Professor of Psychology, Weinberg College of Arts & Sciences; Professor of Management & Organizations
Editor’s note: This is part of a series of articles based on Kellogg Executive Education webinars focused on COVID-19.
Your dining room table has morphed into your office. Your new “coworkers” keep pestering you during meetings to build LEGO castles. And you’ve never been more worried about the physical and financial well-being of loved ones—some of whom you may currently be seeing a lot of.
Welcome to the work-from-home reality of COVID-19.
These rapidly evolving, often overwhelming stressors are undoubtedly presenting problems for significant others who are cooped up together. Which begs the question: whither the coronavirus marriage?
“Stress and financial worry take a serious toll on relationships,” explains Eli Finkel, a professor of management and organizations at the Kellogg School and of psychology at Northwestern’s Weinberg School of Arts and Sciences. He explains that, on average, there’s a link between higher levels of stress and higher divorce rates.
But, Finkel says, despite all the difficulties of living and working 24/7 under the same roof, relationships don’t have to go south. “Remembering that it is not inevitable is valuable.”
Finkel, author of the book The All-or-Nothing Marriage: How the Best Marriages Work, offered advice for how to tend to relationships during the coronavirus crisis in a recent webinar from Kellogg Executive Education. He also suggested how coworkers can maintain their personal ties while working remotely.
One “love hack” comes from his research into relationships. Finkel and coauthors enrolled 120 couples in a two-year study where they were regularly asked to briefly write about a conflict they were experiencing. In year two, half the couples were asked to write from the point of view of a neutral third party, instead of from their own point of view. That group went on to report greater happiness and satisfaction in their relationships.
The lesson, Finkel says, is that we can shift our emotional reactions to conflict by shifting our perspective.
“We think that we perceive reality as it is, but that’s false,” he says. Our perceptions are filtered through layers of needs and vulnerabilities. Taking a neutral perspective lets many of those filters fall by the wayside. “That gives us leeway to interpret life a little bit more generously.”
Another tip, which Finkel acknowledges applies mainly to couples with the privilege of job and financial security, is to find a bright side to all this forced togetherness.
“We can use this as an opportunity to connect in ways that are really different than in normal circumstances,” he says. Maybe that’s returning to the board game you used to play years ago when you dated, or binge watching a show together on the couch.
Finkel says that it’s important to remember that you likely had close relationships with coworkers that should be tended to, as well.
If we’re all back in the office in another month or so, Finkel predicts our work friendships will pick right back up. But if our isolation extends much longer, “I do think you’re going to see an erosion of a sense of closeness.”
The issue, he explains, are all those little unplanned moments that cement a friendship. The elevator trip together or when you pop into the next office to process that weird thing that Bob said in a meeting.
“Those little spontaneous things add up to make relationships what relationships are,” he says. Those will be hard to replicate virtually—though not impossible.
For example, perhaps large Zoom meetings can start with short breakout sessions of randomly selected small groups. People can chat about life or be given a more directed prompt to discuss. It’s a way for leaders to say, “we’re not going to let our little informal interactions, our little moments of serendipity, disappear entirely.”
You can watch the full webinar here, and see previous articles from this series here.