Marriage & Life Partners

The Covid Marriage

The enforced togetherness required by social distancing has led couples to spend more time together than usual, a lot of it. And even for those that have strong, solid relationships, it’s been, well, a bit more than they’d like. 

It’s been a strain for many, and people in toxic relationships are especially at risk during this pandemic lockdown. Domestic abuse reports in London, for example, are up by a third. Too much time together can create tensions even under the best of conditions, like during vacations. And these current circumstances are far from ideal. Everyone worried, and boredom, anxiety, depression, and even dread are creating an unprecedented stress.

Not only are we worried about the virus, about our health and the health of friends and family, but we are now uncertain about the future of jobs, our children’s education, finances in general, and sometimes even where we will be living. This produces a toxic brew, a poison with limited antidotes.

This basic and pervasive uncertainty, with no reliable end date (even prisoners have some idea when they will be released) is a novel experience and the emotions it provokes are varied and variable.

While some days are better than others, many people have told me every day remains the same: the movie “Groundhog’s Day” has been referenced a lot.

Stress always breaks us down at our weakest points.

One woman reports irritation with her husband, whose typical defense is to try to organize and control his life. Always meticulous about his health and his exercise regimen, he has been pushing this to the limit, doing fasting cleanses and consuming vast amounts of supplements, under the remote guidance of a nutritionist.

Another couple has been stressed by both parties relying on their habitual defense of isolation. They both tend to shut down and withdraw under stress, so with them both doing this simultaneously, communication and intimacy have vanished, even though they are spending more time together than ever.

Couples with children are squabbling about safety standards. One father wants his wife to strictly enforce all distance learning protocols, while he works his finance job remotely.

The wife, who is managing three children who are responding to the stress themselves, is finding this an impossible and even counter-productive task.

Her eldest, a young adolescent, has been the most stressed, showing signs of depression and even losing weight (while she herself has gained a distressing amount of weight because her main activity has been cooking). Her young teen son craves social contact more than his siblings, and his mother has been inclined to let him indulge in chatting and video games with his friends as a stress reliever, while his father wants to enforce strict limits.

In another marriage, the indulgent one is the father, who allowed their 20 year old daughter to fly off to visit a friend in another state. The parents disagreed about this…divorce was mentioned.

Another couple, in a more solid marriage, worked it through and agreed to allow their college age son to visit his long-term girlfriend in a nearby state, provided he drive straight through, maintain extreme  social distancing on the way, and be prepared to stay for the duration if necessary.

In general, the weaker the marriage beforehand, the greater the conflicts are now. As you might expect, the more strained the relationship, the harder it has been hit.

One the positive side, some couples have been using the time to become more intimate, and relishing the extra time, enjoying the absence of daily pressures of commuting, working long hours, “multi-tasking,” and many other pressures than mount up in daily, “normal” life. And because it’s harder to isolate or storm out during a conflict, people are trying harder than usual to work things through. Communication is key to this. Do not assume you know how the other person is feeling.

Difficulties are often the result of assuming someone else was mad, annoyed, or otherwise disgruntled in some way that they are not. Now is a good time to use this extra time to have constructive conversations about what may be going on.  If someone does seem unhappy, it’s important to address it. Remember, they are going anywhere so the best choice is to deal with it.

One of the steps you can take to address or minimize conflict is to be mindful of your behavior and how it affects others. At home, we are used to relaxing and letting go. But it is a mistake to abandon your manners, especially right now.  Instead of “being yourself,” try to be your best self. Be careful not to take your partner for granted. Say thank you more. Priyanka Matoo says she was forced to reevaluate her default mode because of this crisis. In a piece called “Criticism is my Love Language,” she writes that while her husband, 

“…is a Jewish New Yorker; I am a Kashmiri Hindu….My people are Olympic-level bickerers, and his are not. To the untrained eye, a Kashmiri couple figuring out where to go for dinner looks like the tense setup for a movie about imminent divorce. But to us, competitive sparring is what makes life interesting….So now, in our 9th year of marriage, I’m shaking off my native tongue to learn a new language: When I feel something nice about him, I’m supposed to share that feeling with him, out loud.”

Finally, though many people imagined this enforced staycation might spice up their love lives, some have found the opposite to be the case. Esther Perel, the author of several books about sex and love, writes in Mating in Captivity that too much togetherness can be deadly to lust.

I know—how can intimacy be bad for your marriage? It’s not, according to Perel, but it’s murder on your sex life. Lust is sparked by distance, mystery, and even aggression, all of which have little place in our daily lives. Everything about “mating in captivity” conspires to promote closeness and minimize conflict. The problem is that eroticism flourishes in an atmosphere of uncertainty—in fact, how much uncertainty you can tolerate may be commensurate with the amount of passion in your relationship.

Stephen Mitchell, an innovative and highly influential analyst, says that in a long-term marriage, “we are lucky if we can just get along.” In his book Can Love Last?  he writes that while containing aggression is a precondition to love, we must integrate it, not eradicate it. The trick, says couples therapist Virginia Goldner, is to maintain a balance, seeking not the “flaccid safety of permanent coziness” but the “dynamic safety” of a succession of breaches and repair.

According to Perel, the key to “erotic intelligence is about creating distance, then bringing that space to life.” Finding, or more aptly “refinding,” the other is the adventure that makes sex exciting. But how can distance be created without an excess of conflict or intolerable insecurity? Besides the importance of breach and repair (a.k.a. constructive fighting and makeup sex), partners must be able to cultivate separateness during marriage; they have to continue to develop an independent sense of self in the context of the intimacy that coupling provides. This can be an opportunity to change things for the better. Uncertainly is a powerful agent of change and we certainly have plenty of that right now.

“Sex matters,” Perel asserts, and marriages with sexual passion are experienced as not only more rewarding but are also more durable. She frees her patients sexually by giving them permission to create what she calls the “gentle imbalance” that is essential to eroticism. And the good news is that uncertainty is already there—security is the illusion that we try so hard to maintain in our family life. “Introducing uncertainty sometimes requires nothing more than letting go of the illusion of certitude. In this shift in perception, we recognize the inherent mystery of our partner,” she writes, and the “real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes but in having new eyes.” Like Dorothy in Oz, the power is within us, ours to discover, but we must be willing to step out of our comfort zone. The trip is worth it.

 

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  • Pamela Goldman December 10, 2020 at 9:49 am

    Once again, Dr. Ford, you seem to find the right words at the right time—and I always feel you have written them just for me! You raise so many excellent points in this article while we are struggling with an abundance (perhaps over abundance) of togetherness—even for the hardiest marriages. Thanks for letting us know: it’s ok, there are things we should focus on, and ways to improve our situation. So hopeful! Thank you and stay safe.

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