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When You’re Sheltered Together but Feeling Distant From Your Mate

The stress we’re all under can feel like a third person in your relationship. Here are ways to relax and enjoy renewed intimacy.

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The coronavirus outbreak grinds on, fraying nerves and patience. Between balancing work (or looking for work) and caring for kids, virtual get-togethers and marathon grocery expeditions, it may seem as if you and your honey are more distant than ever.

If it’s been a while since you’ve checked in and had real quality time with your partner, you’re not alone. The topic even came up recently on "Red Table Talk," with Jada Pinkett Smith telling her guest, pastor John Gray, "I gotta be honest. I think one of the things that I've realized is that I don't know Will at all. I feel like there's a layer that you get to, life gets busy and you create these stories in your head, and then you hold onto these stories and that is your idea of your partner; that's not who your partner is."

Even though we’ve been sheltered together for weeks, alienation can severely affect our partnerships — partly because of stress, but also because of our addiction to busyness. Left untreated, it can sicken a relationship by weakening communication, trust, sexual desire and more. Early symptoms include reduced eye contact, purely transactional communication and out-of-sync sexual needs. More critical stages may include infidelity and divorce.

These extraordinary times present a unique opportunity to build up resistance to this silent attack on intimacy and inoculate our relationships against neglect. And there are some best practices that can protect your partnership, deepen your connection and refill your love tank.

The “love tank” is a concept that relationship expert Gary Chapman describes in his book, The Five Love Languages. The idea is that we are adding to our love tanks when we spend quality time with each other, show affection and give emotional support. When your tank runs low (or you don’t regularly fill up your partner’s tank), you start to feel as if you aren’t getting what you need from the relationship. Just like a car that’s running on fumes, that’s a dangerous place to be.

Research on attachment in adults and children shows that we need secure connections in order to be happy, grow and develop and feel good about ourselves. A “check-in” is one way that provides that sense of connection.

Traci Baxley is a 52-year-old married mother of five children, an education professor at a university in Boca Raton, Florida, and a coach for moms raising children in transracial families. As busy as she is, she says she pays close attention for signs that she and her husband, Thomas, a lawyer, need to check in. Because the family is always together these days, Traci says, “Our love language is our kids right now. We feel like we’re connecting when we’re with our kids. And I feel connected to him when I see him being a good dad.”

Even so, because he likes to keep up with all the latest coronavirus news while she prefers only a little at a time, they often find themselves in separate rooms of their house or quickly passing each other by as they toggle between work and homeschooling the children. “Once we realize that we’re not seeing each other, we make time and space,” she says. “Just small things like a 10-second hug. A lingering kiss. Hand-holding. Sometimes that’s all it takes.”

Here are some other ways for you to reconnect and refill each other’s love tanks.

Pay attention. When your partner casually comments on a social media post or even makes an observation about the weather, take a moment to acknowledge and respond. We all want to be seen and heard in our relationships. Acknowledging even the smallest of “bids for attention” as John and Julie Gottman, creators of the Gottman Method for couples therapy, call them, shows your partner that they matter.

Express appreciation. Identify a specific behavior or characteristic of your partner that you find lovable and tell your partner why. That act of thinking and expressing positive thoughts helps to build up goodwill and deepen your friendship, the foundation of a healthy relationship. Take turns telling each other something good.

Touch. At a time when so many are lonely and longing for a hug, couples living together have the privilege of enjoying physical intimacy. That doesn’t necessarily mean sex, but it could lead to greater sexual satisfaction. Holding hands, snuggling and gentle massage are all powerful, nonverbal ways of expressing affection, and they promote the release of feel-good and bonding hormones dopamine, oxytocin and serotonin.

Share a hobby or activity. Find something you both enjoy that helps you escape your routine. Bonus points if that something gets you moving. For instance, a power walk allows you to get in some exercise and to catch up with each other’s concerns and dreams. Even cooking together can turn what might be a ho-hum experience into an opportunity to create and connect. Sign up for a virtual cooking class or make a treasured family recipe.

Seek support. If it seems as if you’re not even speaking the same language (or you’re in conflict about Every. Little. Thing.), seek guidance from a trained mental health professional who can help you communicate and understand each other better, and keep your love tanks full.