When virtual learning became the norm last spring, you knew that your patience (and your Wi-Fi) was going to be tested. But one thing you couldn’t have predicted? How homeschooling would test your marriage. As one parent recently asked us, “Am I the only one about to murder my spouse over a Google classroom issue?” Answer: No, you’re not. That’s why we tapped Dr. Lea Lis, board-certified adult and child psychiatrist to discuss the toll that virtual learning is taking on relationships right now. Here are three ways homeschooling may be affecting your marriage… and what you can do about it.
1. You’re fighting more often
This one’s obvious but it bears repeating—virtual learning is freakin’ hard. If you weren’t particularly academically inclined the first time around, then having to revisit subjects like math and biology can feel especially torturous. And even if you were a total whizz at algebra back in the day, guess what? They changed it! Now you have to carry the 2 over in order to find for X and then do a double backflip in order to solve for Y. Go figure. And yeah, all that stress can very easily seep into your relationship, says Dr. Lis. Cue snappy remarks, constant bickering and wanting to throw the tablet at your spouse’s face the next time they schedule a work call during your kid’s trigonometry lesson (just us?).
The fix: First of all, try to remember that you’re frustrated at the situation, not your partner (repeat after us: It is not your spouse’s fault that your kid can’t get into her breakout session). Next, come up with a plan of attack (if you haven’t already). That might mean dividing and conquering, so it’s less work for each parent. For instance, you might agree that you handle getting the math, science and PE assignments submitted, while your wife tackles reading, writing and art. Or, if you have multiple kids, you could each take one month focusing on one child’s workload while trusting your spouse to handle the other’s—then switch.
Or it might mean reaching out to your child’s teacher for help. “Reach out to the school for extra academic support and attend their virtual extra help sessions to learn what they are learning and how you can best support your child,” advises Dr. Lis. After all, sometimes the fights stem from one or both parents not fully understanding what is being asked of them.
And finally, remember the 5:1 ratio for relationships: According to a study from the Gottman Institute, the most compelling predictor of whether couples stay together is their ratio of positive to negative interactions. The ideal ratio? Five positive interactions (Thanks for helping Sasha with that history assignment!) for every time you nag your spouse about forgetting to charge the iPad.
2. You have less time for each other...and not for the reason you think
Yes, virtual learning requires time and effort on your part (whether you have to help your little kid unmute herself or make sure that your teen actually wakes up for class). But there’s another reason why you and your S.O. haven’t been able to spend any quality time together lately. Think: Your 5-year-old has started sucking his thumb (a habit he gave up years ago) or your 9-year-old who used to be quite happy reading a book by herself is now bouncing off the walls and can barely sit still. What gives? Your kid is regressing, a totally normal part of childhood development but something that is becoming increasingly common during COVID-19, according to experts. “There could be fewer outlets for sports or other extracurriculars which might lead to children being more needy and hyper at home,” explains Dr. Lis. Or your kid might just be extra stressed right now (aren’t we all?), which can lead to undesirable changes in behavior. And trying to manage a kid who is regressing or hyper can take a serious toll on your relationship.
The fix: Acknowledge that things are hard right now and let your kid know that their feelings are totally valid. Try to keep a consistent schedule (children like predictability) as much as possible, while finding ways for them to burn off energy at home. “A busy child is usually a happy one,” says Dr. Lis. “I have loved using the Just Dance Now app for some high-quality family dance time which can be scheduled no matter the weather,” she adds. Then pencil in some 1:1 time for just you and your spouse—either when the kids have gone to bed or when they’re settled watching a movie (hey, they’ve earned some down time after that dance party). You might not be able to hit up your favorite Italian restaurant right now, but regular date nights can—and should—still be on the menu. Order takeout, put the phones away and ban any talk of virtual learning (at least until dessert). “Make sure you make the time to connect romantically regardless of the situation,” says Dr. Lis.
3. Your kid is struggling (which means you are too)
You know that expression, ‘you’re only as happy as your least happy child’? Well, kids (like all of us) are having a hard time right now and of course you feel their pain. “Children may have less access to their usual mentors (coaches, social workers at school, etc.) and therefore may need more support from parents who are busy and cannot provide it,” says Dr. Lis. “This can lead to more depression or emotional behaviors.” Cue the parental guilt. And these feelings of anxiety can manifest themselves in your marriage in a number of ways, say experts. You might, for example, be so focused on your child that you forget to think about your own or your partner’s needs (like the fact that she messed up at work last week and needs a confidence boost). Or if your partner is the one experiencing anxiety, you may build up resentment (“all he talks about is how stressed out he is… what about me?”).
The fix: Know that you’re not in this alone. “Schedule Zoom time with the school psychologist/social worker, or sign up for therapy online if your kid is struggling,” advises Dr. Lis. But equally important is taking care of your marriage. “If your relationship is struggling, online couple’s counseling is also available,” she adds. And if we can lean on another parenting trope, ‘you can’t pour from an empty cup.’ In other words, take care of yourselves first so that you can take better care of others. “Don’t forget to prioritize the partnership between the family because a happy wife/husband/partner is a happy life,” says Dr. Lis.