We are not all at our best during this coronavirus pandemic. We can be reactive, cut ourselves off from each other, and not be forgiving enough, as we strive to keep ourselves and our families safe.
We have been trying to follow the guidance of the experts by working from home, not socializing in our usual places with friends and family, and wearing masks when we do go to the grocery store. It has been a long time, and we are still waiting for the vaccine!
Even without the pandemic, women can feel like they are “over-functioning” in their relationships: doing more of the parenting, more of the housework, more of the emotional work at the same time they hold down a full-time or part-time job that helps support their family.
As a result of the pandemic, women have been choosing to leave the workforce (in staggering numbers) because of businesses closing and the closures of schools and day-care centers. The result is the exacerbation of their typical “over-functioning.”
Most of us hoped our partners who are also at home would take the opportunity to step in become a “co-parent,” “co-housekeeper,” and share the emotional work of being a family. It may not be happening. So, what is next?
Work for change: Restructure your relationship
While the coronavirus pandemic has created new difficulties for couples, it has certainly crystallized “pre-existing” marital problems such as failures of communication, negative patterns of interacting with one another, the traditional gendered arrangement around childcare and housework, and the increased neediness of husbands and children.
So, is this crisis time a good time to push to “restructure” your marriage? If not now, when? The crisis makes apparent the ways in which the marriage relationship does not function equally for all. Change is happening—why not use this crisis as a prod toward a new relationship alignment?
I have been talking about how to create and sustain a workable, vibrant, and sustainable committed relationship for a long time. My ideas are more fully captured in my book, A Marriage of Equals: How to Achieve Balance in a Committed Relationship.
There are several things to talk about if you want to push for change at this time. Here are three general areas that you will want to think about and discuss with your partner.
- How change will make things better.
- How to recognize and challenge resistance to change.
- How to implement change.
How change can make things better
One of the best ways in which restructuring your marriage can make things better is to increase the mutual respect you have toward each other. Greater equality of authority and responsibility in a relationship promotes that mutual respect. Sharing authority and responsibility means sharing life’s burdens, putting family first, and becoming friends who work together.
How to recognize and challenge resistance
It is typically wives that seek change in the marital or committed relationship. Men are often satisfied, indeed prefer, a traditional relationship defined by different and complementary gender roles—the homemaker-breadwinner model of marriage.
When wives raise domestic issues seeking change, husbands or partners, often without conscious awareness, can become resistant to that change. This resistance is not necessarily overt, i.e., a clear statement that they do not want change. They do not want to compromise their career, they feel less “masculine” when doing housework, or they prefer a traditional arrangement. Instead, they revert to tactics that make it difficult to talk about and deal with issues.
These tactics are interpersonal strategies that your spouse will use, perhaps unwitting (or wittingly) that are difficult to identify and challenge. Here are a few examples of these interpersonal strategies when used as tactics:
- Your partner withdraws from the interaction by turning away, not making eye contact, crossing his arms, or leaving the room.
- Your partner raises a counter concern he has about the relationship that is not related to the issue you have raised. “You always want to talk about ________; what about the things that I think are important?”
- Your partner may up the ante by saying you are “nagging” him—this is tantamount to calling you a name.
- Your partner may use sarcasm—“Oh, I guess I never do enough for you.”
Reactions like these are designed to distract you from the issues that concern you. These tactics shift the focus from the issue you are trying to raise to something about you personally.
Husbands historically have used the above tactics to resist being influenced by their wives, to avoid looking at themselves, and to protect their sense of masculinity when they perceive it as being challenged.
How to implement the change: It requires sharing power and authority
Power-sharing means sharing parenting and childcare, sharing household tasks and responsibilities, sharing decision-making, and being committed to equal career and employment status—this is a big deal, particularly for men.
Here are several tips on how to even up housework and childcare.
- Get Rid of “His and Her” Standards: There is no standard definition of what has to be done in a household nor how it should be done. You can decide together what is a clean bathtub, what constitutes doing the laundry, for example.
- Keep a List: If you are going to set new standards about the way household tasks and childcare are done, start with a “clean” sheet—it allows you to visualize and take mutual ownership of the unpaid work at home.
- The Case for Filth: For working couples, it is a good idea to do less and care less about tidiness and neatness: don’t make the beds, don’t repaint the ceiling, etc.
- Gatekeeping Wives and Clueless Husbands: Gatekeeping is when you limit your partner’s involvement in housekeeping or child care duties because he will “do it wrong,” or “I’ll do it because it’s really quick and easy for me.” The clueless husband is “the man who is lost in the domestic space without a woman”—an image of men that is normalized in the media.
To make this all work out, you will want to learn a new way to negotiate. Take the time to learn how to negotiate in marriage. Hint: It is not a business transaction!
If nothing works, what’s next? Make your own life better
If your partner continues to disengage with you around seeking change In your relationship, you will be forced to decide if you wish to stay in the marriage with a significantly diminished quality of relationship.
You will want to assess how committed you are to the marriage—the marriage and the relationship are not the same thing. The felt quality of the relationship is a significant factor in maintaining a happy, long-term marriage. However, people stay married for reasons that are important to them that are not causally related to the quality of the relationship (e.g. for children, money, religion).
Here are a few suggestions to make your life better if you take this path.
- Get more invested in your work.
- Get help with household tasks and childcare.
- Do things with friends: Talk on the phone or via Zoom as long as you like.
- Keep in contact with your extended family via phone or Zoom.
- Prepare yourself for the possibility that your spouse will leave the marriage.
- Seek personal counseling.
If all of this is not enough, you have done your part
As you do your part, it is up to your partner to do his. You may inform (neither critically nor in a cajoling way) him that it is his responsibility to figure out what kind of relationship he wishes to have with you. Let him know in this straightforward manner that it is his responsibility to figure out what his part is in creating that quality of relationship—no more “instructions” from you. Above all, he must become willing to share authority and power with you.
If you decide to leave the marriage, seek both psychological and legal assistance. Do this with sadness, but without rancor or regret.
- The pandemic is forcing change in relationships and marriages.
- You can restructure your relationship.
- Partners can resist change.
- Change requires sharing power and authority.
- There are specific ways to change things.
- If nothing works, you have done your part.
Previously Published on Psychology Today