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Relationship Troubles At Home? Act First. Talk Later.

May 15, 2020

The ongoing stay-at-home orders haven’t just brought us new recipes for breads, cakes and cookies. They also brought us a recipe for depression, anxiety, and relationship problems.

I’ll make two predictions here:

(1) In about 9 months, we’ll see a small baby boom.

(2) As soon as the courts reopen, we’ll see an uptick in divorces.

Over many years as a professional matchmaker, I’ve learned from clients that stress of any kind  is never just personal and one-sided. It doesn’t matter if the stress comes from financial, employment or health-related worries, or any other circumstance of life.  When we are in a relationship, we pass our own stress to our partner like an infectious disease.

And while we usually understand our own reasons for feeling stressed out, our partner often cannot. The result is an emotional rift. It causes both partners to feel they are not understood, but “all alone” while facing a difficult time. The perception of abandonment becomes in itself a stress multiplier. Our behavior may change. We might become more withdrawn or lash out at our partner for no apparent reason. This is the recipe for disaster I am talking about.

The way I think about it is that this wicked coronavirus doesn’t just infect physical bodies. The corona illness also affects minds and emotions.

If you and your partner are feeling stressed and anxious – what kind of mask should you wear to protect your mental health and your relationship? Most therapists suggest to start by communicating and listening to each other. I’ll tell you something else – and here’s why:

Practically all my clients come to me because the communication and listening part of their previous relationship didn’t work. It’s not that they didn’t try. It’s that it failed. 

The problem is that stress turns people into terrible listeners. Stress makes us focus on ourselves. This makes us less aware of what’s going on with others around us. And, it makes us less patient.

Deep communication between couples requires intimacy. But stress is an intimacy repellent and an attraction killer. Nobody feels drawn to constant complainers. Nagging is a turnoff, temper tantrums are not sexy, nobody enjoys the company of Negative Nancy or Wimpy Whiner – especially not during a time of crisis where everybody has some sort of problem.

My practice in matchmaking has taught me what most people are attracted to. Good looks (obviously), a sense of style, resourcefulness, kindness …. and a big, big one: confidence. Why? Because someone’s confidence inspires the feeling of calm and safety in others – exactly what we instinctively seek when we feel stressed, anxious or unsettled.

That’s why I am telling you something else:

Act first. Talk later.

Remember the time when you and your partner first met? What did you find attractive about each other? What made you fall in love? Now try to focus on being that person. Tomorrow, the world may end and the sky may fall. But today, we can be the best we can be.

1) Start with your appearance.

Gentlemen, don’t think quarantine and closed barber shops have given you an excuse to grow a sagebrush on your face, “conserve water”, ration soap, and wear the same sweatpants and slippers all day, every day.

Ladies, it may have been a relief not having to bother about your hair and makeup, or wearing heels or nice clothes. (I know very well. I’m guilty of the same).

I’m not saying you should all dress up every day while locked up at home. But do it sometimes. Both of you. Remind each other what it was like to be on a date, and rediscover what attracted you to each other in the first place!

2) Invite your partner on a date. Yes, at home.

Sure, by default most couples occupy the same space. But, couples often make a grave mistake by assuming that quality time together is a given. It isn’t.

Remember when you were single, you had to “ask” someone out. It helps to start thinking of your partner as someone you are dating.  At Catch, we always say that a date involves a shared experience. Make it something both of you enjoy doing together! 

What did you enjoy doing together on dates? So do it!

A romantic dinner? Alright! Set the table, light the candles, and play your favorite music. If you have a fireplace, light a fire even if it’s hot. (Conveniently you’ll be at home. The clothes may just have to come off ). 

If you enjoy cooking, great! If not, restaurants are all too happy to deliver. So you won’t have a waiter, but a dinner date at home offers other advantages. Nobody is going to rub elbows with you, you can pick your favorite music, drink as much as you want to, dance if you feel like it, and that non-existing waiter isn’t going to interrupt your conversation or pester you to leave your table for the next, waiting party.  

How about a movie date? Excellent! Streaming services to the rescue! Pick something somewhat romantic, funny or artistic.

Charlie Chaplin, Virginia Cherrill in “City Lights”, 1931

But remember: It’s still a date. Someone has to organize it, with an appointed time and all! This calls for drinks, snacks, and a pleasant and comfortable setup.

And of course, (just like at dinner) all mobile phones are completely banned, and so is anything you wouldn’t talk about on a date: controversies and unpleasantness of any kind, doom and gloom, problems and annoyances. On a date, that’s poison.

You’ll get the idea of what I’m suggesting: make it a date, not a debate. Make it special. Make it different. Make it exciting, romantic, delicious, hilariously funny. For best effect, make it surprising

By doing that, you are signaling that you are interested in the other person. You are building (or rebuilding) a connection. Stress levels will fall, you’ll forget about the miseries of the world, and refocus on the person with you. And that’s the condition under which, on another day and at another time, you can both do the communicating and listening suggested by therapists.

There are many, many ways you can create fun dates at home, and I’ll be sharing more ideas in the future.

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The author, Katie Chen is a professional matchmaker and relationship expert. She is the owner of Catch Matchmaking Inc., a boutique dating and relationship agency in Los Angeles, California.

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