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Relationship Expert: During COVID-19, ‘Project Manage’ Your Partnership

We asked The Gottman Institute how you can do less housework

Photo courtesy of Helena Lopes

Ever fantasized about dating a coworker? Congratulations. You and millions of other Americans are now living that dream. At home. Every day. With your kids.

Did I mention you’re married and we’re in the middle of a pandemic? How could I forget.

Whatever your situation, if you’re struggling to work from home with your partner—or even your roommate—during coronavirus, you’re not alone. COVID-19 has brought a new and exhausting challenge into our lives: navigating a personal relationship while also juggling work, our mental health, caring for kids and loved ones, and the fear of the unknown in a living space that seems to get smaller every single day. This is the garbage compactor scene in Star Wars if there ever were one.

InHerSight isn’t here to dish out relationship advice, but we believe work, paid or unpaid, is work, and we know the unpaid bit is most likely to cause burnout for working women right now—because there is just so much of it, and many households don’t divide up chores evenly. That’s where your work and home lives are entirely, and very messily, intertwined.

Clinical psychologist Karen Bridbord, an organizational consultant for companies and startups and a certified Gottman Couples Therapist, says now is the time for couples to take a more business-minded approach to their relationships. If you’re going to successfully work, raise kids, eat, sleep, and whatever else at home together in the middle of a global health crisis, then you need to learn to “project manage” your lives. Here’s how.

Read more: A Couple's How-To for Dealing with Dual Careers

Schedule a ‘State of the Union’

Welcome to the only in-person meeting on your calendar for the foreseeable future: the “State of the Union.” Bridbord says every couple should schedule a “planning and implementation” meeting to talk about what needs to get done and who’s doing what. Assign tasks just like you would at your monthly business meeting. “We need to bring some of the strategies we use to manage companies into how we manage relationships,” Bridbord says. 

This regularly occurring meeting is also a time for partners to talk about what isn’t working and how you, as a team, will readjust to better meet each other’s needs. “The first 30 seconds of a conversation determines how the rest of the conversation will go,” Bridbord says, suggesting that couples dealing with conflict use a “softened startup,” a formulaic way of framing problems, to ease into tricky subjects. That phrase sounds like this:

I feel ______ about  ______, and I need ______.

Watch out for the ‘Four Horsemen’

Communication in relationships (and quarantine) is key, and productive communication will need to happen whether you’re in your State of the Union or not. The Gottman Method, which is the research-based method Bridbord uses in her therapy sessions, says a first step in forming productive communication is ridding conflict discussions of the “Four Horsemen”: criticism, contempt, stonewalling, and defensiveness. “Within this crisis, there is great opportunity, and that opportunity is connection,” Bridbord says. 

Couples should deal with conflict at the most stress-free time possible to keep the Four Horsemen from derailing the conversation. “Right now, all of us have anxiety, and it’s being directed in different ways,” Bridbord says. “When you’re in a state of overwhelm, you may become flooded. That’s not the time to talk.” Take a break and, as your coworkers say, circle back. 

She also recommends reminding yourself that your partner can’t read your mind. A lot of conflict stems from this belief that partners should be able to guess how we feel. That isn’t going to happen. “And it’s not something we usually do to our colleagues,” Bridbord says.

Read more: 4 Tips for Setting Work-Life Boundaries When Your Home is Your Office

Remember the principle of ‘aikido’

You ladder-climbers who’ve read up on persuasion tactics will recognize the principle of aikido, or the Japanese martial arts strategy that roughly translates to “yield to win.” It’s the idea that in order to have a positive conclusion to your conflict, you need to accept and understand your partner’s perspective and feelings. In martial arts, it’s about victory, but in relationships, it’s about coming to a solution both of you are comfortable with.

Bridbord says that instead of telling your partner what you think is going wrong, you should invite them to first share their thoughts on your relationship. Try questions like, “How do you think things are going at home?” and “What do you think is going well and not going well?”

This approach fosters discussion and collaboration, and it gives you the opportunity to see your relationship from your partner’s vantage point. “Sometimes we assume our partners are not doing their best, but what if we flip that script and assume they’re trying their hardest?” Bridbord says.

Read more: 12 Best Podcast Episodes About Work & Relationships

Practice stress-reducing conversations

Anxiety is contagious, meaning when you’re tense, other people around you are more likely to become tense. What a wonderful time for everyone to be trapped in their homes with their partners.

Bridbord says there are ways to mitigate mounting anxiety. “One of the key factors in successful couples is the ability to have stress-reducing conversations,” she says. In those conversations, a proper response to “I’m having a really hard day” isn’t “Me too” or “Just wait until you hear about mine.” It’s “Tell me about that.” 

As a listener, don’t try to fix your partner’s problems, either. “People aren’t looking for someone to solve their problems, just to listen,” she says. Ask prompting questions to dig deeper. Empathize.

In terms of your relationship, this kind of active listening is a sign of friendship, which Bridbord says is fundamental to romance. “The hallmarks of friendship are trust and commitment. We’re looking for partners who will show up for us emotionally.”

That doesn’t mean showing up is easy. It’s not, and neither is building an equitable relationship in the best of circumstances. Everyone is struggling with it. “These kinds of dynamics transcend socioeconomics,” Bridbord says. Simply put: “It’s hard to work together.”

Read more: A Few Good Things: What We’re Reading & Watching to Stay Positive During the COVID-19 Pandemic

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By Beth Castle

Managing Editor, InHerSight

Beth Castle is on staff at InHerSight, where she writes about workplace rights, diversity and inclusion, allyship, and feminism. Her bylines include Fast Company, Charlotte magazine, The Charlotte Observer, SouthPark magazine, Southbound magazine, and Atlanta magazine. She holds a master’s degree in journalism from the University of Missouri-Columbia.

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