Coronavirus and Couples

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If you’re in a couple this month, you’ve probably asked yourself at least once: Is this the person with whom I want to face the end of the world?

Whether your answer is a joyous “yes” or a resigned “I guess so,” let’s talk.

Because being cooped up with someone—anyone—day after day for what seems like an eternity will educate us about ourselves, about Mr/Ms Imperfect, and about love and relationships.

For many of us, that’s a bigger danger than the virus. Because assuming you don’t die from the virus (and most of us won’t), the pandemic will eventually go away. But your partner will still be here. As will your relationship, with all the dents (and worse) you’ve each inflicted on it.

Every crisis exposes the architecture of the structures under stress: a building, a government, a relationship. Whether sound or not, the infrastructure of every couple includes systems for communication, making and keeping agreements, conflict management, anxiety and fear management, spending decisions, parenting, and sex.

And if those systems were shaky or not the product of consensus before the crisis, they will be hit hard and exposed when the Big One (infidelity, infertility, job loss, coronavirus) strikes. That’s what’s happening right now in households across the world.

In some couples, the more cautious person will defer to the other. In other couples, the less cautious person will defer to the other. If this method has typically worked for a couple before, it will continue to work during the virus. If not, conflicts about safety and risk will presumably grow during the lockdown. In some couples, people won’t agree on what level of risk to take, and they will face daily conflict.

Here are some other couples who will face a lot of conflict while dealing with coronavirus:

  • Couples who hadn’t agreed on how neat or messy the house will usually be
  • Couples who hadn’t agreed on a parenting style they’ll both use
  • Couples who hadn’t yet settled into a sexual routine
  • Couples who hadn’t agreed on how many children they’ll have
  • Couples who hadn’t agreed on who shops, who cooks, and who cleans up
  • Couples in which one partner had been unhappy about the other’s drinking or eating habits

Many couples who used to argue about such things every month or two are now going to find themselves arguing about them every week or two. And then every day or two. That’s what happens when you squeeze people into a smaller and smaller emotional space without enough routines for coping.

Some of my patients express their displeasure by giving their partner (or kids or friends) a three-day cold shoulder. Well, we’re counting time in the COVID calendar now, so three days of bad vibes feels like a lifetime. A cold shoulder has never been a good coping strategy. Now it’s a hostile, adolescent luxury no couple can afford.

Many people are going to learn lessons about trust they weren’t planning on. If you and your partner agree on, say, a routine for going to and returning from the supermarket, will you both stick to it? Or will someone cheat just a little?

Couples are being forced to trust each other more right now, whether they want to or not, whether they’re used to it or not. As we all flirt with anxiety or depression, partners will have to get better at asking each other for help, a hug, or a supportive word, even if they’re uncomfortable doing so, and can’t predict the response. Having bravely asked, people will also have to get better at accepting help.

This is not the time for making ridiculously fine distinctions between sympathy, pity, kindness, and being judged—which is the way many people keep intimacy at arm’s length. We all want our dignity—but grownups know that having needs isn’t the same as being weak.

Just as this is a time to learn new relationship skills, it may also be a time for refining our sexual repertoires. At times, laying down and hugging nude may be far more nourishing than genital sex. Let’s promote kissing from the “foreplay” menu to the “primary event” menu (where it has belonged all along).

With privacy limited in many households, sex may now be rushed or shushed. Ten minutes of slow and passionate fondling, kissing, or self-stroking together—with both partners fully present—may be way more satisfying than huffing and puffing intercourse with one eye on the bedroom door and one ear on the bedroom wall. Just don’t diminish those 10 minutes by calling it foreplay.

So you and your, ahem, beloved are now stuck together in the endless purgatory of home lockdown. You can see him or her getting lethargic, or eating too many cookies, or losing interest in once-loved hobbies, or spending too much time reading endless, pointless stories of COVID’s spread.

What to do?

Norwegian Arne Garborg was nominated for the Nobel Prize in literature six times. He said “To love a person is to learn the song that is in their heart, and to sing it to them when they have forgotten it.”
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