A typical refrain from my practice these days:
“What is happening to us? We seem to have regressed to fights we used to have years ago. I am watching her all day long, and she does nothing: the house is a mess while she’s on her phone, she won’t apply for the government loan, she goes crazy if someone doesn’t wear a mask, we can’t seem to agree on the simplest thing! Did we just realize we actually no longer stand each other, or is this just how it is for everyone?”
Good question. After a few weeks of good will, people are indeed regressing to a low hum of agitated anxiety and irritability. It helps to reflect on the maddening conditions we are functioning in. The Covid-19 virus presented us with a perfect object of projection: a chemical that is not even alive, could be inside or outside you, silently move through you, kill you, or turn you into a murderer that ‘sheds invisible particles’. Could there be a better object to stir up a toxic cocktail of both rational and unconscious dreads? Most obvious are the manifest fears: the ambulance sirens repeatedly marking suffering, death and loss; the prospect of economic ruin; the exposure of the ugly reality of our failing social system. And then there are the nameless unconscious dreads, childhood ghosts and early traumas that color our perceptions, beneath which lay the specter of trans-generational, historical mass catastrophes. The Covid-19 pandemic hit during escalating threats of an oncoming climate crisis and global extinction, chaotically mixing up current, past and future dreads. As if not intense enough, all of these anxieties have been pressure-cooking in the coop of prolonged, tight quarantine conditions. Rather than roll up our sleeves and problem solve, we are asked to pause, stay home and wait, with a choice of either isolation & loneliness, or unending days and nights enclosed with one’s partner or family. Can we allow for some regression under such extreme conditions?
In everyday life our environment structures us, naturally imposing both geographic and temporal definition. We move between home/office/social- plan/home, while abiding by fixed time coordinates, such as train schedules, meeting or school pick up times. Predictable future plans link us to a grid of time and purpose. These all serve as external cues that organize our minds. This entire matrix has dropped away with the Covid Pause, leaving us highly porous– both to our own enigmatic dreads, and to the psychological contents of others, some of them very close by. We are left in an altered state, increasingly unfamiliar to ourselves: emotionally dysregulated with few options to shift perspective when dropping into our rabbit holes.
It is inevitable that this turmoil will play out in the theater of couples’ relationships. One’s partner becomes the sole source of stimulation, on view 24/7 available for endless scrutiny, with habitual roles often scrambled. Appreciating that one has a partner with whom to live through this upheaval may elicit gratitude and love. However the relentless presence of an external object also functions as a ready-made screen to project whatever discomfort or inner conflict one may be struggling with. It proves very easy to drag each other into conflict.
There are several things that can help couples lean into grace through these challenging times. To start, people are often surprised and disconcerted to hear me say that conflict – like sex –can be an effective way to release tension, connect to emotion, assert boundaries, reduce enmeshment, as well as reach across a divide and create circulation when psychologically paralyzed. Some conflicts are useful! To reduce the burden of destructive conflict we can focus on the following:
The riddle of Otherness is the secret challenge that every honest relationship poses. People have very different ways of defending and organizing in response to the anxieties and stressors of this pandemic; they will either move towards or away from the ‘material’, employ obsessive preoccupations, become paranoid, or need to deny, or keep threats at an intellectual distance. Some will move towards more connection or physical contact with their partner, while others will need more space and privacy. This is a good time to work on transcending self-centeredness and cultivate the ability to see, respect and love what is other than us.
This becomes easier the more one fosters structure and differentiation, and resists the inclination to become porous. It is helpful to create artificial geographic and temporal boundaries – i.e. move between different rooms/areas for different activities, create schedules and stick to them, take time apart, label the purpose of your time, change your t-shirt. Physical activity helps with the basic business of affirming one’s physical boundaries.
Try to minimize what you turn to your partner for. This can be on a concrete level (take the recycling out yourself), as well as on a deeper psychological level. It is tempting to blame the person right in front of you 24/7 for uncomfortable feelings that emerge. Refuse the temptation to ‘interpersonalize’ your inner conflicts. Pay attention to the music of your voice and back away from the Blame Game. Any sentence that in any way implies “You always…. “ is advised to be removed from the menu.
Choose your battles, wait before raising an issue, and if it is still important, create a constructive environment for conversation. This includes managing your own level of excitation distress, and being clear on whether you are in listening or talking mode.
Finally: there is plenty of absurdity to be spotted in our current situation. Commit to Humor!