How Not to Tank Your Relationship in Quarantine
“This time of isolation could be a period of great growth or great struggle in your relationship.”
Humans have evolved with a drive to share life with a partner—just not all day long. Our hunter-gatherer ancestors on the savanna formed pair-bonds, but they parted in the morning to go about their separate tasks. So did our ancestors on the farm. For hundreds of thousands of years, even the most devoted couples have been uttering some version of that basic romantic principle: “I married you for better or for worse, but not for lunch.”
So what happens now that spouses are staying home all day, and many unmarried couples suddenly find themselves quarantined together? The peril facing relationships quickly became obvious to the pioneers of this new intimacy on the Diamond Princess cruise ship, where couples were cooped up for two weeks in their cabin during the ship’s quarantine. Ellis Vincent, a retired airline executive from Australia, told a reporter that he and his wife, Kimberly, were passing the time by having long conversations during which she displayed a remarkable memory.
“She is able to bring up every transgression I’ve ever had,” he said. “I believe she is not finished.”
That is not the way for a relationship to survive the COVID-19 quarantine. The Vincents were succumbing to the negativity effect, which even in ordinary circumstances is the chief threat to couples—and can be an absolute relationship killer in these troubled times. The negativity effect is the brain’s tendency to respond more strongly to negative events and emotions than to positive ones. In short: Bad is stronger than good.
Research has shown that a negative event (such as your partner rehashing an old fight) typically has at least three times the impact of a comparable positive event (such as your partner recalling one of your past kindnesses). To keep love alive, bear a rough guideline in mind that we call the Rule of Four: Four good things are necessary to overcome one bad thing. Given the nonstop negativity in the news, people will need lots of positivity in their personal lives to compensate.
Finding good things to focus on takes some creativity in quarantine, but there’s an obvious opportunity at home: that trove of photos and videos of vacations, outings, and celebrations that you’d never had time to go through. Now you do. These can be a source of positivity at any time, and couples stuck at home together can use them to happily “nostalgize”—a verb coined by social psychologists who have discovered remarkable benefits in reliving the past.
Nostalgia was long considered a sign of unhappiness with the present (and was once even seen as a disorder). But in recent years, Constantine Sedikides and his colleagues at the University of Southampton in England have shown that nostalgia isn’t just an exercise in relishing the past. If indulged in the right way, it makes us more satisfied with the present and more optimistic about the future.
Nostalgia has the potential to lift people’s spirits, make them feel more connected to others, and heighten the sense that life has continuity and meaning. It can counteract boredom and anxiety, can motivate people to work toward goals, and is linked to increased generosity and tolerance. Experiments have shown that people who nostalgize in a cool room actually feel physically warmer.
Other studies have shown that couples look happier and feel closer when they share memories—at least when they’re not recalling each other’s transgressions or lamenting what has been lost. The healthiest way to nostalgize is not to pine for the past—“Those were better days”—but rather to savor those memories as a treasure that can’t be taken away. So when you look at a photo of yourself with friends at a favorite restaurant, focus on your enduring friendship instead of the fact that the restaurant has shut down during the pandemic.
In most relationships, fortunately, the multitude of small good moments make up for the more powerful bad ones. And you can always create more good moments. You can try to regularly make a list of your partner’s traits for which you’re grateful, and also make a point of telling your partner what you admire about them.
However, accentuating the positive will only do so much. Because of the greater power of bad—that 4-to-1 ratio we mentioned—you can have a bigger impact by eliminating the negative, both negative actions and negative thoughts about your partner.
Instead of striving to be a perfect partner, concentrate on avoiding elementary mistakes. Studies have shown that people get relatively little credit for delivering more than they had promised, but they pay a stiff price for doing less. Before you make a commitment, beware what psychologists call the “planning fallacy,” our tendency to underestimate how long a project will take. Better to promise less and make sure you deliver on it than promise too much and fall short.
Another way to keep the peace is by fighting your own negative reactions to conflict. If your partner gets upset at what seems, to you, to be a trivial offense, remember that bad is in the eye of the beholder. You have to deal with their reaction no matter how irrational it seems—and the power of bad can bring out the irrationality in all of us. One critical word or careless affront looms much larger than any goodwill, and it will linger for longer, especially if you’re together 24/7.
When your partner does something that bothers you, don’t go with your gut reaction. Think before you blame, and be especially wary of what psychologists call the “fundamental attribution error.” When we do something wrong ourselves, we often blame it on temporary external circumstances: Yes, I lost my temper a couple of times today, but that’s just because of all the stress from the quarantine. But when our partner does something wrong, we’re inclined to wrongly attribute it to permanent internal flaws: He lost his temper because he has lousy self-control and doesn’t care about how I feel.
In 2000, researchers tracked couples’ “attributional styles” and found that attributing partners’ wrongdoings to internal flaws led to greater marital dissatisfaction and a higher likelihood of divorce. Before blaming your partner’s behavior on an inherent character trait, force yourself to consider a charitable excuse for what they did. And then give your partner the benefit of the doubt.
A friend of ours keeps his wife’s faults in perspective by taping a message to his bathroom mirror: You’re no bargain either. Being able to overlook your partner’s sins—to maintain what psychologists call “positive illusions”—is one of the surest ways to sustain a relationship. Some people seem to do it automatically, as demonstrated in couples’ brain scans. When shown a picture of their beloved, some people displayed less activity in the brain region associated with making negative judgments—and their relationships proved more likely to endure. But even if you can’t help spotting your partner’s offenses, you can at least pretend not to notice. As Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s mother-in-law once advised her, “In every good marriage, it helps sometimes to be a little deaf.”
If the affront is one you can’t endure, then say something, but do it calmly without retaliating, because the negativity effect can quickly turn a small disagreement into a raging battle. This dynamic was observed in experiments at the University of Chicago in which people took turns playing a game that gave them the option of either cooperating with their partner or acting selfishly. When a player acted benevolently, the partner typically reciprocated in kind. But when a player acted selfishly, the partner didn’t merely reciprocate—they tended to escalate the conflict by acting even more selfishly themselves. The Chicago psychologists summarized the participants’ reactions: “You scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours, but if you take my eye, I’ll take both of yours.”
That’s not the spirit that will get your relationship through the pandemic. There’s enough angst in the world right now without adding to it at home. You can suppress your visceral negativity bias by consciously looking for the upsides of your relationship—and even the upsides to being quarantined. After all, it’s giving you an unprecedented opportunity to get to know your partner.
“This is going to be a period of great growth for relationships,” says the anthropologist Helen Fisher, who has studied romance around the world. “Couples are either going to grow together or grow apart.” Therapists love to advise couples to create quality time for themselves, and now we have more of it than ever. Use it wisely—and positively.