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  • Writer's pictureEmily Kerr

Couples in Captivity

Updated: Nov 1, 2021

Whether you are married, cohabitating, dating, or somewhere in between, COVID-19 has become an unwanted third party to many relationships. Pandemic-related relationship distress is now commonplace. While some have been forced to work from home, others have had to return to work to provide essential services. In either scenario, Esther Perel, renowned therapist and author, describes a collapse of our many roles into one space resulting in a loss of boundaries. Thus, relationships have been forced to adapt.

A breakdown of boundaries can have significant consequences on couples, particularly in the midst of a pandemic during which rates of social isolation, acute stress, substance use, and other mental health concerns have increased. There is also the problem of physical space. Couples who have grown accustomed to working separately have had to share their workspace. Many of my friends, colleagues, and clients have lamented about the challenges associated with taking calls or sustaining focus with their partner within feet (sometimes inches!) of them.

The good news? Open communication around boundaries and giving each other some much needed space will likely improve your productivity, and more importantly, your relationship. For example, try taking more frequent breaks throughout the day or find an activity (independent of your partner) to help you wind down from the day before reengaging.

In addition to the stresses of managing roles and navigating conflict, COVID-19 may not be the only third party in your relationship. My clients who have children, or who have had to move in with family describe how they lack the emotional energy to even consider themselves, let alone their partners, after taking care of their family members.

If this sounds familiar, you are not alone--creating structure and routine, even for self-care, goes a long way. If your family can stick to a schedule, you will have more success in carving out time for yourself and others. Consider delegating tasks between you and your partner, adjusting expectations accordingly, avoiding comparisons to pre-COVID life, and concentrating on being “good enough.” You are in the midst of a pandemic, after all!


  • Relationship distress in the time of COVID-19 is normal and an understandable consequence of a pandemic

  • Communication is key – talk to your partner (or your therapist) to find more effective ways to communicate about boundaries and conflict resolution

  • Taking care of others outside of the relationship adds another layer of complexity--adjust your expectations--you only need to be “good enough”

  • Consider talking to someone. Expand your social network, reach out to family, or speak to a professional about navigating these relationship challenges


Dr. Molly Shmerling is a licensed clinical psychologist at EK Counseling, LLC, a thriving Denver therapy practice. With over five years of experience treating individuals, she brings her warmth, humor, and optimism to each session. She specializes in eating disorders, body image struggles, sexuality and gender, life transitions, ADHD, general anxiety, and building self-esteem. If you are struggling to make a transition, or you just need extra support to create lasting lifestyle changes, please call to schedule an appointment.

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