You and your partner have been alone in your tiny apartment since the pandemic began. Now, officials say it’s safe to go out. One of you is eager. The other is still scared.

What to do?

There are no easy answers, says social psychologist Erica Slotter, a relationship researcher who heads the Social Self Lab at Villanova University.

For some couples, an ugly argument might ensue. Others might find a way to compromise, or better yet, to come up with an entirely different solution that can satisfy them both.

We spoke with Slotter recently about relationships in the time of COVID-19.

What are some of the relationship issues surfacing during the pandemic?

We are conducting research looking at the effects of COVID-19 and quarantine on relationships. It’s not to the point where I can comment on it yet, but we expect that there will be more problems in relationships at this time. Everyone’s in cramped quarters, there’s a lot of anxiety, and there’s a lot to manage in terms of the practicalities of life. Anytime those come together, you’re creating a perfect storm for people to be at odds about it.

Conflict is not necessarily a bad thing. Every couple is going to argue. What matters is how you fight, and how those negative interactions balance out with positive interactions. A lot of it comes down to whether conflict escalates and becomes increasingly negative, hostile, and nasty, or whether people are able to successfully negotiate outcomes that everyone can be OK with.

A researcher named John Gottman, who has studied marriages for decades, has concluded that in order for a couple to have a healthy, functional relationship, the positive interactions have to outweigh the negative ones by a ratio of five to one.

I am in a long-term relationship, and we have children. One of the biggest issues we are facing is what to let those children do. Is it safe for them to go out and see their friends? We have different views on that. It’s tricky. That’s one of the biggest things that couples are likely fighting about now.

What else are they arguing about? Is the toothpaste cap — he always leaves it off! — more important than ever?

Yes. We know there are certain things that precipitate arguments. And because couples have been spending more time with each other in quarantine, these might be happening with more frequency.

The four main things that cause conflict are criticism, perceived illegitimate demands, perceived rebuffs or rejection, and what are referred to as cumulative annoyances.

Cumulative annoyances are things like not putting the cap on the toothpaste. The little things that build up over time. With COVID-19, cumulative annoyances are likely to be a heck of a lot more annoying when you’re faced with them for 24 hours a day.

Perceived rejection is when we seek support or attention from a partner, and they don’t respond the way we’d like them to. This speaks to some of the safety issues, as well as other general anxieties, with COVID-19.

Illegitimate demands are defined as any request that someone perceives as unjust or excessive. Right now, with people together all the time, there are extra dishes, tons of laundry, lots of daily domestic jobs. If partners feel that the division of labor or child care isn’t fair, that falls into the illegitimate demand category.

One of the biggest conflict issues we see that distinguishes couples who stay together versus couples who divorce is an escalation tendency. One partner is critical, the other responds more critically. Something goes from a calm, rational discussion to a shouting match.

This is a feature of conflict that can be prevented, but it’s difficult to break out of once the cycle starts.

There are strategies that come out of the marriage therapy field — things like “I feel” statements. Where when you’re talking to a partner you don’t say “You did this …” You say, “I feel that that particular behavior was problematic.” Express it without becoming accusatory.

Another strategy involves noticing when things are starting to heat up and taking a break. This is not ignoring it and hoping it goes away. This is taking 10 minutes, maybe, to collect yourself.

Another strategy can involve a form of active listening — each partner gets a chance to talk for a set period of time, maybe 60 seconds. Before the second person gets to speak, they have to repeat back to the first person what they heard, the message they got. This helps avoid misunderstanding.

And what should we NOT do?

Going back to John Gottman’s research, he identified the four really problematic behaviors. When they show up — any or all of them — in increasingly high proportions, they spell doom for a relationship. Tellingly, perhaps, he called them the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.

  • One is criticism, which he referred to as attacking the person, rather than a specific behavior. Let’s say my partner doesn’t put the dishes in the dishwasher. Instead of saying, “It really bothers me to have the sink full of dishes,” the critical thing might be, “You always leave them in the sink; you never think about my feelings.”
  • The second is contempt. This would be more along the lines of calling the partner who doesn’t put the dishes in the sink a slob. Anything that is belittling, insulting, disrespectful. It can also include rolling your eyes.
  • The third is defensiveness — denying responsibility for the problem or making excuses. When you say he leaves the dishes in the sink, he says, “Well, I don’t like how you fold the laundry.” It’s not productive.
  • The fourth is called stonewalling. It’s basically shutting down, not responding to the partner.
So, back to the question of what to do if one person wants to reemerge and the other is afraid.

This is a big question right now. At some point, we have to resolve it. We have to come up with a solution.

What tends to work is some form of compromise. The most basic form is where both parties reduce their expectations in order to find a common ground. No one is 100% happy, but it’s something everyone can live with.

With COVID-19, this might involve slowing down the rate of reentering the world. In my family, we opted to move a little behind. When our county moved to the yellow phase, I was not comfortable. So we opted to give it an additional two weeks and then reevaluate.

An even better way to resolve a conflict is something called an integrative agreement. It’s the idea that everyone can keep their original goals and aspirations, and, through creativity and flexibility, satisfy them in a way that everyone is happy with.

Is there any really good relationship news coming out of the pandemic?

The last piece of conflict outcomes is something called structural improvement. That occurs when, as you reach a compromise or an integrative agreement, you’re able to make desirable changes to your relationship as well. You not only reach an agreement, but your relationship is also stronger.

COVID-19 allows for some great opportunities for couples to do exactly these things — improve their conflict skills, learn how to fight in a constructive manner, and learn how to solve problems in their relationship in a way people are at least OK with.

Because couples are in such close proximity and they’re making such important decisions for their safety and the safety of their families, it opens the door for working toward these agreements and improving the relationship, for fighting more fairly and for thinking creatively. It can make people feel happier when all is said and done.