Communication Key to Healthy Relationships During the Pandemic

Elderly couple on a kitchen floor

By Carol Heher Peters

How can romantic partners keep their relationships strong during the COVID-19 pandemic? Making a few simple changes to the ways they communicate about the stressors they are feeling and experiencing can help them cope, according to a new study by SC&I Associate Professor Maria Venetis Ph.D. ’10.

These communication strategies include, maintaining normalcy; relying on their communication networks; adapting their routines to their new circumstances; creating new routines; and reinforcing each other’s identities as they manage pandemic-related stressors, Venetis said.

maria ventisIn their paper “Dyadic Coping and Discrete Emotions During COVID-19: Connecting the Communication Theory of Resilience with Relational Uncertainty,” published in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, Venetis and her coauthors, Helen Lillie and Skye Chernichky-Karcher, wrote that their findings can “help clinicians and practitioners better advise couples who report experiencing relational uncertainty and anger resulting from COVID-19 stress,” and, “relieving such uncertainty is critical for the health of long-term relationships, particularly at times of immense stress.”

Based on their study’s findings, Venetis and her coauthors further propose that if romantic couples feel uncertainty about the stability and future of their relationship, this uncertainty can lead to feelings of anger, fear, and guilt. Therefore, if couples communicate that they are committed both to the relationship and to together managing the stressors they face, during the pandemic and for the long haul, they can help reduce those emotions as well.

“A lot of what we are trying to establish as relational scholars is evidence of ‘quality markers’ – how couples engage in conversation,” Venetis said. “For example, if we look at the first strategy, maintaining normalcy, this means if romantic partners communicate in a way that acknowledges that life is now different, but they will address together how they are going to keep their family routines as normal as possible during the pandemic, this helps.

“Some issues they discuss might be: How are we going to handle schooling for our children? How will we see friends and family? How are we communicating together so it’s not just one person steering the ship? How will we maintain exercise? Crafting or maintaining normalcy means maintaining who we were before the stressor and creating new patterns that we do because of the stressor. For example, when a couple realizes they are on lockdown so they can’t go to the gym, they decide instead that at 5 pm they are all going to do pushups as a family or go for a walk together, to create a new routine to manage their exercise goals during the stressor.”

Venetis said that while these communication strategies can be applied during any kind of stressor couples might face together, a unique feature of COVID-19 is that the whole world is facing this astronomical stressor all at the same time. This makes this particular stressor much more devastating for many couples.

Based on their research findings published in the paper, Venetis offers the following specific advice romantic partners can use to help them cope with the pandemic.

Make efforts to maintain your and your family’s sense of normal: Create new routines, but adapt those routines so that they continue to make you and your family feel like YOU.

Stay connected with your communication networks: We can find ways in our comfort zone to stay connected with people. If we are concerned about eating indoors, it’s summer, and we can eat outside. Or, we can start a virtual book club – whatever it is that makes us feel comfortable.

Honor your identity – do what makes you, YOU:  Don’t give up who you are or put yourself in the back seat. A lot of what people did at the start of the pandemic was take a pause on being who they are (such as an artist, a writer, an athlete, a gardener) to try to figure out what is going on and how to survive. But it’s really important to honor your own identity and make sure you find creative ways to help you engage in an activity that supports your sense of self.

Look for the silver linings: During the social isolation and the fear of the virus, some people were able to develop COVID habits that kept them going, such as gardening, painting, or reading. Just finding ways to find some joy in the stressor and being able to talk about that with your romantic partner is really important.

Acknowledging that this stinks: Just acknowledging head on that we are in a stressor, but we are going to do the best we can, really helps.”

Story originally appeared in Rutgers School of Communication and Information.