“I was thinking we could adopt a puppy while we’re all at home,” said Joanne Moffitt, with a teasing tone in her voice.
“Uh, that’s a no,” replied her husband, Les.
Had the coronavirus not erupted, the Burnsville couple and their two children would be on a spring break trip to the Grand Canyon. Instead, they’re home, spending more time together than they have in 15 years of marriage.
“I think this is great. Now I have a sous chef,” said Les, who does most of the cooking.
“I do know how to chop, ” said Joanne, adding, “I cleaned the oven yesterday. That’s a first.”
Typically they are tag team parents, taking turns supervising kids’ homework and bedtime rituals around their work schedules. Joanne, 44, is a dental hygienist who routinely works evenings, and Les, 43, a high school teacher, is often away on weekends at matches with the quiz bowl teams he coaches.
But now, like millions of couples, the Moffitts must navigate a new reality, one that requires them to be together 24/7.
How spouses manage is creating a real-life experiment that fascinates Bill Doherty, a professor of family social science at the University of Minnesota.
“We have no idea where this will take us. We are programmed to manage brief emergencies, not long ones,” said Doherty.
Doherty began studying couples in 1978 and has since trained scores of marriage and family therapists, so he’s well positioned to offer marital advice, including how to bear it when your beloved begins to grate on your nerves.
His recommendation is a technical term used by counselors: externalizing the problem.
“That means to understand that what’s happening between the two of you is coming from something outside you,” he said. “You’re in the bunker together and you can rally together to defeat an external threat.”
Rampers and the tampers
Whether they realize it or not, Doherty said, most couples have settled into roles in the relationship, which are playing out now.
“Hardly any two people respond to crises in the same way,” he said. “Over the years, when a parent is sick or they’ve faced a big money problem, one has become the worry wart and the other is the soother. One ramps up and the other tamps down.”
Doherty advises couples to try to “accept your different emotional responses and that your spouse will deal with uncertainty according to their nature. If you can’t see that, it’s a recipe for needless conflict.”
Couples can also look to friends and family members who are retired to see how they made the adjustment to spending much more time together.
“They have to learn how to build in structure for separate time,” he said.
And if there were ever a time to cut your significant other some slack, this is it.
It’s a given that you will get on each other’s nerves.
Joanne said she hasn’t reached that point yet.
“He hasn’t gotten on my nerves yet,” she teased about Les, “but it’s a guarantee that he will.”
When that happens? Les is likely to be banished downstairs to his “man cave.”
Instead of banishment, Doherty recommends taking the high road.
“See it as normal, not a reflection on your relationship,” he said. “Your spouse is not more annoying than you thought, you’re just around them more.”
‘Declare a cease-fire’
At any given time, about a quarter of all spouses are thinking about divorce.
For those who are experiencing serious discord, Doherty warns that now is not the time to make a decision about the fate of a marriage.
“Unless there’s a physical threat, declare a cease-fire. You can put your problems back on the table later. Right now, just get through this,” he said. “People can do that. Think about spouses in a conflicted marriage who have a kid who gets in a serious accident. They put their troubles aside for the time being.”
The Moffitts are managing this unprecedented turn with their good humor intact.
Les, who is more of an introvert, is satisfied to churn through books that have been sitting in a stack, while Joanne misses contact with her patients and keeps up with co-workers by group texting.
They’ve settled into a routine, watching their kids ride their bikes in the cul-de-sac, playing canasta and looking forward to fishing season.
“We are boring and pretty content with each other,” said Les. “We will come through this the same. How could it get any better?”
“Aw, heck, listen to you!” joked Joanne. “I give him the remote and we live in peace.”
Tips for keeping peace in your relationship from U of M professor
Being in very close quarters with the one you’re closest to — your spouse — can cause friction. Here’s some advice on keeping the peace from Bill Doherty, a professor of family social science at the University of Minnesota who’s been married for 49 years.
• Get into a new routine and stick to it. Sameness makes life more predictable, which is reassuring.
• Allow yourself some personal time. Talk with your partner and figure out how both of you can schedule some solo time. Too much togetherness can lead to irritability. Find your boundaries and keep some distance.
• Don’t isolate yourselves. Spend time individually connecting with friends and loved ones on the phone or online. Create some social outlets as a couple, such as virtual happy hours or online game nights.
• Let go of the little stuff.
• Ask for what you need.
• We all need to vent, specially in times of uncertainty. Listen with empathy when your partner needs to unload. Don’t criticize him or her if their coping mechanisms are different from yours.
• Regard the domestic stage and the action playing out between you with good humor. Try to imagine that you and your spouse are in a sitcom, not a drama.
Kevyn Burger is a Minneapolis-based freelance broadcaster and reporter.
Conflicts happen in every healthy relationship. However if you are experiencing domestic violence, there are services available to help you. The Minnesota Domestic Violence Crisis Line is 1-866-223-1111.