When we walked down the aisle full of hope and gushing with emotion delivering our forever vows, we probably didn’t include:
“I promise to love you even when confined to a small space 24 hours a day in a lockdown caused by a global pandemic.”
Full marks if you did include that one.
Is it a worrying sign that many couples are looking across the breakfast table at their spouses with a sense of buyer’s remorse? That sweet little thing that you so loved about your precious partner is the very thing that has you contemplating divorce today.
As a relationship and sex therapist, I am only a few days into working with individuals and couples in lockdown, myself included. I sense this period is going to test even the best of relationships. Whether we are huddled in small apartments or in larger homes, we share one thing. We didn’t sign up for this. A friend confided to me recently “My marriage survived infidelity. I don’t know if we can survive the coronavirus.”
We got married to spend the rest of our lives with someone but probably not in this way. The coronavirus is forcing us to face some realities about romantic love. It’s flawed. The author and therapist Esther Perel captured it beautifully when she wrote:
“Today, we turn to one person to provide what an entire village once did: a sense of grounding, meaning, and continuity.”
When we make our partners into “the one” and expect them to meet all our needs, the model wobbles. In lockdown, multiply that by infinity. We are turning to our partners expecting them to meet needs that until last week were found outside the relationship i.e. at work, with friends, in the gym etc. Many of us are resentful with the failure of our spouses to meet those needs.
Here are three realities about our love relationships that seem relevant for these times: –
Reality # 1 – I don’t want to be with my partner all the time
It might not the romantic stuff that Hollywood movies are made of but it is a fact that the quality of our primary love relationship is partly related to the time spent with them. Too much and we suffocate. Not enough and we feel rejected, abandoned or unloved. The quantity of time will be different for each of us. Getting this balance right is a lifelong journey. Getting it right while in lockdown is a whole new ball game. New game. New rules. We need to negotiate the lockdown rules. Who gets to walk the dog, take the long bath, watch tv alone, cook alone etc?
The researcher Brene Brown describes boundaries as “what’s okay and what’s not okay” in our relationships. We might need to define (or redefine) our relationship boundaries. I recommend sitting down with your partner to agree your lockdown boundaries. Needing space doesn’t mean we love our spouse any less. Asking for space means we know how to get our needs met and express our emotions.
Reality # 2 – No-one has the monopoly on anxiety
What triggers your anxiety will not necessarily trigger mine. I asked a client recently to prepare a hierarchy of their anxieties and to ask their spouse to do the same. The plan is to swap and discuss them. I will discover the outcome next week.
The wife is most fearful about her elderly parents on the other side of the world and the husband is worried about not having enough money to look after the family and/or maintain their lifestyle. He thinks she is missing the point. She thinks he has poor values. Whose anxiety trumps the other’s?
Reality # 3 – Happily married couples argue
This sometimes comes as a shock in couples therapy. The illusion of romantic love is that if we married “the one”, we will live happily ever after and our loved one will meet all our needs including our childhood unmet needs and they will do it on a daily basis. That’s a tall order. Another point that Perel labours in her work.
The key is to understand our lockdown arguments. It is inevitable that we are going to argue with someone who we are confined with no matter how blue their eyes are or however much their hair sparkles in the soft sunlight. The researcher and clinician John Gottman believes that most couples argue over nothing. Take the couple arguing over whose turn it is to take the trash out. It doesn’t actually matter whose turn it was to take the trash out. What matters is the underlying emotion. She might believe that it was her partner’s turn and feel disappointed that they didn’t do it. The argument is over her disappointment not the plastic bin bag. So what’s the emotion behind the lockdown argument? What’s really going on?
One aspect to surviving relationship lockdown is to create some sacred space each day to communicate your feelings and validate each other. Make it a ritual for you as a couple and separately for you as a family. Print off a feelings chart from the internet and stick it on the fridge. Everyone has to refer to it in the family meetings. “Today I feel…”
Ask each other about your day. We assume that we know how our loved one’s day is going because we are living it with them. That doesn’t mean that we know the emotions they are experiencing or holding onto. We need to recognise that one of the emotions guiding our thoughts and behaviours at the moment is anxiety. As it happens we need some level of anxiety. It warns us of impending danger. When our anxiety is overwhelming, it becomes panic. We need to recognise our panic and that of our partner’s. Vulnerability requires us to allow ourselves to be seen by another. How vulnerable are we prepared and/or able to be in these challenging times?
The reality of daily life has changed for both of you. Recognising that empathically will feel soothing. You can still be creative with your time. You can still get dressed up and have a date night. You can still have alone time. It is just going to feel a bit clumsier for a while as it won’t flow in the way it might have done previously.
I read online that divorce rates in China have spiralled since the virus. If true, it makes sense. It is often the case after a natural disaster. It is also the case that many couples find deeper meaning and relationship purpose. The existential threat becomes a defining moment to start again or build something different.
Sometimes life throws us a relationship curveball. Our partner gets sick. They have an affair. They lose their job. Our child gets sick. Crucially it’s not the event itself that has to define the relationship but how we choose to respond to it. This pandemic curveball will test our love relationships. What we do with our relationship curveball may shape our life for years to come. Let’s choose wisely.