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Intimacy and Closeness Key to Strong Relationships During COVID-19

Loving couple sits on couch together

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Key Takeaways

  • New intervention techniques can improve partner closeness and intimacy beyond what you might get from watching a movie together.
  • Maintaining closeness can improve stress during COVID-19, in addition to strengthening your relationship.

Periods of stress, especially when prolonged, can impact our ability to care for ourselves and others. COVID-19 has shown this to be true for many, and unfortunately, our partners are often directly impacted by these struggles.

Given the uncertainty of the pandemic's longevity and other stressors, relationship health is an ongoing and increasing concern for mental health professionals. Researchers have been searching for ways to both combat and prevent the effects that prolonged stress may have on our personal lives, especially our relationships. A recent study may have found part of the answer in an intervention geared toward promoting closeness.

Mollie Eliasof, LCSW, couples therapist and head of Mollie Eliasof Therapy says, “Everyone is in triage mode, simply trying to keep existing and getting by. Intimacy requires risk. To be open and vulnerable when we are already so raw can be petrifying. The safer answer to keep functioning and existing is to simply co-exist, put the depth of connection aside so any semblance of normalcy can occur.”

What Did the Study Show?

The recent study, published in Applied Psychology: Health and Well-Being, looked into the potential ways couples can regain and maintain closeness during COVID-19, which may help combat stress during this time.

Researchers gathered 31 couples for an online group session to test their theory, and the study showed that participants who were involved in the closeness intervention, called Awareness, Courage, and Love (ACL) Intervention, had higher rates of closeness that were maintained after the session was over.

Life and Love During COVID-19

Misconceptions around closeness and intimacy during this time are common, considering many couples are home, spending what could seem like too much time together.

However, this time is often consumed with new and increased responsibility, such as Zoom meetings, caring for sick relatives, and virtual schooling, on top of the ever-present stress of pandemic uncertainty.

Eliasof says, “Quality of time is so different than quantity of time. Couples who want a deeper, richer connection need to invest in getting curious about one another. Not only in how their partner is spending their day, but truly searching for what makes them smile, blossom, feel moved, or hungry for life. We get lost in just moving through life and, in turn, our relationship without the ability to slow down and have deep intentionality about the 'how' we are connecting gets lost in the shuffle.”

Participants in the study were primarily straight, White individuals from the Western United States. These participants were recruited through social media, and they were split into equal control and experimental groups. The experimental group participated in an ACL intervention, and the control group watched a movie and answered follow-up questions.

The researchers utilized two modalities to test the closeness of the couples pre-session, post-session, and during a follow-up one week after the online session. One was Inclusion of Others in Self (IOS), which evaluates how much a person feels connected to a partner in a relationship based on a 7-point scale. The second modality was the Couple Assessment of Relationship Elements (CARE), which measures the quality of a couples’ relationship, also based on a 7-point scale.

Mollie Eliasof, LCSW

Couples who want a deeper, richer connection need to invest in getting curious about one another. Not only in how their partner is spending their day, but truly searching for what makes them smile, blossom, feel moved, or hungry for life.

— Mollie Eliasof, LCSW

The goal of study was to test the ACL model virtually as a useful intervention to aid couples in closeness while dealing with the current crisis of the COVID-19 pandemic.

What Is the ACL?

Researchers stated that, “...thousands of ACL participants have provided a great deal of qualitative feedback about the effectiveness of its interventions that focus on open‐hearted self‐disclosure, listening with validation, practicing acceptance and compassion with self and others, and expressing appreciation.”

The idea was to assess if this could be completed successfully online to provide quick and positive results for couples who are seeking intimacy. Steps of the ACL included:

  • A video on the power of eye-contact followed by a 4-minute exercise where partners were asked to look into each other’s eyes
  • A guided meditation to promote openness
  • Writing and then sharing contemplative questions for their partners, such as: "What are your biggest struggles currently that you need to express and hold with tenderness? What do you need your partner to understand compassionately about what you are feeling?"
  • A 1-minute "Speaking from the Heart" exercise, where participants were asked to express their deepest feelings for their partner
  • Having participants take a photo of questions to ask their partners weekly after the session, such as: “What has been hard for you this week that you’d like me to understand? How can you take better care of yourself?"

What This Means For You

This study shows that maintaining closeness with your partner during this time can have positive results for everyone involved. Times of uncertainty are difficult, but making a concerted effort to stay connected and close could be beneficial for your relationship and your own personal stress levels.

Eliasof recommends couples take control in potentially stressful situations and make a collective coping toolkit. “They can create a list of the things or practices that help them regulate and get ground. Couples can make these coping tools easily accessible in the home, agree to encourage each other's use of them as they need, and even take time to incorporate soothing tools into date night!”

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Article Sources
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