A Therapist’s Advice for Couples Isolating Together

Photo: Ben Giles

Thanks to tight quarters (and looming existential dread), couples are arguing about everything and nothing at all. We asked New York–based clinical psychologist and psychoanalyst Orna Guralnik to help a few navigate some common disputes. “It’s easy to project your anxieties about this time onto your partner,” says Guralnik. “Fighting becomes a way to play out your inner conflict.”

Daniel Stigall & Elyse Lindahl, Brooklyn

Together one month and self-isolating together at Daniel’s apartment.

Elyse: Yesterday I made a Google doc laying out what I need our schedule to look like.

Daniel: But I’m way too lazy to execute on it. I’m reluctant to have this written plan that defines our alone time and recreation time.

Elyse: We need to have our separate alone time. And separate spaces. I need a work space.

Daniel: She carved out a nook in the corner. Elyse is way more activity oriented and motivated and undaunted. She doesn’t have a moment of depressed contemplation, and she’s dragging me on runs every day. This document presumes we are not working at all. I’m struggling to adjust to the level of sheer activity. The moments when she goes out, I’m so relieved to be able to put on sweatpants. That’s another rule! No sweatpants before 7 p.m.

Elyse: I follow it.

Daniel: I didn’t follow it yesterday. We’ve had an explicit conversation about how these are not normal circumstances. When this is over, we need to have very evaluative conversations.

Elyse: The beginning parts of a relationship, when you’re still getting to know the other person —

Daniel: Are usually not experienced under duress.

➽ O.G.’s advice: I would imagine they’re suffering some grief — they’ve lost control of the early part of their courtship to the quarantine. Under normal circumstances, I would advise them to respect each other’s differences; however, to get through this extreme time, I lean toward the “Google Calendar” way. The human mind does not respond well to ambiguity and amorphousness. Create a plan and adhere to it obsessively, as if it’s a train schedule. You don’t get to negotiate with a train.

James Sabater & Jeannette Sabater, Staten Island

Married 18 years.

James: I work as a doorman. She wants me to help her out more around the house since she’s the one doing homeschooling with the kids. But I help out as much as I can, you know? I’m still working.

Jeannette: I work as a clerk, and the courts are closed so I’ve been working more scarcely. The rest of the time, I have to help my son. He’s autistic. He and my daughter started school yesterday online. I have to sit with and prompt and show him how to do online learning. It’s hard. I know James can’t help that he has to leave and go to work, but it’s still frustrating.

James: And she’s worried about me getting the virus, but I told her they gave us cleaning products. All the packages are being left right outside the door, and we wear gloves when we pick up packages. It’s mandatory. I wish I could stay home, but at the same time, I am grateful to be working, to tell you the truth. I’m still getting paid.

➽ O.G.’s advice: One of the things couples don’t always realize is that a little bit can go a long way to having your partner feel appreciated. If they can agree on letting James take 30 minutes to clear his head after work and then have him take care of the kids, Jeannette would get some of the help she wants. She’s not going to get hours of help (he’s still going to have to leave during the day), but in condensed form it will do a lot for the relationship.

Danny Scharar and Miranda Clancy, Brooklyn

Together five years, living together five months.

Danny: We had our first big blowup yesterday. I was in a really bad mood ’cause quarantine hit me and all I wanted to do was have time alone to cook. And Miranda was like, “I want to help you,” and it really pissed me off. We were making tuna melts, and she added more tuna to my sandwich.

Miranda: At first, I was like, “I gave me more than I gave you. Do you want more on yours?” And then I added more to yours, and then you freaked out.

Danny: I was like, Why are you trying to fuck with this sandwich?

Miranda: I was like, “Why don’t you add some mustard in there, ’cause it’s very plain?”

Danny: I was like, “Oooh, you’re fancy with your lemon juice!” Her melt did come out much better than mine.

Danny: As it was happening, I thought, This is so stupid. I’m not mad about this sandwich at all. We hugged to resolve it.

Miranda: We hugged. It was the first day that it really hit. I think for you, especially — he has a harder time with the uncertainty.

Danny: I was unemployed and working from home before this. I’m on like week five of quarantine. But now, like, cut out going outside. My alone time and outdoor time just feels like … that was the first day where I was like, Fuck.

➽ O.G.’s advice: Fights can be like sex, a way to release tension. Sometimes it’s okay to have an outburst at your partner! When there’s love, there’s something endearing about seeing each other’s vulnerabilities and limits and some value in getting each other through those moments.

Hannah Brown and Jake Relic, Los Angeles

Together for ten months and self-isolating together at Jake’s apartment.

Jake: This is the weirdest way to move in together.

Hannah: My apartment still exists. My cat is here, though.

Jake: We were planning on moving in on June 1. The biggest thing that’s coming up is trying to keep our individual schedules but be together at the same time. When you’re living separately, you come together and go on a date. There’s time together, and time away from each other. We’re always together now. We’re trying to figure out how to make our own space.

Hannah: He works a nine-to-five job. I’m pursuing a job in entertainment, and I’m a server so now I’m unemployed. I’m always free during the day, and he’s always at work during the day. There is a little anxiety coming up, ’cause when we are together, we feel like it should be this special, exciting thing. Now that we’re seeing each other all the time, it’s like, Oh my God, I need my own space, and I’m supersensitive right now. I’m always at a ten. If Jake says, “I need to shut myself in the office,” I’m like, “What do I do?!”

Jake: Most of my job is done via phone. I get distracted wanting to have a conversation with her and wanting to hang out with her. But I have to get work done. And she says, “Just tell me when you need me to leave.” And when I finally told her, well, I do need you to leave, she got upset even though I said exactly what she told me to say.

Hannah: I’ve been feeling overwhelmed by the free time. It kind of reminds me of when I was growing up and I would take things out on my mom. I knew my mom loved me and would forgive me, so I would be a brat. If I get overwhelmed now, I take it out on Jake.

➽ O.G’s advice: One of the things that feeds desire is lack (see Lacan). The quarantine robs couples of missing each other and getting to experience each other’s absence; this gets in the way of desire. So really take time apart. I’m not talking about just an hour — a full day, a day and night apart. Take the chance to center yourself and to miss the other person.

*This article appears in the March 30, 2020, issue of New York Magazine. Subscribe Now!

A Therapist’s Advice For Couples Isolating Together