As soon it became clear that quarantine was here to stay, I — like probably everyone else in a relationship — wondered what this much time spent exclusively in each other’s company might do for (or to) my wife and me. Lodged deep in my brain are countless vague scenes from TV shows and books in which couples, having gone through some shared trauma, revel in how much closer they are as a result: Getting through that alien invasion was hard, but it made us so much stronger. It’s a nice thought, but I’m not sure I’ll end up feeling that way, and in the meantime, I resent the pressure to find a silver lining. Still, I wondered if there was any truth to the trope, so I reached out to two couples’ therapists, both of whom are (virtually) walking couples through this crisis.
Matt Lundquist, psychotherapist and founder of Tribeca Therapy, says his clientele is about evenly split: “Half of them are boning down like never before, and half of them don’t want to go near each other,” he says. While he’s certainly seen couples arise to the quarantine challenge, Lundquist says many people are feeling the, uh, performance anxiety — not just sex-wise, but in all areas of the relationship. People hear that challenges can bring couples closer and make the linguistic leap from “can” to “should.”
But just because quarantine has provided many of us with substantial time doesn’t mean all our preexisting needs, hangups, and desires are erased, says Lundquist. (Also, obviously: Many couples include essential workers with little downtime, and many couples have kids and no child care, rendering the concept of “extra time” laughable.) Even couples who’ve found emotional and/or sexual alignment over the past two months have started to chafe as time goes on. “Couples are spending way more time together than even the best of us should,” says Lundquist. “Just because you’re breathing the same air and eating the same leftovers doesn’t mean you’re always going to be on the same page, because you’re different people.”
Orna Guralnik, a clinical psychologist and star of Showtime’s Couples Therapy, echoes the idea that the pandemic isn’t just one thing for any one person, let alone any couple. During the first chapter, she says she saw a spike in solidarity between couples and the rest of the world — a kind of communal gratitude and global identification. But the good feelings didn’t last forever. “I think week by week the general mood has been sinking,” says Guralnik. “That kind of general decline in mood and despair has permeated couples’ lives.”
Unsurprisingly, both Lundquist and Guralnik say that, generally speaking, couples who were on solid ground pre-pandemic are doing better now than couples who were already struggling. Of particular concern, says Guralnik, are couples who are “enmeshed,” or codependent. “They’re much more reactive to each other’s moods,” she says. “When one person is irritable, it bleeds into the other person.” Normally, we all have greater access to outside stimuli, and other factors which influence our moods. Right now, it’s mostly just each other — and for some couples, that can mean a bit too much attention paid to one’s partner.
Also up close and personal right now is our mortality, says Guralnik. Faced with daily news of death and illness, it’s impossible not to think about the potential loss of our partners, and not everyone reacts to that fear the same way. “Some people respond by opening their heart and moving towards the other, and some people get very agitated, and push people away because of abandonment anxiety and hidden grief,” she says.
What couples can do
We don’t know how long the coronavirus pandemic will impact our daily lives, but most evidence suggests it’ll be longer than we’d like. No couple can be expected to maintain total and mutual adoration at a time like this, but there are things couples can do to make the best of it.
Focus on what you do know.
“It’s easy to sink into this feeling of we don’t know anything, but it’s not true,” says Guralnik. Typically when people insist they know nothing, she says, it’s because they don’t like what they do know. We can predict (vaguely) how long it might be before there’s a vaccine, for instance, and make familial decisions accordingly. “Face the fact that this is going to suck, but try to imagine how you want your family to come out of this,” she says.
Clarify your boundaries.
If you know you need a certain amount of alone time in order to be the best partner you can be, it’s more important than ever to make that time for yourself as much as possible. Many of us rely on jobs and social lives outside the home to contribute to our individual identities outside our relationships, and with those things on hold, it’s all the more important to find ways to create your own space.
Communicate your needs.
It’s easy to be irritable right now, and to take that irritation out on the person closest to you. Annoyingly, this is also likely to be the person from whom you most want and need love and support. You may be tempted to vent about your partner to your partner, but Guralnik cautions against blaming your partner for things you have some control over. “For example, saying to your partner, “You never show me any affection” is not going to work,” she says. “You’re going to immediately put someone on the defense.” Instead, think about how you’ve tended to your own needs over the past 24 hours: Did you get enough sleep? Did you exercise? Did you limit your news consumption? When you’re attending to these things, then you can ask your partner for something specific: “Can we ban phones during dinner tonight?” or “Can you give me a hug?”
It’s also important to remember that who we are right now is not necessarily who we are in real life, at least not permanently. “People are learning all sorts of new things about their partners,” says Guralnik. “Some of what they’re learning is not necessarily the truth about the partner, but what their partner looks like under quarantine.”
For me, there have been weeks under quarantine in which I feel closer to my wife than ever before — including, strangely, the one following a shared and vicious bout with food poisoning. There have also been periods in which I know we’ve both wished we could be anywhere else, with anyone else. Like Guralnik said, quarantine isn’t just one thing. Who knows what next week will bring?