I am often the silent “partner” in relationships, coaching people on how to convey what they feel to their partner (or act on their feelings, or come to terms with them and move on). It’s challenging since I never want to project my own inclinations onto how someone else should proceed. Besides, the history and nuances of a relationship may be refracted through the stress of the moment; I’m never certain what the real story is—in any case, we are different human beings, and what seems right for me could be disastrous from them. So I do my best to listen, and encourage people to find their own correct response to an emotionally fraught situation.
But since the pandemic, my patients seem much less interested in upsetting the status quo of their relationships. They want stability at all costs since so much else seems beyond their control. “The last thing I need,” said one of them, “is to go looking for a new girlfriend.” The consensus is that even if the relationship has lost much of its spark, there is comfort in continuity. “At least she’s there. I know she cares about me, and would…” That failure to finish the thought conveys exactly the fear that keeps the two together. At least for now, maybe for the foreseeable future.
People in more or less stable relationships—however unexciting and even unfulfilling—count themselves lucky. With everyone social-distancing and so few outlets for making even casual new friends, relationships seem to be an important part of how many people keep their sanity. “Most of the time, we just talk on the phone,” said one of my patients, “but we talk.” The alternative may be a world of business calls. “It’s like we have the same conversation every day, but we know each other. It’s okay.”
Sometimes people in relationships but not living together figure out how to see each other, even have sex. But they’re more careful now. They take walks, in their masks. They hold hands. Now that outdoor dining has resumed in New York City, some have even ventured out for brunch. They may even be discovering that comfort is at least as worthwhile as excitement. They may even be growing up.
So, I’m concerned about a few of my patients who are struggling to find a relationship. These are people accustomed to jumping onto Hinge or Bumble, getting a date, maybe having sex, and making up their minds pretty fast. Usually, they just move on to the next person. “I don’t want to just settle,” they say—a refrain that I hear from both men and women. But now that whole process has been radically skewed (“fu—ed,” one of them said, not to put too fine a point on it). Yes, I know that online contacts have soared during the pandemic, with everyone cooped up at home, but how do you establish a relationship when you’re scared (to death!) of meeting a stranger for any more than a walk in the park six feet apart with your faces covered by masks?
Even if we discount sex, intimacy involves sharing experiences; touching; the body language of affection. Most of us grasp this instinctively. We want to let go, to sink into a situation without formalities and safeguards—without the barriers—that separate the people we encounter from those towards whom we have feelings. But how is any of this possible now?
Well, it is. Sort of. But it takes a new level of imagination—not fantasy, precisely, but dedication to adopting the new protocols of dating and becoming close.
I am thinking of my patient Greg, a 40-year-old divorced guy who’s been dating for the past two years. Normally, he meets a woman online, exchanges a few emails, talks on the phone once or twice, and sets up dinner if things seemed pleasant enough. He really wants to establish a relationship, he said, not just find a series of sex partners. “But you know,” he confessed, “I don’t feel that I can really talk to a woman until we’ve had sex. Otherwise, I just can’t open up.” I’ve heard a version of this declaration more times than I can count, and I used to think it reflected the male ego. But now I hear it from women too. In the era of disposable online dates, sex has become a barrier-buster, a shortcut to reassurance of one’s own sexual attractiveness (“well, at least he/she will go to bed with me”). It’s a source of self-confidence when you’ve met someone new. As Greg puts it, “I really want to tell someone about who I am, about the divorce,” Greg said. “But I can’t find the words until I’ve slept with them.”
Greg’s whole modus operandi has been upset. Actually, it’s pitched into reverse. While there is no shortage of women, he doesn’t know what to talk about. He can’t even describe his usually frenetic days in pharmaceutical sales, since now most of the doctors he would normally visit—his territory is New York and New Jersey—are just reopening their practices and are way too busy for a long presentation. Maybe there is a phone call at the end of the day. Ho-hum. Big deal. “Am I becoming boring?” he asked.
So, I talked with Greg about how he could break the ice. “You have to start from the assumption that, if you like each other, then you will finally meet in person. You can do things remotely to start liking each other.”
Greg was skeptical, but I pointed out that there are tons of resources that could guide people in this new dating regime. One common practice is to watch a movie together on Netflix, and then talk about it. You could cook dinner together over Zoom, and then enjoy it with a glass of wine. Form a book club—of two—and talk about the book. In other words, get to know how each of you thinks, approaches problems, approaches art. Of course, there isn’t much body language on Zoom. But cut each other some slack. The point is to gauge compatibility—could you have a conversation, at least about something? Is the other person funny? Do they have an interesting, spontaneous personality? Create situations, however remote, to help you answer those questions.
Then comes the challenge. If you find yourself increasingly comfortable with this person, then take that walk in the park six feet apart in a mask. It’s okay to hold hands, provided you wash them. If it’s nice, do it again. Talk about having sex, or maybe just kissing. Get tested. If you’re both negative, see if it’s possible to quarantine for two weeks. Then ask yourself whether it’s worth becoming closer (Safe Sex has entered a whole new dimension). In other words, weigh the risks.
I’m not sure how Greg will proceed. “It all sounds like a lot of work,” he said. Welcome to the pandemic. We are reinventing the basics, like dating and human relationships—we have to relearn what we thought we knew.
Several of my patients in relationships feel fortunate, even a bit smug right now, since it’s one less thing to worry about. Getting into a relationship will be challenging. But human history is fraught with challenges. We’re here because we have learned to adapt.
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