Til Coronavirus Do Us Part

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By Gavin Sharpe

When you walked down the aisle full of hope and gushing with emotion delivering your forever vows, you 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 about 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 be 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 Brené 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 on 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 a monopoly on anxiety.

What triggers your anxiety will not necessarily trigger mine. I asked a client recently to prepare a hierarchy of his anxieties and to ask his spouse to do the same. As it turns out, the wife is most fearful about her elderly parents on the other side of the world, while the husband is worried about not having enough money to look after the family and 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 marry “the one,” we will live happily ever after and our spouse will meet all our needs, including our unmet childhood needs, and they will do it on a daily basis. That’s a tall order. This is another point that Perel makes 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 how 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 is to take the trash out. What matters is the underlying emotion. She might believe that it is her partner’s turn and feel disappointed that he 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?

Relationship Lockdown

One aspect of 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 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. You may assume that you know how your loved one’s day is going because you are living together. That doesn’t, however, mean that you know the emotions they are experiencing or holding onto. You need to recognize that one of the emotions guiding your (and their) thoughts and behaviors at the moment is anxiety.

As it happens, we need some level of anxiety. It warns us of impending danger. But when anxiety is overwhelming, it becomes panic. When this happens, you need to recognize your panic as well as your partner’s panic. Vulnerability requires you to allow yourself to be seen by another. How vulnerable are you prepared and able to be in these challenging times?

The reality of daily life has changed for both of you. Recognizing 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.

Relationship Curveballs

I read online that divorce rates in China have spiraled 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 this relationship curveball may shape our lives for years to come. Let’s choose wisely.

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This article was originally published at this link. It is reprinted here with the author’s permission.

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Gavin Sharpe hosts our Thursday (10 a.m. Pacific) Sex, Love, and Addiction drop-in discussion group for men. He is an accredited psychotherapist with the British Association for Counselling & Psychotherapy (MBACP). He is also a Certified Sex Addiction Therapist (CSAT) candidate. Gavin works with individuals and couples (heterosexual and same-sex) affected by issues relating to sex and intimacy disorders, as well as those experiencing broader mental health problems. As an integratively trained psychotherapist, Gavin works according to the needs of each client, drawing on a range of therapeutic techniques. He believes that within all of us lies the resources to live the life that we were born capable of living. Gavin also works on intensive programs and groups structured to support sex, porn, and love addiction treatment. Gavin is based in Monaco and works with the English-speaking communities on the French Riviera as well as with other ex-pat communities in Southern Europe. Previously, Gavin enjoyed a corporate career in the City of London working as a lawyer and then founded his own international recruitment business.