These couples may struggle the most as the pandemic ends and we return to normal

Allison Miller (right) and her boyfriend  Ben Schwartz during a trip near Fincastle, Virginia.

Allison Miller and her boyfriend enjoyed six months of normalcy before the pandemic hit. But their relationship quickly became "a lot more real" as they went from seeing each other on weekends to working remotely under the same roof.

Miller, who was fearful of contracting COVID-19 after nearly dying from the flu in 2014, says through it all, her boyfriend was "fantastic, supportive and a blessing."

While some couples have struggled to communicate and agree on COVID protocols during the last year, others have thrived. But experts say the next stage could be a challenge as couples who have grown closer adjust to post-pandemic life. 

Fifty-eight percent of people said their relationship has gotten stronger during the pandemic, according to a survey of 2,000 respondents conducted by eharmony and Harris Interactive. A Pew Research Center analysis in October 2020 had similar findings: 53% of married or cohabiting respondents described their relationship as "going very well." 

But for some, the closeness has also fueled dependency.

"This pandemic just feeds into our entire co-dependency," Mila Kunis said in January when describing how her relationship with husband Ashton Kutcher has been impacted by COVID.

"Given that we have been living working and spending every waking moment with our partners over the past year, it only makes sense that we might feel some discomfort spending time apart," says Kathryn Esquer, clinical psychologist and founder of the Teletherapist Network. "Some of us might have come to depend on our partners for things such as emotional support throughout the workday or small tasks that make life easier."

More:A year into the pandemic, some couples are at a breaking point

Couples who have gotten into a groove this past year "might even have a bigger adjustment going back out into pre-pandemic" routines, Esquer says. 

Re-upped work commitments and social engagements outside the house could become external stressors if you spent the last year "connecting on a deeper level with your partner and enjoying the home time," she explains.

As that extra time together and support wanes, couples may feel a sense of loss. 

“Even though (the end of the pandemic) is a perceived good change, any change comes with loss and so that loss must be addressed, communicated and mourned in a sense, adapted to," she adds.

How close couples can continue to thrive after the pandemic ends

So, how should couples address and adapt to this next transition?

Nedra Tawwab, therapist and founder and owner of Kaleidoscope Counseling, says it's important to be "very clear about your needs" as couples adjust to post-pandemic life.

“Many couples come to counseling because they’re having issues with communication. … That can look like an issue with a partner because they’re not meeting our needs, but it’s an issue with us because we’re not telling them."

Tawwab says couples can also seek professional help before a big transition to learn about communication and coping skills. "Therapy can be a preventative strategy, it doesn't have to be a reaction to something going on," she explained.

Awareness is a good place to start, Esquer says. 

“If you’re finding yourself to be a little more on edge or irritable, really take some time and check in with yourself about what that’s about” Esquer suggests. “What are your fears coming up? What are your assumptions coming up?" 

When you find out what’s bothering you, communicate it “in an open way.”

“Even if you don’t know what you need, just communicating and letting them know what’s going on what’s in you can help them understand what you’re going through," she said.

Tawwab hopes couples will "continue to practice many of the things we practiced while quarantined… (including) being creative with things (and) connecting with our partners."

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