I admit the shameless plagiarising of the title of Gabriel Garcia Marquez’ – ‘Love in the Time of Cholera’ as it fits as a Segway into considering the tresses and strains of both finding love, and holding onto in, in the current pandemic.
Disturbing statistics are emerging of surging rates of domestic violence, sadly predominantly perpetrated by men upon women, exacerbated by the circumstances brought about by the ‘lock-down’. A surge of somewhere between 25% and 35% in the rates of reported domestic violence hide all that goes unreported.
Alongside the extremes of domestic violence lie other statistics such as the reality that many couples have suddenly been catapulted from spending a couple of hours per day together, to inhabiting the same space (indoors and out) for the entire of the day. A young couples dream has become many seasoned couples challenge (and for some a nightmare).
On finding love
The old rules of dating have gone through a revolution in recent years from what dating constitutes, through whom we date (gender fluidity) into how we date revolutionised by the internet.
However, suddenly, the seemingly endless supply of opportunities to physically meet others has dried up with us being left with all the tools and little of the substance. We can swipe left or right, however, we cannot meet those we like (unless we risk social judgement and our own physical health – both of which may paradoxically make the whole encounter that much more exciting).
Referring to statistics, there has been a surge in pornography use as those who are isolating alone seek out some virtual simulation and those isolating with partners seek out some sense of novelty. Throw into the mix the likely enduring requirements for ‘social distancing’ and it raises questions around what dating may look like going forward?
On keeping love
Coping with ‘lock-down’ can be challenging on any relationship whether new or old, robust or fractured. That is because relationships all rely on certain key ingredients that make relating possible – all of which have been outwardly challenged during lock-down.
It is abundantly obvious that for all of us, our physical worlds have shrunk down. Socialising, leisure trips and the distractions of shopping have all been taken away. And many of us find ourselves cooped up for 24 hours per day (bar the ubiquitous exercise sorle) with our partners.
Negotiating physical space is always a part of a healthy relationship involving discussion, negotiation and compromise. The world of Covid lock-down has amplified this and with it the requirement to communicate effectively around personal space. In lieu of healthy communication, some couples find themselves acting out and reacting to what they perceive as intrusions by the partner, when their partner is probably trying to carve our a little space for themselves too.
Boundaries are similar to space though in this context I shall be referring to them as the management of internal space – emotional closeness and distance. In any relationship, no matter how healthy, it is very unlikely that the two protagonists (or more if you are polyamorous), have the same needs for emotional intimacy. This is inherently frustrating. More so now than ever, but remember, it is also a simple truth of being in an adult relationship with another adult (rather than regressing to the fantasy of a union between mother and infant).
Boundaries need to be explicitly named and negotiated and naming how one is feeling (taking turns to do so) is a key foundation in managing boundaries: if we know what we are feeling then we can communicate it.
The two former headings bring me neatly onto the concept of difference. One of my pet hates is when couples refer to their partner as ‘my other half’ or some iteration of this fantasy merger.
Being in an adult relationship with another adult means having to tolerate reality – the reality that our partner is different to us and therefore has different views, thoughts and feelings to us, irrespective of how odd we may find them.
When tensions are heightened (cue the Covid lock-down), humans can find difference threatening and will seek out consensus and similarity. This happens of a national scale where many differences are (temporarily) put aside for the common good and presents itself in relationships too. The problem is – it is an illusion.
Sure, we can all agree to put aside differences in challenging times in order to achieve a goal, however the differences remain. And in lock-down, those differences are far less likely to be ‘life or death’ issues between couples and far more likely to be around an opinion about a film, a meal, or some other triviality that when mixed with anxiety, becomes evidence that just perhaps our partner is rather mad and not the right person for us to continue our journey through life with in the post Covid landscape.
Couple who genuinely fare well in daily life in terms of negotiating and compromising; in observing difference no mater how hard it is – the cornerstone of empathy – will fare better in this crisis.
The third table leg
We all know that in order to build a stable table a minimum of three legs is required: two leads to instability. The same goes for relationships – not that we need a third person in the relationship – just the spectre of a third. Let me explain:
Relationships are a complex balance of wanting to be one with our partner and suffering the frustration of knowing that that cannot happen. To get too close kills the relationship as the couple can no longer see each other and the relationship becomes a merger – a fantasy re- enactment of the womb experience. Too distant an intimacy and connection is not possible – this the the couple dance.
For many couples their partners interaction with the outside world makes them interesting and enables each to see the other as a separate person who has a life outside of the relationship. Couple work, play and socialise, at least in part, separately. And this is the way it has always been and remains in tribal communities such as, for example the Aboriginal communities of Australia where ‘men’s business’ and women’s business’ was culturally and ceremonially embedded so observe difference.
Under Covid, many of us have lost jobs, are being paid to stay at home or are trying to work from a co-living space with our partner – we no longer have to wonder about the ‘mysteries’ of men’s and women’s business as we are exposed to it 24 hours a day. The third table leg has become decidedly wobbly.
Just like ‘Love in the Time of Cholera’ is not actually about cholera, nor are the current relationship challenges really about Covid and the lock-down. They are about who we are and how we navigate adult to adult relationships sacrificing the certainly or a pseudo infant- adult relationship for one that is real and therefore difficult and frustrating. Marquez’ book is ultimately about the reality of relationships in all the glory and pain and that is what is being brought to the forefront in this crisis for many couples. Being kind to each other is harder than it sounds when so much of what we rely on externally to manage our relationships vanishes in a lock-down.
Mark Vahrmeyer, UKCP Registered, BHP Co-founder is an integrative psychotherapist with a wide range of clinical experience from both the public and private sectors. He currently sees both individuals and couples, primarily for ongoing psychotherapy. Mark is available at the Lewes and Brighton & Hove Practices.
Further reading by Mark Vahrmeyer –