all the time, but that doesn’t mean we’re being intentional.”

West’s clients are often surprised that marriage requires more effort and maintenance than dating until she likens it to the experience of owning a car. She explains, “The more frequently you drive your car, the more maintenance it requires. Not less. If your car sits in the garage and you only drive it to church on Sunday, you don’t need to change your oil or clean it as frequently. But when you’re driving it daily, say for a two-hour commute, you’re going to get some fast food wrappers and Starbucks coffee cups in there. You’re going to put some wear and tear on the wheels, and you’re going to need to change the oil sooner than every three months.”

Good marital hygiene starts with intentionality, which we’ll explore in more detail below.

See This as an Opportunity to Grow More Connected to Your Spouse

Growing apart is natural. West elaborates, “When you look in nature, things don’t grow toward each other. They tend to seek their own space and nutrients. When you plant two rosebushes next to each other, with no maintenance or foresight, they will grow apart. Red and white roses overlaid together on a trellis takes intentionality. If we’re going to be in healthy marriages, we have to be intentional about choosing each other.”

“We’re going to remember if we felt alone in it or if we felt like we had a real ally in our spouse. We want to emerge from this chapter feeling grateful that we had partners who cared about our feelings and concerns and who took extra steps to make life fun even when things felt scary.”

It’s normal for our focus to narrow when we’re feeling afraid and tired, but we have an opportunity during COVID to show up for our spouses in a big way that they’ll always remember, Sieverts points out. “We’re not going to forget this period in history. It’s bizarre and stressful, but it’s going to pass,” says Sieverts. “We’re going to remember if we felt alone in it or if we felt like we had a real ally in our spouse. We want to emerge from this chapter feeling grateful that we had partners who cared about our feelings and concerns and who took extra steps to make life fun even when things felt scary.”

Get Creative (and Consistent) with Date Nights

Throughout the winter, many of your favorite date-night venues may be closed. Indoor ice rinks. Cinemas. Karaoke bars. Bowling alleys. Art museums. The list is long. Still, with a little imagination, there are ways you can enjoy new experiences with your spouse. “Watching Netflix and doing house projects can be relationship builders, but they’re certainly not enough” says Sieverts. Here are some ideas Sieverts and West have borrowed from their clients. (We also threw in a few of our own.)

  • Make or invest in a fire pit so that you can enjoy bonfires on cold winter nights
  • Perfect the art of breadmaking or pizza making
  • Check out an outdoor Christmas lights display
  • Try a new winter activity, such a snow shoeing, cross-country skiing, downhill skiing, snowmobiling or even ice fishing
  • Go on a winter getaway somewhere local
  • Read a book together
  • Play a board game for two like Codenames Duet, Morels, Arboretum, Sherlock Holmes Consulting or Hive.

“Right now, we have to try a little harder,” says West. “For a night out, my husband put a blow-up mattress and some throw pillows in the back of his pickup truck. We drove to the lake near our house, took out some red wine and cheese and watched the sunset. We took a comfortable place and moved it to a different location.” Sometimes, all you need is a change of scenery.

Go on Internal Voyages Together

An internal voyage, says West, is a time to ask each other deep and playful questions—the ones people tend to ask each other when they start dating, but soon forget. “Your partner may have changed their answers since the last time you asked, so it can be fun to revisit these deeper questions,” says West.

To get back into the swing of internal voyages, Sieverts recommends the Gottman Card Decks app, which you can download at the Apple Store or Google Play Store. This app offers a cornucopia of conversation starters and date night ideas from well-respected relationship experts Drs. John and Julie Gottman.

Communicate How You Really Feel and Create a Safe Space for Your Spouse

Although the coronavirus pandemic can put a lot of strain on a marriage, there’s a silver lining to be found. In general, “the pandemic has provided married couples the opportunity to finally hash out some of the things that they may have previously brushed aside. Before, when we got frustrated with a spouse, we could go to a friend’s house or to the gym. We could disappear for a few hours. People had more ways to avoid conversation,” says Sieverts. “Now that they’re home, they have more opportunities and motivation to deal with things they may have tried to ignore before, and that’s a good thing as it can lead to deeper understanding and increased emotional intimacy that will hopefully last long after COVID is behind us.

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Note: The image above is of Eden West and her husband on their ninth wedding anniversary.