While self-isolation is a challenge in and of itself, it poses unique problems for couples who are isolating together. People who are used to seeing their partner at the end of the day now find themselves in the position of not only living full-time with their significant other, but also working alongside them. Mix this in with everyone finding different coping strategies for the widespread grief that comes with the COVID-19 pandemic, and it’s no wonder that tensions at home might get high.
Esther Perel, renowned therapist and author, is tackling this issue with her new podcast, Where Should We Begin?: Couples Under Lockdown. In it, she offers couples therapy to those who are self-isolating together. This week, Perel joined Kara Swisher and Scott Galloway on their Pivot podcast for their weekly “Friends of Pivot” segment, where they speak to an expert to gain more insight into an important issue. Perel also discussed why some people might come out of this wanting to get married, while others will come out wanting a divorce or a breakup — “disasters generally operate as an accelerator in a relationship.”
Pivot is produced by Rebecca Sananes. Erica Anderson is the executive producer. It is also now on YouTube.
Tell us what your thoughts are, sort of your high-level thoughts, of the challenges couples and families are facing right now.
Look, there’s a number of very interesting dynamics happening and they’re not going to be in order of importance, but each and every one of them is significant. First it’s the fact that usually in a family or in a couple you have multiple roles of which there is a location for these roles. There is a place to be the parent, there’s a place to be the lover, a place to be the partner, place to be the friend, the professional, the worker. Here you have a collapse of all the roles in one space and they are intersecting with each other all the time. The only boundary left is the mute button on your Zoom. Then you have the fact that people are experiencing prolonged uncertainty, acute stress, the grief that comes with the world that you have known no longer being nearly as predictable and no one knowing really where this is going.
But people don’t mention it as grief, so what they have is different coping styles about how they deal with the unknown. Those who become clear organizers because it’s as if order will provide a bulwark against the chaos of the external world and the one that is rising inside of us and those who are wanting to talk all the time with other people and check in and have a sense of what’s going on with everyone and those who are thinking that their partner is making too big a deal of it and those who are thinking that their partner is not cautious enough. And so you have this polarization going on around the way that people deal with fear, with anger, with the preparations if you want to this impending disaster that is literally coming at us.
And then I think what your colleague described here, which is also interesting, disasters generally operate as an accelerator in a relationship. It means that life is short, mortality is hitting you. It’s like in the shadow right here. And then either people say, “Life is short, let’s get married, let’s have babies. What are we waiting for?” Or on the other side, “Life is short. I’ve waited long enough, I’m out of here.” And so we’ve known that there is generally a spike in divorce and a spike in marriage and babies that follows disasters.
Talk about the idea of grief.
I mean it’s the word that really will help us make sense of what goes on. Grief is not just about death in the physical sense. It’s the grief that accompanies a worldview. And what happens when you have a plague, when you have a pandemic, is that you are reminded that death can randomly exterminate you and it can throw your world upside down like that. Yesterday they were still running in the park and today he’s gone. We know it, but the level, the frequency and the intensity at which we’re experiencing this right now. So there is the sense of the world that we’ve known, there is the sense of the routines that we’ve had, the relationship that we’ve known. It’s that sense of impending loss that we talk about with grief or what is often called anticipatory grief.
Because in some places it hasn’t hit yet, but everybody’s talking about, “It’s coming, it’s coming. It’s this week away.” It’s like being in the beginning of a horror film where the set and the characters have all been set up, but the action is yet to start or it’s just starting slowly and you know that you’re going to get really, really scared. So in the process of grief you have different stages and different ways that people react. Now these are not linearly laid out. People go back and forth with each other and inside themselves or in their community. So you have the people at first that are getting into gear and began stockpiling and began preparing and knew it very early on. They kind of knew something bad is happening and you had the other people that were considered in denial. Why?
Because they said, “This isn’t happening here, this is happening elsewhere. This can’t be happening here.” And gradually people start to think, “Who is there? Where is the government? Where are the leaders? Where is the health, the med, the public health facilities and strategies worldwide that are meant to protect us against something like that?” And so then you have stages, denial, anger, bargaining. You bargain, you create order, you think you’re going to be super productive, you’re going to work much better, and then you realize that in fact your productivity is much lesser. People are all over the world, they’re working more and they’re producing less and they are using the very devices that used to keep us apart as the prime way to stay connected.
But at the end of the day they don’t really want to call somebody else because they’ve had it sitting at a screen and they are exhausted. People talk about feeling exhausted and part of the exhaustion is because you try to organize your life in practicalities and not think about the bigger issue, the bigger meaning of what is happening, which is we are vulnerable creatures and no matter how much toilet paper you bought, you can only protect yourself up to a certain point and that is a much more sombering, sad, less resilient American effort optimism kind of approach.