Couplehood in the Time of Pandemic

There are options to faithfully navigate relationships.


“Didn’t we just do the dishes?” I asked irritably, interrupted from my work at the kitchen table as my husband finished loading the dishes, placing a dishwasher tab into its slot, and shutting the dishwasher door. 

“Yes, but we’ve been cooking more,” he told me with a raised brow at my irritation.

This is true. We have been sheltering-in-place for a little over three months now because COVID-19 put a halt to going to our work outside the home. Like everyone else, we have experienced this new world that has been full of ambiguous loss (we are not what we were and do not know what we will be or when the end will come), adaptation fatigue (Zoom meetings, working from home, wearing masks, etc.), and our individual losses (family deaths, job loss, mental health issues, etc.). Those three layers of stress are enough for everyone to not be operating at their best. Now, with our nation facing the consequences of the sins of systemic racism and oppression, we are rallying with already exhausted bodies and psyches. We join the psalmist’s cry, “How long, O Lord?” (Psalm 13:1) from every level.

With this backdrop in mind, we enter into the domestic scene. For those who have had to adapt to being around one another day in and day out, where homes that used to be places of solace are now work stations, the resulting frustration and conflict are no surprise. There are good reasons why people need time apart, so how does a person of faith respond in the face of irritation and anger for and from the partner you solemnly vowed to cherish “for better for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health…” (Book of Common Prayer, 427)?

My Spouse is Driving Me to Distraction! How Can I Keep the Sixth Commandment?

For some Christians, there is the dysfunctional belief that we need to be nice to others and that any emotion that is not happy should not be expressed, especially when you are clergy or a lay leader in a congregation. However, being human requires us to have emotions, and emotions that are not articulated may come out sideways in behaviors that can be damaging to our relationships. Jesus was not afraid of expressing strong emotions: cleansing the temple (John 2:13-22); calling out hypocrites (Matthew 23:13); weeping over the death of Lazarus (John 11:1-35); and lamenting over Jerusalem (Luke 19:41-44) to name a few. Only when we acknowledge our own very human emotions and needs can we share them with one another, deepening and restoring our relationships.

Living into this pandemic time has been intense and our expectations of each other should be filtered through extraordinary grace and mercy. I have found myself saying to parishioners and clients, “You got up this morning, you haven’t killed anyone, and you’re wearing pants. I say today is a good day!” Adjusting our expectations and reminding ourselves that we are all doing our best can go a long way. Here are some other suggestions to help us come through this as stronger and healthier couples:

  • Keep in mind the external backdrop we are living under. There are several couples I know who had their first child within the first few weeks of sheltering-in-place. In addition to having to learn how to be parents, they were not able to have the help they were planning for and counting on at home. Needless to say, psychologist John Gottman’s Four Horses of the [Relationship] Apocalypse were running rampant: Criticism, Defensiveness, Contempt, and Stonewalling . Modern life is stressful enough without a pandemic. Reminding yourself and each other that there are external factors affecting your daily life and emotions can be helpful, as is extending grace when needed.
  • Find ways to spend time alone. Give each other a break. With the weather getting nicer, find ways to let one person be in the house for some solitude or leave the house to get some peace. There is a crucial element in the Episcopal Church’s marriage ceremony where the congregation is asked, “Will all of you witnessing these promises do all in your power to uphold these two persons in their marriage?” and the people answer, “We will.” Utilize your community to help you uphold your marriage by figuring out creative ways that they can help give you a break.
  • Exercise. Together or alone or as a family. Numerous studies have proven that exercise helps your body and mind deal with stress.
  • Focus on each other without distraction. When working from home, surfaces can be covered with work-related items and your space may feel like you no longer have a solace. Decide how you want to put those away—in a box, put up on a shelf, in another room—and what time you want to close shop. Once you are done for the day, then you can focus on each other in an intentional way and find a time where you can talk to each other without your phone, computer, or TV on. 
    • Once a week, check-in about how your relationship is doing. This is not going through your daily schedule with the kids or what you want to do for dinner. This is solely focused on your relationship. Ask these questions, adapted from the Prepare-Enrich program: In your relationship, what is life-giving? What has been hard? (Hint: Use ‘I’ statements and avoid “you always” and “you never” accusations.) Finally, ask your partner: How can I be more helpful to you?
    • Look online for some discussion starters if you want some new questions to deepen your knowledge of each other try the ones found here.
    • Have an honest conversation about emotional and physical labor during this time. With one or both partners working from home, it is not surprising that the disparities become clearer; talk about them. If you are in a two-clergy household who are also trying to manage the anxiety of their congregations and have been working twice as hard to create connection and virtual worship experiences during this pandemic, this conversation is paramount. In the Episcopal Church’s Baptismal Covenant we are asked: “Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself? Will you strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being?” These aspects of covenant are sometimes neglected in our closest relationships because we are too busy trying to apply them to our congregation and outside world. The reply to these questions is always, “I will, with God’s help” and sometimes God’s help means finding a good couples therapist to help you find new strategies and tools to make this happen in your relationship.
  • Let your spiritual practices draw you closer together. Praying for one another and confessing to each other where you feel you have missed the mark (James 5:16), practicing the process of forgiveness (Matthew 18:15-22), doing ritual (grace at meals, bedtime prayers, lighting candles for others, having a home altar, etc.) and worship services (virtual or at home) are all ways that you can utilize your spiritual life as a strength in your relationship. There are also many apps for your phone or other device that provide daily prayer, scripture readings, and reflections—look for one from your denomination. 
  • Find a good therapist. I cannot recommend this enough for both individuals and couples. Many therapists are doing telehealth now and are accepting new clients. There is no shame in using the networks of support available to you; God created us to be in relationship, and we cannot do everything alone. Find out if your workplace has an Employee Assistance Program (EAP). A good EAP will help you find the right type of therapist and often covers a certain number of free sessions. They can also assist you in finding addiction recovery groups and other mental health resources.

Remember You Will Get Through This With God’s Help

There is no question that this time in our lives is difficult. In marriage, there will be ups and downs, prosperity and adversity, sickness and health. The healing that occurs by turning toward each other when times are the hardest is one of the most powerful things that can happen in a relationship. So, take a deep breath, take things one day at a time, and know that you will get through this together, with God’s help.

 [[author title=”About the Author”]]

  • Danáe Ashley

    The Rev. Danae M. Ashley, MDiv, MA, LMFT is an Episcopal priest and marriage and family therapist who has ministered with parishes in North Carolina, New York, Minnesota, and is currently a priest in Seattle and a therapist at Soul Spa Seattle, LLC ( Danae uses art, music, drama, poetry, and movement in counseling, spiritual direction, and creation of ritual. Her interfaith Clergy Care Circles for therapeutic group spiritual direction directly supports diverse clergy in varied circumstances across the country. Danae's favorite past times include reading, gardening, traveling, dancing with wild abandon to Celtic music, and serious karaoke.

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