How To Break Out Of A Relationship Rut During The Pandemic

Many couples are feeling stuck during Covid-19. Here's how to fix your stale relationship, according to therapists.

You’re reading Relationships DIY, a series full of tips, tricks and perspective on keeping your relationship healthy and happy during the pandemic.

Couples can get stuck in a rut at any point, but during the coronavirus pandemic, cases of the relationship blahs have become especially prevalent.

When you’re in a rut, things feel stagnant between you and your partner. The spark in the relationship is more like a faint flicker. You just aren’t connecting in the way you used to — and you may be lacking the motivation to work on things.

“Days may feel as though they are beginning to blur together and that the relationship has lost excitement,” Los Angeles marriage and family therapist Abigail Makepeace told HuffPost. “This can then evolve into feelings of resignation, numbness or even indifference towards a partner.”

Or you may notice that you’re easily annoyed by your partner. Things that once rolled off your back may grind your gears these days.

“Regardless of how the unhappiness manifests, it often leads to fantasising about a different life or even a new partner.”

- Abigail Makepace, marriage and family therapist

“This can be accompanied by a quickness to place blame and a tendency to blow otherwise minor inconveniences out of proportion,” Makepeace said. “Regardless of how the unhappiness manifests, it often leads to fantasising about a different life or even a new partner.”

If you’re dealing with some of these feelings, know that it’s quite normal for a couple’s rhythm to be off right now, said San Diego marriage and family therapist Jennifer Chappell Marsh.

“I’m seeing a lot of relationships strained due to the pandemic stress and isolation,” she said. “More couples are coming into therapy seeking support for issues magnified by the pandemic.”

Why Couples Are Feeling Less Connected

Though you may be spending more time with each other these days, it’s not necessarily quality time. If you’re both working from home, you may be in close proximity all the time, rushing through your busy days without having one moment of genuine connection. The concept of alone time, which we all need occasionally to recharge our batteries, is now a distant memory.

What’s more, you and your partner may not have access to many of the stress-reducing activities you usually rely on to feel more in sync.

“Couples use activities like sports, barbecues, going to a restaurant and going to the movies as coping strategies for stress in their relationship,” said Aaron Anderson, a therapist at the Marriage and Family Clinic in Denver.

“Since these resources aren’t as available, couples feel more stress and difficulty, causing them to feel in a rut with each other.” Nor can you do many of the things that add adventure and novelty to our lives, like traveling, going to concerts or taking a class together.

During the pandemic, it's not uncommon for couples to feel stuck and out of sync.
During the pandemic, it's not uncommon for couples to feel stuck and out of sync.

And with our social networks limited by public health guidelines, we may end up expecting too much of our partner, adding strain to the relationship.

“Your partner is [now] your lover, best friend, emotional support, housekeeper and child care,” Chappell Marsh said. “These roles used to be filled by various people and roles within the family and community. Pandemic isolation has only magnified how much we are looking to our partners to fulfill these needs. All of these needs and expectations from one person creates pressure, disappointment and resentment.”

And lastly, you can’t ignore the mental health toll this year has taken on us all. Caring for sick family members, worrying about our job security, managing distance learning for our kids and panicking about the state of the country has used up all of our emotional bandwidth, leaving little time or energy for romance.

“In the pandemic, much feels unsafe and unfamiliar. As a result, we may experience feelings of depression and anxiety, which may further disconnect us from our partners or be misunderstood by them as unease within the relationship,” Makepeace said.

“The stress of the pandemic often disguises itself as stress from work, the kids driving you insane or feeling bored with your partner. It may take some real reflection to get to the root of these negative feelings.”

What To Do If You’re Feeling Out Of Sync

So how can you reconnect when emotionally you feel miles apart? We asked therapists for their advice.

Shake up your routine.

Find creative ways to add some novelty to the monotony of your day-to-day. Your options may be somewhat limited because of Covid, but you can still make small adjustments that will change things up.

“For example, instead of eating dinner at the dining table, try an indoor picnic. Or if you find yourself watching TV every night, try to incorporate reading the same book,” Makepeace suggested. “These small changes can create a needed change of pace in the relationship and be very healing.”

Create better boundaries between work time and downtime.

If you’re working from home, it’s all too easy for work hours to bleed into your “off” hours. You might be checking email while you eat breakfast in the morning or trying to complete one last task while watching TV at night, leaving very little time for each other.

The natural lines between work and home, school and home, morning and evening, and together time and separate time have all been blurred,” Chappell Marsh said.

Log off from work so you can make time for each other. 
Log off from work so you can make time for each other. 

If you’re able, try to maintain a schedule similar to the one you had when you worked in an office. When 6pm rolls around, close your laptops and put your work materials somewhere you can’t see them — that should help you “psychologically shift from one mode to another,” Chappell Marsh said. Then you can be more present with one another.

Be the initiator.

“If you feel that something is lacking in your relationship, take the initiative to create change,” Makepeace said. “In my work with couples, I often find that a person may be unhappily waiting for their partner to behave differently or change the monotony of routine. This approach seldom works.”

The takeaway? Don’t be afraid to make the first move. Think about what you wish you were getting from the relationship and do it yourself. For instance, if you’re craving more romance, surprise your partner with their favourite dessert, a heartfelt card or a foot rub before bed. Once you get some positive momentum going, your partner will likely be inspired to reciprocate.

Strike up deeper conversations.

These days, the majority of discussions between couples tend to focus on managing day-to-day responsibilities: Who’s helping the kids with homework?; who’s taking the dog to the vet?; or who’s making a trip to the grocery store? Be sure to carve out time to talk about subjects beyond household operations.

“Changing the script and asking your partner questions that lead to understanding their current mental and emotional state can be transformative for the both of you,” Makepeace said. “Not only does this recognise your partner’s autonomy outside of the role of ‘parent’ or ‘spouse,’ but it gives them an opportunity to share a part of themselves and connect with you on a deeper level.”

For some inspiration, check out The New York Times’ “36 Questions That Lead to Love.” They’re designed for couples getting to know each other but could also generate interesting discussion among partners who have been together awhile.

Practise self-compassion.

This year has been tough on all of us. So be gentle with yourself instead of beating yourself up. You might find that cutting yourself some extra slack makes you a little easier on your partner, too.

“Research shows that the daily practice of self-compassion helps us to be less critical of our own perceived shortcomings and more accepting of our partner’s limitations, which allows us to focus on what’s good about ourselves and our relationships versus what is flawed,” Chappell Marsh said.

Resist the urge to blame each other for what’s not going well in the relationship. Recognise that any rift right now likely has more to do with this past year than a lack of love between you.

“When we are able to get in touch with the minute ways that the pandemic is affecting our outer and inner lives, we stop placing blame — whether it was on ourselves or on others,” Makepeace said. “Putting forth effort to change relationship habits during this challenging time, and doing so with tenderness and compassion, is key.”