I love the movie 500 Days of Summer. For those of you who haven’t seen it, spoilers ahead: the stand-out scene for me is the scene where Tom (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) attends Summer’s party (Zooey Deschanel) after some time apart. When Tom arrives, the screen splits in two: expectations on the left, reality on the right.

On the left, the “expectations” side, everything goes according to Tom’s plan of rekindling the romance. They spend the night together, deep in conversation, before embracing in a moment of passion. On the right, “reality,” Tom spends most of the night alone, getting progressively drunk, before the heartbreaking realization Summer is engaged to someone else. Ouch.

Just like Tom, when it comes to romance, most of us have expectations to some degree, expectations that don’t match our reality. Those of us with partners may have a Hollywood image of how to spend self-isolation with a loved one… pillow fights, candle lit dinners, eye-gazing and lots of sex… Something like that.

In reality, self-isolation is a huge test for all couples — whether bathing in the bliss of the honeymoon period or living with a long-term partner you know extremely well. In China, the divorce rates have risen significantly as a result of the quarantine period. Experts even considered this a “warning to [the] rest of locked-down world.”

Fortunately, this doesn’t mean it will happen to you. So, regardless of your status, here are 7 tips to ease tension and keep the romantic fire burning, while ensuring your relationship comes out stronger than ever.

Here are 7 tips for self-isolating as a couple:

1. Manage those expectations

Start by exploring the expectations you and your partner have. Making sure you’re both on the same page throughout this time will avoid any major conflicts. Does one of you expect to be spending most of this time together, snuggling, while the other has work from home commitments? These are areas to create clarity. 

Together, write a list of expectations you have. Be as open as you can, and bring a playful attitude towards any you know are either irrational or slightly cheeky. As you bring these to light and exchange with your partner, it highlights potential blind spots or misalignments between you. This, in turn, creates understanding of where you’re both at.

2. Keep tabs on perfectionism

Expectations are closely linked to perfectionism. Both are ideas projected onto reality, like Tom’s romantic expectations. The reality of the current coronavirus situation is tough and unprecedented: we’re entering an unknown period where our movement and daily lives are severely restricted. This is a time, if anything, to reduce expectations and be as forgiving as possible as each of us adjust.

Explore the standards you may be placing on your partner and yourself. This may mean believing you should be getting on all the time, getting frustrated at your partner or noticing a building resentment if things aren’t going to plan, or feeling you should always be in a good mood. Cut yourself and your partner some slack. Now’s a time to let things slide, boost self-compassion, and work together as a team. To the best of your ability, at least.

3. Be respectful of each other’s emotions

As we experience this global pandemic collectively, each of us are suffering in individual ways. It’s a time of high anxiety, uncertainty, and grief over the lives we’re not able to fully live at the moment. While this can become a time to explore ourselves, journal, learn, and grow, the reality is that there will be a lot of shadow work to confront too. Difficult emotions, from intense sadness, anger, or fear, can surface.

When you experience difficult emotions, use them as a tool to highlight where there may be unmet expectations or high standards. With a partner, it’s possible their difficult emotions surface at the same time. This means you may find yourself in a situation where emotions are running high and it’s hard for both of you to see things from a balanced perspective.

In these situations, take ownership of what’s yours and do your best to understand your partner’s perspective. Do what you can to support your partner when needed and don’t be afraid of leaning on your partner when feeling overwhelmed. Remember this doesn’t reflect the quality or compatibility of your relationship. 

4. Set time to communicate openly

If you have work commitments or you have to homeschool the kids (or both), finding quality time to be together won’t be easy, despite self-isolation. Communication during self-isolation is more important than ever. Rather than rely on the time being “just right,” consider setting aside time to communicate openly about the situation.

This means creating space for both of you to share where you’re at – how you’re coping emotionally, what you’re finding challenging, what works, what doesn’t. Give both sides a chance to express themselves as the listener practices acceptance and non-judgement. This isn’t about blame, but openness.

5. Be respectful of each other’s boundaries

Wanting space is okay. Being frustrated is okay. Feeling unsexy is okay. Setting boundaries in this situation means being clear on what works for you, what your needs are, how these needs can be met. The same applies to your partner. Compromise and compassion are parts of the process, of course. Look to set boundaries with the understanding they will benefit your relationship overall.

Do you need more alone time than your partner? Have conversations around when you need to retreat, and consider setting a space in your home where you can go and spend time uninterrupted. When boundary setting, remember nothing is personal. It’s healthy to remain intimately connected yet energetically independent.

6. Set aside time for intimacy and bonding

Who out there has the expectation that quarantine time means loads of hot, passionate sex and endless flirty exchanges? *Raises hand slowly*. With extra time to spare and less distractions, this is a great opportunity to build intimacy with your partner. To slow down and tune-in to the person in front of you. Again, though, it may require a little planning.

The idea of planned intimacy may bring up thoughts of passionless routine. Instead, forward-thinking can be the aphrodisiac to supercharge your relationship. Right now routine is a blessing providing stability in an unstable world. Setting aside a few hours to consciously create intimacy — be it massage, a shared bath, cooking a nice meal together — allows you to compartmentalise. Turn off the phone, shut the laptop, and fully focus on the shared present moment. But don’t forget those expectations.

7. Have Fun

Let’s face it, global pandemics don’t happen often. If ever there’s a time to become playful, cut yourself some slack or slow down, now is it. Remember the reasons that drew you together. Explore those qualities by playing games, being silly, generally messing around. Equally, embrace each other’s shadow and show acceptance of the beautifully imperfect person you get the gift to share space and time with.

Romantic relationships have healing potential. It’ll take work, for sure, but self-isolating as a couple could boost the health of your relationship. As we read 24 news streams and social media feeds and the outside world feels overwhelming, it’s possible to escape from it all, shelter each other, to create your own bubble of belonging.

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