The past two-plus years have been universally tumultuous, and couples therapists say they have been dealing with the fallout in their practices every day.
Even now, when the pandemic no longer dominates daily life, many Americans continue to work, shop and do so much online that they count on their partners to meet their social and emotional needs.
“In my office, I see the burden this trend places 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 has been struggling to keep up with the demand.
Many of Ms. Silverstein’s couples are stuck in “isolated survival mode,” she said. Their relationships are all about managing household tasks, nothing more. Other couples have forgotten how to have fun, she said, or how important it is to have spontaneous interactions with the outside world. Some are still processing trauma.
The seven questions here will help you check in, whether you are in a relationship that is still reeling from the pandemic, or you long ago dove back into your old routines without pausing to touch base.
The couples counselors and sex therapists who suggested these questions said they should spark interesting conversation, whether you are in a decades-long relationship or a relatively new one, and become easier to ask and answer with practice.
1. What do we like to do together for fun?
A key theory about why couples divorce or grow dissatisfied with each other is that the sense of joy, passion and overall positivity they had early on erodes 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 early days. “We spend our time doing fun activities,” Dr. Whitton said.
She encourages couples to take out a calendar and look back over the past week or month and ask, “How many minutes did we spend actually doing something fun or pleasurable together?” Then they can try to build on it.
2. Who takes out the garbage now?
The pandemic shook up how couples divided domestic work, and while some data on heterosexual couples suggests things became more egalitarian at home, in plenty of other households, lockdowns exacerbated existing gender disparities.
Galena Rhoades, a clinical psychologist and research professor at the University of Denver, thinks all couples should spend some time deliberately discussing how they’ve divided child care and housework and whether that is working logistically and emotionally.
“Set aside a specific time to talk about the subject of who does what and what roles you want to have going forward,” she said. Plan for it like you would for a business meeting, Dr. Rhoades said. Know what you want to talk about, and minimize distractions. Be as explicit as possible about who is going to do what, then give the new routine a few weeks before you check in again.
3. What is one thing we like about our sex life?
If couples are in a sexual rut — and there is evidence that Americans were having less partnered sex and even masturbating less frequently even before the pandemic — they tend to focus on the negatives, said Tammy Nelson, a sex therapist and the author of “Open Monogamy: A Guide to Co-Creating Your Ideal Relationship Agreement.”
But, she believes, it is much more effective to focus on what’s working. “You don’t change your sex life by saying, ‘I hate it when you go to the left.’ You say, ‘I love it when you go to the right,’” Dr. Nelson argued.
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 how one partner touches the other’s face. Focusing attention on those moments — and discussing them openly together — can help reignite “erotic energy,” Dr. Nelson said.
4. How have we helped each other through hard times?
Whenever you go through a difficult stretch together, it is important to take time after to debrief, Ms. Silverstein said. What worked? What didn’t? Even if the past few years have been traumatic for you and your partner for any number of reasons, most couples can identify what she called micromoments when they came through for each other.
Another way of thinking about it is, “How did we rely on each other, and how did that feel to each 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 many things to many people, Dr. Nelson said, and that’s not just true for 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 whether those have changed.
Be specific. Perhaps you and your partner long ago agreed to sexual fidelity. But what about online conversations? “What about things like pornography?” Dr. Nelson asked. “What about flirting with a friend? What about having lunch with an ex?”
6. What is something that is worrying you that you haven’t told me about yet?
Rafaella Smith-Fiallo, a licensed clinical social worker and sex and couples therapist, believes this is a good question for people to ask their partners regularly (as in daily or weekly), but it can also be a useful one to pose in bigger moments of transition. You’re opening the door for your partner to be vulnerable with you, she said, and reminding you both that you are a team.
Resist the urge to immediately try to solve problems. Instead, practice active listening, Ms. Smith-Fiallo said. “It may be awkward. It may be messy. It may be uncomfortable,” she said. “But hold space for it, knowing you are in this together.”
7. How can I help you feel more loved?
“I just think this is a beautiful question,” said Ms. Silverstein, who credits it to the well-known marriage researcher John Gottman. People looking to make their romantic relationship stronger often focus on asking for what they want and what they need, which is important, Ms. Silverstein said. But asking this question is a clear way of communicating how much your partner matters to you.
“We want to create a culture in our conversations with our partners that is equally asking for what we need, but also being generous and offering to meet our partner’s needs,” Ms. Silverstein said.
How to approach relationship check-ins
These questions can be thorny, so the experts said couples should plan ahead and really try to use their best communication skills. Don’t ask them when you’re busy feeding your kids breakfast, or when your partner is half-asleep. Be thoughtful and considerate about finding a time that works for you both.
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 of the experts mentioned that 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 only to have these kinds of state-of-the-union check-ins after stretches of big change and transition, but to create a culture of communication in your relationship where you have a standing relationship summit daily, weekly, monthly and yearly, Ms. Smith-Fiallo said.
“It can be really helpful in reminding each other that you are a team,” she said. “You are in this together.”
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