The past more than two years have been universally tumultuous, and couples therapists say they deal with the fallout in their practices every day.
Even now, with the pandemic no longer dominating everyday life, many Americans continue to work, shop and do so much online that they rely on their partners to meet their social and emotional needs.
“In my office, I see the burden this trend is placing on primary romantic relationships,” said Laura Silverstein, a licensed clinical social worker and the author of “Love Is an Action Verb.” She co-owns a practice in Pennsylvania that is struggling to keep up with demand.
Many of Ms. Silverstein’s couples are stuck in “isolated survival mode,” she said. Their relationships are all about managing household chores, nothing more. Other couples have forgotten how to have fun, she said, or the importance of having spontaneous interactions with the outside world. Some are still processing trauma.
The seven questions here will help you check in, whether you’re in a relationship that’s still reeling from the pandemic, or whether you dived back into your old routines long ago without pausing to touch the basics.
The couples and sex therapists who suggested these questions said they should spark interesting conversation, whether you’re in a decades-long relationship or a relatively new one, and that they should become easier to ask and answer with practice.
1. What do we like to do together for fun?
An important theory as to why couples divorce or become disaffected with each other is that the sense of joy, passion and overall positivity they had early on is eroding over time, said Sarah Whitton, a psychologist and the director of the Today’s Couples and Families Research Program at the University of Cincinnati.
Physical attraction and hormones aren’t the only reasons relationships are exciting in the beginning. “We spend our time doing fun activities,” said Dr. Whitton.
She encourages couples to grab a calendar and look back at the past week or month and ask, “How many minutes have we actually done something fun or enjoyable together?” Then they can try to build on that.
2. Who takes out the household waste now?
The pandemic shook up the way couples divided up housework, and while some data on heterosexual couples suggests things became more egalitarian at home, the lockdowns in many other households exacerbated existing gender inequalities.
Galena Rhoades, a clinical psychologist and research professor at the University of Denver, believes all couples should spend some time deliberately discussing how they’ve divided childcare and housework and whether that works logistically and emotionally.
“Set aside a specific time to talk about the topic of who does what and what roles you want to have in the future,” she said. Plan it like you would for a business meeting, said Dr. Rhoades. Know what you want to talk about and minimize distractions. Be as explicit as possible about who will do what and give the new routine a few weeks before checking back in.
3. What do we like about our sex life?
When couples are in a sexual rut — and there’s evidence that Americans had less sex with partners and even masturbated less often, even before the pandemic — they tend to focus on the negatives, said Tammy Nelson, a sex therapist and the author. from “Open Monogamy: A Guide to Co-Creating Your Ideal Relationship Match.”
But, she believes, it is much more effective to focus on what works. “You don’t change your sex life by saying, ‘I hate it when you go left.’ You say, ‘I love it when you go to the right,’ argued Dr. Nelson.
She encourages people in relationships to name one thing they appreciate about their sex life. It could be something they did together 20 years ago, or it could be a subtle gesture like one partner touching the other’s face. Drawing attention to those moments — and discussing them openly together — can rekindle the “erotic energy,” said Dr. Nelson.
4. How have we helped each other through difficult times?
When you’re going through a difficult journey together, it’s important to take the time to debrief afterward, Ms. Silverstein said. What worked? What not? Even if the past few years have been traumatic for you and your partner for various reasons, most couples can recognize what she called micro moments when they came through for each other.
Another way to think about it is, “How did we rely on each other, and how did that feel for all of us?” suggested Jesse Kahn, a licensed clinical social worker and director of the Gender and Sexuality Therapy Center in New York City.
5. Are we still on the same page about monogamy?
Monogamy means a lot to many people, said Dr. Nelson, and that doesn’t just apply to those in open relationships. She encourages her clients to regularly update their “monogamy agreements” by discussing the details of what forms of attachment they find acceptable outside of their main relationship, and asking if they have changed.
Be specific. Perhaps you and your partner agreed on sexual fidelity a long time ago. But what about online conversations? “What about things like pornography?” asked Dr. Nelson. ‘What about flirting with a friend? How about having lunch with an ex?”
6. What’s something you’re worried about that you haven’t told me about?
Rafaella Smith-Fiallo, licensed clinical social worker and sex and relationship therapist, thinks this is a good question for people to ask their partners regularly (such as daily or weekly), but it can also be helpful to pose at larger moments from transition. You open the door for your partner to be vulnerable to you, she said, reminding you that you are a team.
Resist the urge to immediately try to solve problems. Practice active listening instead, said Ms. Smith-Fiallo. “It might be inconvenient. It can be messy. It can be awkward,” she said. “But keep space for it, knowing you’re in this together.”
7. How can I help you feel more loved?
“I just think this is a nice question,” said Ms. Silverstein, who attributes it to noted marriage researcher John Gottman. People who want to make their romantic relationship stronger often focus on asking for what she want and what? she need, which is important, said Ms. Silverstein. But asking this question is a clear way to communicate how much your partner is important to you.
“We want to create a culture in our conversations with our partners that is both asking for what we need, but also generous and offering to meet our partner’s needs,” said Ms. Silverstein.
How to approach relationship check-ins
These questions can be tricky, so the experts said couples should plan ahead and really try to use their best communication skills. Don’t ask them when you’re feeding your kids breakfast, or when your partner is half asleep. Think carefully about finding a time that works for both of you.
It may be helpful to use “I” statements when discussing your relationship, Ms. Smith-Fiallo added. So instead of saying something like, “You made me feel,” try something like, “When this happened, I felt XYZ,” she explained. (All experts said some couples would find these conversations much easier and more constructive with the help of a therapist.)
Then practice, practice, practice. The goal is not just to have these kind of state-of-the-union check-ins after major changes and transitions, but to create a communication culture in your relationship where you have a permanent relationship summit daily, weekly, monthly. and annually, said Mrs. Smith-Fiallo.
“It can be really helpful to remind each other that you’re a team,” she said. “You’re in this together.”