“You know how you always say I’m the one person you never get sick of?” my boyfriend asked the other day, as he hung up his coat. I was nestled into the couch, work laptop in hand, finishing up my second day of working from home. He had just arrived back at our apartment after his last day in the office before starting a spate of working from home—one that stretched, ominously, far into the foreseeable future. “Time to put that to the test!” he laughed.
Yes, indeed. We, like many others, are practicing social distancing in an effort to stanch the spread of COVID-19. That means working from home, and only leaving the house for groceries and crucial supplies. It also means that we spend virtually 24 hours of the day with each other. We’re not sick of each other yet, but there are hiccups here and there that come with being in close quarters with another human for long periods of time. Are you in self-isolation with your significant other, too? (For info on how to successfully self-isolate alongside roommates, go here.) Our panel of mental health pros shared some awesome strategies for how partners can come out of isolation stronger than ever.
WHY IS SOCIAL DISTANCING TOGETHER SO HARD?
Social distancing solo is hard, but doing it with others can be just as challenging – even if it’s with a beloved partner. “Outside of the honeymoon period, many of us are not used to spending a majority of our time with our loved ones, especially not when it means being together all morning, afternoon, evening and night,” says psychotherapist Sarah Ahmed, cofounder of Toronto psychotherapy clinic WellNest and wellness counselor at the University of Toronto. “Spending most of our waking hours together can be a big adjustment for couples. Of course, being in each other’s personal space will inevitably lead to an increased rate of conflict amongst couples as well.”
There goes your alone time. “Depending on the size of your space, it’s possible that being self-isolated with a partner means that you have zero complete alone time,” according to Tobey Mandel, a Montreal-based psychologist with Connecte Psychology Clinic. It also might mean that you are both working in the same space, maybe on different schedules, which can be hard to coordinate. “It’s natural to feel frustrated when we do not have alone time to re-charge, or our own space to feel productive or to unwind. There isn’t as much novel stimuli coming into our day, so little annoyances with one another can take up a lot of space in our mind.”
PRACTICE SELF-CARE FIRST
Taking care of yourself is a good start when it comes to getting along with your fellow quarantiners. Feeling fresh and alert – and adding a bit of normalcy where possible – can help you feel a little more human, and less likely to snap at your self-isolation mates. Don’t feel pressured to be ultra-productive during this time, but building a routine and adding some structure to your day where possible is a good idea, Ahmed says. Try getting up at the same time every day, huffing along to a vintage exercise video on YouTube after lunch, or having a pre-bedtime check-in with your BFF via FaceTime. Another thing you should prioritize? Personal space. “This can look like taking a long shower, meditating, reading a book alone, napping, putting on a face mask, or deep breathing exercises,” Ahmed says.
You also need to realize that “self-care may look different when you have limited time and space to yourself,” says J. Matsui De Roo, a Vancouver-based anti-oppression counselor. They suggest taking a moment to write down all the things you typically do for self-care, then seeing how many of them can be modified to fit a social distancing safety protocol:
—Do you go for coffee with a trusted friend? Have the same conversation over phone or video.
—Do you love to let loose and hit the dance floor with your friends? There are virtual dance parties happening all over social media.
—Do you like to go to the gym? Look around in your house to see what you can use to do gym exercises with: cans of beans can make good hand weights, stairs can give you a good aerobic workout spaces.
MAINTAIN – AND BUILD – THAT PARTNER BOND
Can your love survive social distancing? “How we experience self-isolation is very different, depending on who we are,” De Roo says. For instance, introverts may need to recharge in solitude, and find it difficult if they’re in the same space with someone else 24/7, while extroverts need others to recharge and may find it frustrating not to have access to their regular social activities. “If you have partners who are in different places with extroversion/introversion, this may create misunderstandings. And with partners, there’s often an expectation that we’ll be emotionally available for each other whenever we share space together. But all people need to be able to have private downtime alone, not to mention social time away from your partner.”
