It’s both a great time and a terrible time to have long talks with your partner about what each of you want out of life. On one hand, you’ve probably got the time for deep conversations, and the coronavirus pandemic might have made you start to think more about your values, your career and family choices, the place where you’re making a home, and what you want out of life. On the other hand, when every single aspect of every person’s life is uncertain, and it’s hard to know if you really feel this way, or if going the gym and getting your hair done by a professional would solve everything… talking about the future in earnest seems sort of silly.
Ultimately, being in survival mode can really clarify your biggest needs and desires. If quarantine has helped you Realize Some Shit that could affect your relationship, and you’re thinking about sharing those feelings with your partner, here are some tips.
First, consider the following before you have a tough conversation with your partner (or… anyone) during this pandemic:
- What are you hoping to get out of this discussion? Do you want to share how you feel, or learn how they feel? Simply tell them what your plans are? Are you hoping they will agree to change their behavior in some way? Do you need something more tangible (for example, the decision to break a lease, or a logistical plan for moving in together)?
- What do you owe your partner right now? If things are going well at the moment, being totally honest about what you want to happen someday could blow the whole thing up, or just add more stress to an already bad time. So put some thought into what responsibility you have to talk to your partner about the future at a time when things are fairly unknowable. There’s no right answer—some people would prefer to know what’s on your mind in this moment, while others will be annoyed that you couldn’t have just left it alone for the next year or two. The key, I think, is to consider the length of the relationship (your responsibility is greater the longer you’ve been together) and how intertwined your lives are. If your partner is clearly envisioning or even making real plans for their future based on their understanding of your hopes and dreams, but you don’t see things that way, then you need to say something.
- How likely is it that the person’s feelings have changed since the last time the two of you discussed this topic? That is, if you just talked about this three days ago and nothing has really happened since then, does it make sense to bring it up again today, or are you just hurting your own feelings?
- If your question boils down to “Hey, partner, what do you want?” think, in very specific terms, about what you want. “I want both of us to delete Tinder, end things with people we were previously talking to, and be each other’s person—even though we have no idea when we’ll see each other IRL again.” “I want to call you my girlfriend and maybe eventually find a way to quarantine together.” “I’d like to move in together in December when my current work contract ends.”
- If you’re asking for something more concrete—like a timeline or logistical plan—think about how realistic that request is, given the realities of the pandemic. If you know, in your heart, that there are still too many unanswered questions for a true plan to be feasible right now, think about what might work for you as a stopgap. (For example, maybe you'd feel a bit better if your partner agreed to revisit this topic on June 1.)
- Figure out what you can do to set yourselves up for a productive conversation. For example, could you wait until the weekend to talk instead of bringing this up after a long day of work when you’re both tired? Rather than kicking things off during a masked-up walk, can you suggest taking a little drive to nowhere? If you’re not isolated together, would it be better to talk over FaceTime instead of text? You might not be able to ensure perfect conditions, but you can probably avoid some of the obvious traps.
- Ask yourself: Is this the right time to have this conversation, or am I just bored? For a lot of us, life has become super monotonous, and the definitely-not-urgent thoughts we were having two months ago can easily ramp up when we have less to distract and entertain us. It’s all made worse by the fact that time is meaningless now; this crisis pretty much guarantees that a lot of relationship milestones are going to happen much earlier—or way later—than they normally would.
Once you’ve worked through those questions, here are some things you might say during two fairly common coronavirus relationship conversations—all of which can be tweaked a bit to work for other stressful discussions about the future of your relationship.
What to say if you’re OK with self-isolating together, but are pretty sure you won’t be ready to officially move in with this person any time soon
While living together during this pandemic can sooooort of be a trial run for cohabitation, “basically living together”—while maintaining your own space that you can go back to if/when you need to—is never going to be the same thing, especially if you weren’t dating for very long before deciding to isolate together.
