I expected that the stay-at-home order here in California — which permits people to leave their residences for only essential activities, like food shopping, until further notice — would inevitably affect my relationship with my live-in partner. But what I wasn’t prepared for was sharing a desk with him and his huge video editing equipment as we both worked from home last week. Normally, he’d work from his office, while I’d work from home. I love the man to death, but mentally drowning out his conference calls while scrambling to hit a deadline was, well, a lot. Will we hate each other by the time this is all over? How do you self-quarantine with a partner without losing your shit?
Other cohabiting couples can probably relate, especially in the jurisdictions across the country that have issued stay-at-home orders and shelters-in-place to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus. Some couples who weren’t previously living with each other have shacked up temporarily, until the pandemic subsides, while others are sticking it out apart. I spoke with Andrea Liner, a Denver-based psychologist, about what to keep in mind when practicing social distancing with a partner, no matter what your relationship looks like.
If you already live with your partner, Liner suggests setting up separate work areas and staying in them for most of the day. Basically, think of yourselves as coworkers in separate offices. This way, you not only muffle each other’s work calls and loud typing, but also avoid becoming overwhelmed with each other come dinner time.
As always, whether you’re in a pandemic or not, communication is key.
Maintaining a sense of routine helps, too. “Otherwise, the days kind of bleed together in a very weird way,” Liner says. Make sure you’re being conscientious of each other’s schedules, too. For instance, normally Liner’s husband leaves for work early, while she doesn’t see clients until late morning. But since he’s working home for the time being, she tries to wake up earlier so he doesn’t have to tiptoe around her as she sleeps.
And, as always, whether you’re in a pandemic or not, communication is key. “Don’t assume you know what your partner needs or wants,” Liner tells Mic. At any other time, flipping on the TV without asking your partner what they want to watch wouldn’t be a problem — but it could cause conflict in high-stress periods such as this one.
While spending quality time with each other may seem like the last thing you want to do when you’re already constantly within a few feet or less of each other, remember that sharing physical space doesn’t necessarily equate to connecting, Liner says. Look for opportunities to engage in novel activities you wouldn’t have otherwise had time for, like assembling that 1,000-piece jigsaw puzzle. Although you might feel tempted to hole up in your bedroom and read while your partner plays video games, try being flexible and join them. “It’s making an effort to not just exist in the same space, but interact in the same space”—ideally doing something fun.
Maybe one or both of you have lost your jobs or aren’t receiving compensation for not coming into work. Financial stress often makes people irritable, creating a recipe for conflict, Liner says. Again, communication is important. If you don’t make as much anymore, be honest about what you can and can’t afford. And if you’re in good financial shape, but your partner’s struggling, don’t assume they’ll split your Postmates bill with you. If you’re out of work and find yourself with way more free time now, try posting your (remote) services on a site like Upwork (although Liner doesn’t recommend urging your partner to do this if they’re the unemployed one).
Of course, we all have a right to feel our feelings, which may be especially intense if they stem from financial hardship. But be mindful about how your shitty mood can affect your partner, especially when you’re in such close quarters. If you need to, explain that you need to take a breather in another room, alone, because you don’t want to drag them down with you. For instance, yesterday, during a particularly bad anxiety day, I told my partner I was in a weird mood amid all the coronavirus chaos before having a nice, long, therapeutic cry in the shower.
Even if this experiment doesn’t “work,” it doesn’t mean your relationship is a failure; you may just not be ready to live with each other yet.
And if you’re considering temporarily shacking up with bae, think of it as a fun experiment, Liner says. Talk about how living with each other through a pandemic doesn’t necessarily mean you have to live with each other after it’s all over. In other words, take the pressure off yourselves to “make it work.” Otherwise, you might run into more problems, such as feeling like you can’t complain or ask for what you want, because it would cause conflict, which means you suck at living together and need to break up. Even if this experiment doesn’t “work,” it doesn’t mean your relationship is a failure; you may just not be ready to live with each other yet.
That said, if you do decide to cohabit for the time being, set some precedents. “It’s a really good time to be intentional and deliberate about how you like to live together and how you foresee splitting up tasks,” Liner says. Communicate about daily routines, too, like whether you need an hour to yourself after work to replace the hour you used to spend zoning out on your commute home. Express privacy boundaries as well, like taking phone calls from your parents or using the bathroom, both without having your partner hovering nearby. Talking to your parents in front of your partner can create some awkwardness, especially if your partner hasn't met your parents yet, or if you haven't told your parents about them. And, well, you might just not feel comfortable dropping a deuce around your partner, especially in the early stages of your relationship.
Regardless of how you and partner are self-quarantining, communication is crucial, especially now. Equally as important — remember that this pandemic is only temporary. Otherwise, “that will put you in a position to be unpleasant to be around and less likely to see positives and solutions,” Liner says. “We don’t know exactly how long it’s going to be, but it’s not forever. There will be an end.” And your relationship may emerge from it even stronger.