The title of Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s book Love in the Time of Cholera keeps popping into my head. It’s been years since I’ve read the book and it likely bears little resemblance to what is currently sweeping the globe, but nevertheless when a title embeds itself into my psyche like a song on repeat I know that it comes bearing wisdom. And when I stop for a moment, the wisdom is clear: Our relationship dynamics are being highlighted during this unprecedented situation that is requiring couples to spend more time together than ever.
I’m seeing three dynamics unfold (and of course many variations in between):
1. Relationship Anxiety is Amplified.
For those of you who struggle with relationship anxiety, you may be noticing an uptick in your intrusive thoughts, irritation and projections right now. First off, know that you’re not alone; I’ve been hearing from readers, clients, course members, and followers frequently over the last two weeks talking about their increase in relationship anxiety.
Remember that anxiety is a messenger alerting us to inner worlds that need attention, so every time your projections arise it’s an indicator that there’s an uncomfortable feeling or need you’re trying to avoid. The following are inner states that you may be protecting from right now:
• The Fear of Loss: If you’re a highly sensitive person, you’re likely quite familiar with the fear of loss that lives at the core of relationship anxiety, but it will no doubt be heightened during this time. If you can spiral down out of the head space of intrusive thoughts and bring the focus of your attention back to you – replacing the magnifying glass with the mirror – you will likely touch down into the heart of your vulnerability. From this space you can say, “The problem isn’t my partner. The problem is how much I love my partner and I’m so afraid of losing them.”
The fear of loss can also manifest during this pandemic as an increase in other coping mechanisms other than relationship anxiety, like compulsions around cleanliness. If you and your partner aren’t on the same page regarding the lengths to which you’re needing to sanitize, this could also create discord and morph into relationship anxiety intrusive thoughts.
Again, if you can soften into the core feeling that the thought is protecting against, you will be more likely to communicate your needs-based feelings to your partner from a place of vulnerability rather than attack. It’s not easy to do, but it’s a worthy practice to try to move toward.
The attack version sounds like, “Why aren’t you taking this seriously? How can you be so casual during this alarming time?” (Sub-message: You’re an idiot.)
The vulnerable version might sound like, “This virus is triggering my fear of loss and death, and when you don’t wash your hands well enough or you go out into the world unnecessarily I feel so scared that I’m going to lose you.”
• The Fear of the Unknown: Again, for those on the anxious-sensitive-creative spectrum, we’re no strangers to dealing with the fear of the unknown and uncertainty. Still, if we’re not directly naming this fear, it can easily spew onto the convenient and now readily-accessible projection screen of your partner and hook into your default spike (“You’re not smart enough. You’re not attractive enough. We’re a bad match.” – to name a few)
The work is to notice the projections, name them as messengers, and come back to stillness so that you can follow the arrows of the projections into the labyrinth of your inner world where the fear of the unknown is waiting for you like a scared child waits for the loving parent to pick them up and say, “I’m here. I’ve got you. You’re not alone.”
• Disappointment, Grief, Loneliness, and Boredom: Even in the best of times, we’re well-trained to avoid uncomfortable feelings, so when challenging times arise it’s likely that we’re going to protect our vulnerable hearts with increased intrusive thoughts and projections. With every emotion carrying the lead role on the stage of this global crisis/opportunity where they usually get lost in the crowd and bustle of our daily lives, we’re being asked-dragged-invited to become more acquainted and friendly with them.
Disappointment says, “Here I am! Make room for me.” I don’t know anyone who hasn’t experienced massive disappointment during this time when everything is cancelled. Relationship anxiety around disappointment might sound sound like, “My partner doesn’t meet my needs. They’re a colossal disappointment.”
Grief says, “My heart is hurting, not only for my own pain but for the pain of the world.” Relationship anxiety will morph this into, “You’re wrong in some way.”
Loneliness says, “I’m in a relationship but I still feel lonely.” Relationships aren’t the cure for existential human loneliness. This an easy place for relationship anxiety to hang its hat as you find yourself falling down the compare-and-despair trap that says that other couples must be blissfully happy to be holed up together for weeks on end.
Boredom: If you’re used to filling your time with appointments, commuting, driving, and deadlines, you might become more acquainted with boredom during this time. It’s easy for this core human experience to project onto one’s partner in the form of the thought, “If my partner was more interesting, I wouldn’t feel so bored right now.” Here it’s critical to remind yourself that it’s not your partner’s job to fill your well and be the source of your aliveness. That’s your job and yours alone.
Again, when we follow the projections to their root, we find these painfully human emotions sitting like little creatures in a hole at the center of the labyrinth. They’re waiting for us to pick them up and hold them tenderly, and when we do so, we see the anxiety about our relationships abating. Feelings are manageable. Anxiety is not.
You might also see other dynamics during this time, like the following:
2. Increase in Ease and Connection.
I’m hearing from couples and families who, because they’re spending more time together and the stress of the daily grind has reduced, are experiencing an increase in connection and joy. This time of shelter-in-place highlights how frantically busy we are and how polarized couples can become, especially regarding caring for the house and kids. With both partners at home, there’s more equality not only in terms of the practical tasks around the house but also in terms of carrying the emotional weight of overseeing family life. Of course, if you’re not feeling aligned and on the same team regarding taking care of the family, this time at home may increase arguments.
Overall, however, I’m hearing many positive reports, especially from men who typically spend countless hours outside the home. I’m hearing about fathers who are loving spending time with their kids and relishing the hours that have opened up on either side of the day that are normally filled by commuting.
It’s too early in our shelter-in-place to know how long this ease will last, and I imagine that there will be many ebbs and flows as there always are in relationships, but this initial honeymoon stage inspired by an increase in quality time offers essential information that may lead to important changes once we return to life outside the home.
3. Seeking Shelter in Each Other.
Challenging times often whittle down non-essentials and illuminate what deeply matters. And here we all see that what matters is each other. What matters is our relationships. What matters is love. That’s all that matters. When relationship anxiety falls away we see the gift of the partner who stands before us, and we allow the influx of gratitude to shrink fear and grow love, again and again and again.
My guess is that many of you have experienced a combination of the three dynamics listed above. Feel free to share more in the comments below.
Note: If you’re struggling with relationship anxiety and you haven’t taken my course Break Free From Relationship Anxiety, now would be an excellent time to take it. And if you’ve already taken it, now would be an excellent time to review it.
Also, since my April retreat in California was cancelled, many of you have been asking if I’ll be offering a virtual workshop. I’ve decided to offer a Zoom workshop called “The Wisdom of Anxiety During a Global Transition” this Sunday, April 5 from 1-4pm ET. Space is limited and you can sign up here.