Leveraging Hard Times to Strengthen Your Relationship

4 min read

Recently, I posted a question on social media asking people what kinds of challenges they faced in their first few years of marriage. I did not want to know about their relational challenges (dividing up housework, communication). Instead, I wanted to know what life threw at them during those early years together. What did they have to manage together?

As it turns out, they managed a lot. Some were positive events which were also major stressors, like having children (especially multiples). Most were dealing with loss – of parents, of pregnancies, of employment. Many more were about major changes like relocation, starting a new career, or coping with a serious diagnosis. Looking back, I wish I could ask them, “What good came of it? What did you learn? Can you use those lessons to help you now?”

In a recent study I conducted with Jeremy Kanter, we tried to understand how a very specific group (young, unmarried couples) managed the challenges of a very specific, though universal, event (the COVID-19 pandemic). One of our main conclusions was that participants didn’t crumble under the pressure of decision-making during a global pandemic. In fact, we found that:

“Absent the stability and comfort of an ongoing cohabiting relationship or marriage, participants showed the willingness and ability to make major life changes to best meet the demands of the moment. They moved out of their homes, sheltered with vulnerable partners, and adjusted to the realities of long-distance love to keep themselves, their families, their roommates, and their partners safe.”

The young adults in our study employed strategies that can reach beyond the specific circumstances of the pandemic to help couples who are coping with ongoing challenges life throws their way.

1. They slowed down and resisted making rash decisions.

We went into the study curious whether unmarried couples who were living apart would have rushed to move in together during lockdown. They didn’t. Only couples who already planned on moving in together ended up cohabiting during the first year of the pandemic. Everyone else stayed put in their separate homes. They didn’t rush into things they weren’t ready for.

2. They prioritized their individual needs and goals alongside their relationships.

In the midst of uncertainty, participants in the study continued to chart a path forward with their education and career. Their relationships were an important part of their lives, but not the only priority. By continuing to invest in their own growth and development, they were building a stronger foundation for their lives and relationships on the other side of the pandemic.

3. They looked out for others.

One of the most striking things we found was how committed people were to protecting each other. People we talked to made sacrifices to keep their families and roommates safe, even though it cost them some of their freedom and some opportunities for making romantic connections. During their interviews, no one regretted taking those actions to look out for the people they loved. It grounded them, gave them a sense of purpose, and provided clarity during an otherwise murky time.

It continues to be important for us to understand what was happening for couples and families during the pandemic. But perhaps more importantly, our job as scholars is to translate what we found during that extraordinary time to something useful for this time.

In this case, what still holds meaning outside of the context of the pandemic is that people are resilient. A common approach in therapy is leveraging how a client coped with a difficult situation or decision in the past and use it as a foundation for addressing a current problem. When we’ve stood up and brushed ourselves off before, we can most likely do it again.

During difficult times, we can slow down, prioritize thoughtfully, and look out for each other. Those tools are useful for the future challenges we will inevitably face as individuals and as couples.

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