Thankfully, there are a few ways, according to Ahmed, that you can make extreme cohabitation a little easier on everyone:
—Make space for yourself. “It’s important to establish boundaries for space and privacy during work hours, and the same goes for personal time,” she says. “It’s important when taking time for yourself to do things that relax and energize you, whether it’s cooking, arts and crafts, playing a musical instrument, reading a book or listening to your favourite podcast.”
—Ensure proper balance by actively making time for your partner, whether it be cooking a meal together, starting a new show or movie on Netflix, or planning an upcoming vacation together, Ahmed suggests.
—Another potentially fun option? Sign up for an online course to learn something together; this can be a language, craft, or something fitness-related (there’s lots of small businesses live-streaming classes of all kinds).
AND, UH, WHAT ABOUT SEX?
Sex can be great stress relief (and even boost the immune system!), so it’s a great tool to have to combat pandemic malaise. That goes for both partner sex and solo sex. De Roo recommends giving your partner space for their sexuality independent of you – even if neither of you have any other partners. “Masturbation is a natural, healthy way to release stress and connect with the body that everyone can benefit from, whether they are partnered or not,” they say. “You can and should be able to take private time to take care of those needs.”
Social distancing can actually help us gain new perspective about our sweethearts. “Seeing your partner through someone else’s eyes can also help you remember that they are a separate entity with a full, somewhat unknown life outside of the relationship,” according to Mandel. So, if you hear your partner on a work call, or notice them doing something a little out of the ordinary – learning a new skill while home, or fixing something that has been on the to-do list – try to sit back and observe them with curiosity and interest, she says: “Try to remind yourself that as much as you think you know all their ins and outs, there’s still a little left to the imagination.”
A little bonding can also get the juices going. “Many of us would add excitement in our relationships by booking date nights, going on a vacation, doing something fun and romantic for our significant other,” Ahmed says. “These options are now limited due to social distancing.” Plus, being around each other all the time can sometimes lead to less sex, not more. So how can you rekindle that spark, when you’ve been wearing nothing but tattered flannel PJs for weeks and fighting over which show to watch? “My suggestion is incorporating activities that can promote intimacy in your relationships,” Ahmed says, recommending the following options:
—Baking a new sweet-treat recipe
—Playing intimate card, dice or boardgames
—Giving each other massages
—Sharing a bubble bath
—Recreating your first date
—Performing karaoke duets (the cheesier, the better)
—Making cocktails for each other
“People may respond to the pandemic in different ways, including either an increase or decrease in libido,” De Roo points out. This is why it’s important to check in with your partner and see where they’re at, and keep having those conversations as things change over time. “If you both want to keep the heat alive, consider scheduling a date night and find creative ways to make it fun, sexy and very different than your daily routine,” they suggest. “Make sure you share the emotional labour and take turns organizing the date and having fun working out all the details to make it memorable: the right music, food and atmosphere can transform your space.” Some of De Roo’s ideas include:
—Having a picnic in your living room
—Getting dressed up in your fanciest clothes and watch a Broadway show online together
—Going shopping for sex toys together online
And, given all the time you may have on your hands, why restrict nookie to date night? “Typically, when partners are working full time, busy with hobbies and friends and children (especially children), their sex lives become sometime routine. There is only so much time in the day!” Mandel explains. “But now that everyone is self-quarantined at home, it allows us to change the routine completely.” She suggests switching it up, trying sex at different times of the day and different frequencies, with more exploration of non-intercourse activities, and connecting physically in more small ways: more kissing, more touching, more everything!
Think of this time together as an opportunity, rather than an obstacle – self-isolation may even result in a deeper bond. “Interestingly, during uniquely stressful periods, we can learn a lot about ourselves and our partners. We can learn about our priorities, our deepest fears, our preferred methods of coping, and much more. This is a profoundly vulnerable time for everyone, and vulnerability is the ultimate key to connection,” Mandel says. “Allowing ourselves to open up to these parts of ourselves and share them with our partner is an opportunity to build an even closer relationship.”
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