Until a few weeks ago, most of us walked out the door each morning to do what we do: the mundane, marvelous stuff of life. We went to work, cared for children and pets, traveled and shopped and congregated, all without consideration of masks, sanitizer, or where to secure toilet paper.
Until a few weeks ago, my husband and I were empty nesters. Then, literally overnight, our young adult children moved home—one from each coast—to shelter in their safe place.
Until a few weeks ago, most of us didn’t spend all day every day in close quarters with our loved ones—learning, working, and living together. Which means until recently there was a whole lot less stress in our world and our homes.
Essentially, until a few weeks ago the normal of our collective lives was mostly—wonderfully—boring. And now we are here: scrambling for footing in this new normal and suddenly wishing for the mundane ease of life we used to have.
That “here” is a place we didn’t expect. We didn’t want. And yet that’s life, right? Just when we think we know what to expect, the world says, “Well, actually…”
And even as a marriage and family communication expert I’m here too, struggling. Stumbling around in the “well, actually…” of all the things, like figuring out the new normal of a full nest again (love it!). Of suddenly making dinners for hungry young adults (kinda love it, kinda don’t). Of negotiating laundry needs, work schedules, and dish duty (totally don’t love). I’m searching for new routines and yearning for the return of some of the boring I took for granted until last month.
When I started getting calls and messages from friends asking for advice on precisely this topic—“How do I navigate this new normal with my people?! HELP!”—at first I thought I needed to provide super sage answers. I thought my friends and former students were looking for novel insights about relating to the people we live with as a novel virus sends us all into one big collective timeout.
What I actually hear in those calls for help is more of a yearning for just a little reminder. A nudge back to the basics of relating to the people in our lives in ways we already know we can and should.
But then I realized our angst and the questions about navigating this new normal aren’t really about searching for some big, new secret sauce of relationship satisfaction.
Quite the contrary, in fact.
What I actually hear in those calls for help is more of a yearning for just a little reminder. A nudge back to the basics of relating to the people in our lives in ways we already know we can and should: with patience. And respect. Kindness. Generosity of spirit. Affirmation. Humility. Vulnerability. And gentleness.
Oh, and did I mention patience?
And so here I am with some gentle little nudges—a few loving, encouraging reminders—to help assure you that you can (yes, you can!) thrive while in close quarters with whomever it is you are quarantined. You already have all of the tools you need. And you already know these things. But stress does funny things to our memories (thank you, cortisol).
As you go about this time in close quarters and finding a new normal with family, spouses, kids, and/or roommates, may you lean on these four simple but powerful relational truisms.
If there is one essential truth of relationships it’s this fact: Relationships thrive on positivity. In fact, according to the best social science in the world, marriages that thrive and survive have eight times more positive than negative moments in day-to-day interactions, and even five times more positive than negative when the couples are in conflict.
And what’s the relationship between positivity and patience, you ask? Take a moment right now to scan your environment. Identify one small thing that your partner (or roommate or kid) did right today. Just one little thing that is going well. Maybe your teenager fed the dog. Or didn’t leave the cereal box out. Or that she actually got out of bed and took a shower. Or your husband made lunch for the kids. Or your roommate brought in the mail and put it where you agreed mail now goes during an age of coronavirus. Take a moment to simply say thank you to them in your heart, in your own head.
Take a moment right now to scan your environment. Identify one small thing that your partner (or roommate or kid) did right today. . . . That action right there—of scanning your environment and noting the positive—is a major deposit in your piggybank of patience.
That action right there—of scanning your environment and noting the positive—is a major deposit in your piggybank of patience.
As your own patience grows, so will that of the people you live with.
Research calls it emotional contagion. I call it a powerful reminder that if we want things in our relationships to change, even slightly, that change starts with us.
Our energy, our words, our choices: They have a much more significant impact on others’ moods than we realize. After you note in your heart and mind something you see going right in your home, then tell that person that you appreciated what they did. “Thanks for putting away that cereal box, babe.” “I appreciate that you fed the dog this morning, honey.” They might not be able to express at that moment how much they appreciate you appreciating them, but rest assured they feel it.
This truth is probably the hardest of the easiest. But trust me, it works. Slowly, but handily.
Never forget, we humans are just animals. Smart mammals, but still pretty basic. We all just want to feel valued and appreciated. And when we feel valued and appreciated, we are motivated to do more of what we did to receive the affirmation. You know, positive reinforcement—the axiomatic concept we learned in fifth-grade biology and human psych 101.
Never forget, we humans are just animals. Smart mammals, but still pretty basic. We all just want to feel valued and appreciated. And when we feel valued and appreciated, we are motivated to do more of what we did to receive the affirmation.
It works brilliantly with the people with whom we love and live.
And brilliant author Amy Sutherland captured this relational truth best in one of my all-time favorite books “What Shamu Taught me About Life, Love, and Marriage.” In it, she reminds us that “there is a beautiful simplicity to the animal mind.” To the human mind. The trick, she explains, is that we have to do both parts: ignore unwanted behavior and notice/reward what we want. Which brings us back to scanning the environment, naming something we see going well, and then thanking the person for it.
“Thank you for riding in the car so quietly as mommy drives. It really helps me concentrate.”
“I really am grateful you remembered to buy chocolate chips when you ran to the store. Thank you.”
“When I was on that call and you shut the door so it was quieter in here… that was really nice. Thanks, honey.”
Trust me, you’ll see more of all the above by pointing out all of the above.
One of my best friends, Kate, shared a new ritual that she and her husband, Pete, developed during this stressful time of sheltering in place—a positive, necessary daily check-in ritual they are using as they work from home in a tiny house with two small kids.
I love the concept because it’s not only simple and powerful but also because in their loving little ritual they capture a little bit of all of the above: patience, positivity, emotional attunement, and noticing/rewarding. Rituals of care and connection are needed in all relationships—and now more than ever is a great time to lean hard into them.
At least once a day Kate and Pete ask each other three simple questions: “How are you doing? What do you need? How can I help?”
The questions are practical, yes. But as a marriage researcher, I also hear in their questions something bigger: a metamessage of caring softly and explicitly for and about each other. Over and again. The fact that their caring has become a sacred new couple ritual is even better.
And at the end of the day, the most powerful antidote we all have to the stress of our collective lives at the moment is to simply, patiently, and positively care for each other. Thank you, all you beautiful lovely fellow humans, for every way and every day you are doing just that. (Notice what I did there? #Reward)
Carol Bruess (last name rhymes with “peace”) is professor emeritus at the University of St. Thomas, Minnesota, studying and writing about relationships. She is highly fluent in emoji, loves parentheticals (I mean, it’s what all the cool kids are doing), and is happy-dancing her way through empty-nesting (although don’t tell her kids; they think she’s all weepy). Check out her books, TEDx talk “Are All Relationships Messy?” and her sewing/design shenanigans over at www.carolbruess.com.
BY Carol Bruess - April 14, 2020
Thank you for being here. For being open to enjoying life’s simple pleasures and looking inward to understand yourself, your neighbors, and your fellow humans! I’m looking forward to chatting with you.