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Lockdown love: Intimacy professor’s top 5 tips for improving your relationship

Corona has wreaked havoc on nearly every aspect of our lives, but for many people, couple relationships have stood firm, despite fears to the contrary.

New research from the Open University and couples app Paired has shown that one in four of us have relationships which actually improved over lockdown, while only one in 10 say that their relationships had gotten worse and the majority (63%) of people say theirs stayed the same, despite the strain the pandemic has caused.

So now we’re in the midst of another lockdown perhaps it is time to look for the positives, and that’s not just banana bread, TikTok and big hair. This enforced time at home could be used to strengthen our loving relationships.

Paired app

Working on relationships from home

So why, with the world turning on its head, job insecurity, the removal of routines and many people experiencing low level (at best) stress, are our relationships standing the test of time?

External stressors can put great strain on a relationship, but Professor of Sociology and Intimacy at the Open University and Paired’s Chief Relationship Officer Professor Jacqui Gabb’s research – Enduring Love? – on long-term partnerships showed that couples who can weather the storms may actually be stronger for it. This may well explain why many couples are faring well during the pandemic – what doesn’t break you will make you!

The pandemic has allowed couples to spend more time on activities that strengthen relationships. Half (49%) of all respondents found they were talking to each other more, just under half (44%) found they were spending more quality time together, and 39% were giving each other more emotional support. It appears we are applying #BEKIND to our partners.

Respondents who said their relationship improved over lockdown were increasingly likely to be doing more of these activities, with nearly two-thirds (74% of women, 72% of men) talking to each other more, two thirds (68% of women, 69% of men) spending more quality time together and around three in five (63% of women, 57% of men) giving each other more emotional support.

Respondents who reported their relationship worsened were less likely to have spent more time on these activities, with only a quarter (27% of women, 22% of men) talking to each other more, one in eight (12% of women, 13% of men) spending more quality time together and around one in five (16% of women, 21% of men) giving each other more emotional support.

Pulling their weight

With everyone spending more time at home, the housework dynamic saw a shake up. Two in five (40%) of all respondents reported that they were helping around the house more, with 36% of women and 45% of men claiming they had upped their contribution.

Increased housework may be the secret to a strong relationship, as happier couples saw even more of an increase in helping around the house (55% of women and 60% of men), whereas respondents in relationships that had worsened showed disparity – 39% of these men claimed to have increased their help, compared to just 18% of women.

The YouGov survey was commissioned and analysed by the Open University and Paired, a new app for couples which aims to open-up communication between partners and help them learn more about each other and their relationship.

The app combines fun daily questions and quizzes users can do with their partner with audio courses from a team of clinical psychotherapists and academics – the first relationship app to do so.

Paired provides a free audio course and daily tips to help couples manage their relationship during the COVID-19 pandemic. These cover topics such as: how to manage the effects of home-based working on your relationship, co-parenting while your kids are at home, and managing your mental and physical health together at a time of social distancing.

Here are Professor Jacqui Gabb’s top 5 secrets to communication success

1. Listening vs hearing – YOU’RE ON MUTE!

It’s no surprise that a first step in communicating with your partner is listening – but not just any old listening, says Jacqui. She suggests adopting “attentive listening”, which means not only listening to what your partner says, but trying to hear the meaning behind what they’re saying.

We have all become better listeners as we now spend half our lives on Zoom calls with patchy wifi. This year’s catch phrase has been ‘YOU’RE ON MUTE’. Don’t let that happen to conversations with your partner.

“In other words, rather than the nodding head of assent or ‘yeh, yeh’ affirmations, you take on board what is being said and why,” says Jacqui. “You’re bringing your knowledge of the relationship and your partner to the table here. Concentrate on the words that are spoken and how they are spoken, avoid interruptions or talking over the other person, and ask open-ended questions to demonstrate that you are listening and want to learn more,” she says.

2. It’s the little things

Everyone has different ways of expressing themselves in a relationship, and it’s worth remembering that many of these are non-verbal. “Sometimes, making a small gesture can speak a thousand words – a morning mug of tea can say ‘’I love you’, for example.”

Gestures don’t always need to be grandiose to be effective, in fact, the results of the ‘Enduring Love?’ study, completed by Jacqui and her colleagues, found that it was often everyday interactions that were far more appreciated.

With partners both working from home, or being furloughed or even redundancy, increased new opportunities may be emerging to make sure your partner knows they’re loved. Take a tea break together and share how you’re feeling or if you overhear them on a stressful work

call have a biscuit and cup of coffee ready for when they hang up. A little always goes a long way!

3. Fight right!

We’ve all become experts at turning to comedy in times of crisis, and in typical British nature we’ve poked fun at the mess the world is in or how the pandemic is being managed, so why treat relationship troubles any differently?

Jacqui found in her research that couples often find solutions to conflict through humour: “Couples talked about humour and fond teasing as a way of putting things in perspective. This doesn’t undermine the substantive point or belittle the other person’s feelings. No one should ever make their partner the butt of all jokes. Instead, fond teasing and banter demonstrates to a partner that you know them and that you’re in this together. It’s confirmation that there’s shared history, and trust – you’re in this together,” she says.

“I can’t understate the importance of learning from each other about how you handle conflict,” says Jacqui. “One popular method for resolving conflict is for each partner to take a turn to speak and listen, avoiding the urgency of feelings that often overwhelm us in arguments. Each person should speak calmly and start with ‘I feel’ to take responsibility for what they’re saying,” she says.

3. Let’s get physical!

If the past year has taught us anything it’s just how important human interaction is and the need for physical contact to improve mental health. So it’s no surprise that research completed by Binghamton University’s centre for research on intimate relationships found that hugging or cuddling up together on the couch can enhance relationship satisfaction. With a curfew in place and no option but to be home by 10pm, make the most of it and put some extra time in every night for cuddling up. As Jacqui says, physical intimacy is like talking, it’s about learning which forms of touch work for you and your partner, and then communicating through these touching gestures.

“Communication through physical intimacy is so important. Physical closeness expresses that we’re there for our partner – and it doesn’t have to be just about sex. Holding hands and hugs are all part of the communication process,” says Jacqui.

5. Make time for daily interactions – NETFLIX and CUDDLE!

Being confined at home together makes it easier than ever to assume you are spending lots of time together but rather than look at the quantity try and focus in on the quality.

“Creating space for daily interactions with your partner is key,” says Jacqui, “it doesn’t have to take extensive time to communicate, it’s about getting into the habit of doing it. Set aside a moment in the day to let your partner know that you’re there for them; that you value this relationship. Couples often think this has to be ‘special time’ that is in some way different to the humdrum of the household. This isn’t true. Partners can connect with each other as they do the daily chores together or as they sit down to kick back in front of the TV.

“Communication is absolutely key when it comes to successful relationships. I have studied long-term couple relationships for years and I cannot stress enough how important it is to simply talk, to discuss feelings and not to brush issues under the carpet and let them fester – that is how small problems become huge points of contention.

“Couples’ relationships are just like any other relationship, you have to put the time, energy and effort into them otherwise they simply won’t survive; Paired offers up a wonderful, easy way to do this without even having to leave your sofa.”

Diane Cooke
Diane Cooke is a three times award-winning journalist who has worked for UK national/regional newspapers, magazines and websites.

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