Actually living with a partner involves a) lots of time to consider whether you are ready for this more permanent step; b) ongoing discussions and compromises about chores, shared bills, free time, and personal space; c) a lease (or other agreement), plus all your belongings, both of which will allow you both to feel like the space is equally your own; and d) a trip to IKEA that ends with one or both of you in tears.
If you haven’t actually said, “I like you a lot but I don’t want to live together right away when this is over,” do that. (By the way, the script below can be tweaked for anything you’re still unsure about in the long term—getting married, having kids, moving to a new city or changing careers ‘when this is over,' etc.)
What to say:
- “I’ve been feeling really good about isolating with you, and I think it’s been going really well. I’m not sure how you’re thinking about the future—obviously that’s kind of a weird concept right now—but right now, I’m feeling pretty sure I’ll want to move back into my place and live there for a while longer before I’d be ready to officially combine lives and move in together. How about you? What are your thoughts on this?”
Once you’ve had this conversation, it’s not cool to keep reminding your partner, “Don’t forget that this is temporary!!!” every time they vaguely imply the two of you might end up officially living together some unspecified day. If you’ve tried something like the script above and are still getting the impression that they are hoping you’ll change your mind, just address it directly.
What to say:
- “Hey, I know that before we first started quarantining together, I told you that I don’t think I’ll be ready to fully live together for at least another year or two. When you say things like [actual example of a thing they’ve recently said], it makes me feel like you’re not taking my feelings seriously, and the little ‘jokes’ about it are really stressing me out. Is my not wanting to fully move in together for a couple more years truly OK with you, or is it going to be a problem?”
If they say they are fine with it, you can then ask them to stop making whatever comments or jokes are stressing you out. And if they tell you it’s actually really bothering them, then you can have a bigger conversation about it. Is there anything you can do to make them feel secure about the relationship and your feelings for them, outside of this specific thing? Do they just need some time to feel disappointed and make peace with it? Do your best to listen, and be willing to challenge your own thinking while still honoring your needs.
How to tell your partner you no longer want to self-isolate with them
Perhaps you’re starting to realize that hunkering down at your partner’s home wasn’t the best idea, and you want to return to your place alone. Maybe they are at your place and you feel like it’s time for them to go. If the party who needs to GTFO can reasonably relocate and set up shop without encountering other people—a very huge if, and one I am frankly a bit skeptical will be true for most people!!!—and you’ve fully accepted the idea of a long-distance relationship (and the reality of a breakup with this person in the near future), then it’s time to have a conversation about it.
What to say:
- “I want to talk to you about our current living arrangements. Now that I’ve been at your place for X weeks and am starting to get a sense of what ‘normal’ life feels like in this setup, I’m realizing that it’s not working for me. I [don’t think we are totally ready to live together just yet/don’t think there’s enough physical space for us both/am realizing I would be way more comfortable and productive at my place in meaningful ways/am stressed about being quarantined with someone who isn’t taking this seriously]. I want to stay coupled, but I think it makes the most sense if I pack up and drive back to my place this weekend.”
By the way, if you say, “I don’t think we are totally ready to live together just yet,” expect them to press you for more specifics. Be honest but gentle in your answer. “We have really, really different approaches to leisure time and communication and I don’t think either of us want to compromise on that yet.” “Our political views and values aren’t the same, and that obviously affects how we are thinking about our personal actions during this pandemic.”
And regardless of your reason, figure out what you’ll say if they ask, “Are you just breaking up with me?”—e.g., “No. I care about you and I still want to talk every day and send each other nudes and be partners; this is truly just about our living arrangements.”
Ultimately, you can't control how your partner will react to this… or much of anything right now (or ever). But when you're carrying a lot—as everyone is right now—it's a huge relief to be a little more honest with yourself and the people who matter to you about what you want and need.
Need help with a difficult conversation that you'd like to see covered in a future Hard to Say? Drop us a line and tell us more about the situation.
Rachel Wilkerson Miller is the author of The Art of Showing Up: How to Be There for Yourself and Your People, coming May 2020. Follow her on Twitter.