My husband and I started couples counseling just before the coronavirus outbreak - here's why therapy is now more necessary than ever if you're quarantined with your partner

Melissa Petro and husband

melissa.petro/Instagram

Melissa Petro and her husband Arran.

  • Melissa Petro is a freelance writer based in New York with her husband and two small children.
  • She recently started couples counseling with her husband in February, just before the coronavirus outbreak had begun in the US.
  • Although they were hesitant at first to switch to virtual meetings, the weekly sessions soon began inspiring huge improvements in how Petro and her husband were communicating every day.
  • If you find yourself stuck inside or working from home with your partner and are starting to get on each other's nerves, Petro recommends looking into couples therapy - it can be more impactful now than ever.
  • Visit Business Insider's homepage for more stories.
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My husband and I started couples counseling at the end of February, when coronavirus had yet to be detected in the US. Becoming parents had tested our relationship, and recent challenges in particular - including the arrival of our second baby this past December - had made existing tensions worse. We wanted to communicate better, to treat one another more lovingly and bicker less often, particularly in front of our two year old son, who - much to my heartbreak - had begun acting out when the two of us would start fighting.

Arran and I were three sessions in and things were going well when the public health crisis escalated. As New Yorkers, we were encouraged to practice social distancing and began sheltering in place. We pulled our son out of daycare, and my husband began to work remotely. Thankfully, we've relocated to a spacious house upstate, rather than our 600-foot apartment. Even so, it's been an emotional rollercoaster. Like most Americans, we're stressed about money. We take turns feeling anxious and fearful. We're sometimes at odds when it comes to parenting our rambunctious toddler. Even though we all love to spend time together, we definitely get on one another's nerves.
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While the midst of a deadly pandemic may feel like the wrong time to be working on your #couplesgoals, experts are clear in their advice that now is not the time to stop taking actions that address your mental health - and when it comes to interventions like couples or family therapy, it might even be a great time to start.

Do you have a personal experience with the coronavirus you'd like to share? Or a tip on how your town or community is handling the pandemic? Please email covidtips@businessinsider.com and tell us your story.

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Why couples therapy?

Why couples therapy?

Whose turn is it to walk the dogs? You spent how much on what? When's the last time we had sex? Even when the end of the world feels imminent, experts say it's not unusual for couples to find themselves embroiled in the same old petty fights.

"Under stress, any difficulties get bigger," says licensed marriage and family therapist Bina Breitner.

Breitner — who is based in Tucson, Arizona, and currently under quarantine in Rome, Italy — has been working with couples and families in person as well as remotely for over 22 years. Efforts to deal with COVID-19, she says, have changed our schedules and disrupted our typical daily rhythms. As the crisis wears on, she warns, it's bound to get worse.

"People will to lose money and feel anxiety," Breitner warns. "They'll get cabin fever. They'll have many fewer interactions out in the world, and with other people." All this — compounded by fear of illness, loss of loved ones, death, and panic — puts pressure on individuals, Breitner says, which in turn taxes our relationships.

"It's going to be tough," says Brietner.

Talking with a neutral party can help

Talking with a neutral party can help

"Couples therapy draws out each individual's feelings and needs — in the presence of the partner — so each person becomes educated about themselves, about their partner, and about the way they dance together emotionally."

Couples therapy offers its participants a greater awareness and concern for oneself and one's partner, Breitner explains. You develop an awareness of your patterns of interaction.

"You see how things work," Breitner says, "and realize you have choices."

Couples therapists work differently, and there are different modalities. These days, whatever the style, it's being done remotely.

Because of our schedules compounded by childcare issues, my husband and I had set ourselves up for telecommunicating even before the coronavirus hit. I worried sessions over the internet would feel impersonal and, well, remote. Instead, it feels as if we're inviting our therapist into our home. Without childcare, she gets a chance to see our parenting in action.

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It allows you to work through tough emotions

It allows you to work through tough emotions

Our therapist, Rachel, is leading us through a popular approach called the Gottman method. Developed by American psychological researcher and clinician John Gottman, the Gottman method uses couples therapy techniques to increase affection, closeness, and respect. The program starts with a thorough assessment that my husband and I both completed separately. Rachel tailors each session to our specific needs based on the assessment's findings. We're also given homework in-between sessions.

Our first session, Rachel let us know that our assessment determined that while Arran and I share a good deal of affection and respect for one another — and that our relationship had a lot of other positive attributes — as a couple, we had trouble managing conflict.

That session, we practiced taking turns as the speaker and listener, and using "When you... I feel..." statements. Having done years of therapy, and given the fact that I write frequently about parenting and mental health, the whole situation — including this particular technique — wasn't entirely unfamiliar. Even so, it felt good to articulate myself to my partner in so unapologetically earnest a manner. And the whole situation was new for my husband. He fumbled a bit when it was his turn to talk and afterwards, he commented that he felt like he'd done it incorrectly. Instead of criticizing him like I might've done reflectively in the past, I reassured him. "If we did it perfectly, we wouldn't need to be there," I said, and thought: See, it's already working.

In this challenging time, counseling may matter more than ever

In this challenging time, counseling may matter more than ever

There's a stigma to being in marriage counseling — as if seeking professional help is akin to admitting you're on the brink of divorce. On the contrary, I'm a firm believer that everyone can benefit from relationship counseling, whether or not your marriage — or the whole world — is in crisis.

In between sessions, Arran and I make a real effort to practice what we're being taught, even when it's awkward and although it feels somewhat embarrassing. When tension starts bubbling up, one of us will grumble to the other, "Do you want to do that thing Rachel suggested?"

The techniques are surprisingly effective at diffusing conflict and inspiring empathy. I walk away from each session — even the difficult ones — with a feeling of "we're in this together."

Couples therapy gives us something to do, and something to look forward to. It's a little social interaction with a relative stranger once a week, something completely novel in the time of the coronavirus.

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