For both singles and couples, long periods of isolation or cocooning with just one or two others have taken an unexpected emotional toll. This two-part article examines a few of the ways, some healthy and some questionable—though understandable—that we cope with our wants and needs during the Great Quarantine of ’20 – ‘21.
Part 2: The Couples
As the quarantine continues, friends, colleagues, and clients I know who are coupled up have had to adapt and face issues that singles haven’t. For one thing, the constant presence of another person in their space—and under duress of infecting each other with a deadly virus—can be too much to bear. Coping strategies seem to have coalesced around basic relationship skills and self-care.
Even under prime conditions, all members of couples need time alone—as every human does—especially if living together or in a small space. Before COVID, many normal relationship problems were avoided and even prevented as long as there were outside work and friends and social activities. But now, under lockdown, those solutions no longer exist, and the problems can no longer be avoided.
Coping with COVID has proven to be a much more difficult task for those in newer relationships, those who had been dating less than a year or are still dancing around the infatuation tree. For many of these couples, quarantine was seen at first as a lark, an excuse to move in together, solidify the relationship, help each other weather the lockdown, and cocoon. What seemed like a good idea was not: like jumping into a pressure cooker. Love in the time of Coronavirus, for these folks, was a difficult lesson in the need to refrain from giving up personal space and autonomy too quickly in exchange for regular sex and a temporary cure for loneliness.
In couples who have been together a longer time (measured in years), daily life and the passage from the infatuation phase into a balanced, long-term emotional and sexual relationship have taught good lessons about how to coexist in stressful times with a partner under pressure. And if they haven’t, the time of Coronavirus is teaching them now. The nature of these times is putting more burdens on the relationship, and these couples continue to learn how to support each other and keep themselves whole besides.
These couples have learned how and when to talk to each other, avoid each other, negotiate with each other, comfort each other, and so on. Many couples have had to renegotiate living together, redefining chores, joint hobbies, responsibilities, time together versus apart, sex, care of other family members, etc. Renegotiation requires patience, forbearance, love, and imagination. In almost every case of renegotiation, I have seen couples grow stronger, more capable, and more loving.
One issue of contention in both long- and short-term relationships can be the disparity between the partners’ individual comfort levels with differing degrees of COVID safety measures. As public health guidelines are relaxed and tightened, and as people grow tired and numb, this disparity can cause friction and even mistrust between partners. One partner’s relaxed COVID rules can be another’s proof of not caring. Is compromise possible if one partner’s peace of mind and sense of safety is at stake? So far, according to the couples I see, it seems not. Most couples I know have adopted the wishes of the partner with the most stringent safety needs, sometimes causing resentment in the other partner.
Pandemic paranoia can be as much a problem for couples as it can be for singles. Couples can withdraw into their own isolated universe, reinforcing each other’s fears in a kind of intellectual incest. We see this often with families, where there are more people to reinforce the paranoia. They end up feeling unsafe anywhere else or with anyone else.
My advice to friends and clients currently in relationships: You are bearing the standard for what love in the time of Coronavirus can do. Take care of each other. With death and infection stalking the country, your ability to provide love, comfort, and safety to another, and to receive it from another, is what gets us through these dark days. The temptation in a relationship, however, is to give all your time and attention to the other. Just remember that if you do, and if you don’t keep up your independent self-care practices, you’ll soon have nothing left to give. Remember that in order to increase your patience with your partner and to be ready for the needs of the relationship, you must first take care of yourself.
David Bowman LMFT is a licensed psychotherapist practicing in Los Angeles.