(names have been changed to preserve the confidentiality of clients)
Louise: “It has been like this for 15 years, Steve.Why are you doing this to me? Now! I can’t be without you.”
Steve: “I feel suffocated by you, Louise. I cannot carry on carrying on.”
I hold my breath and find the comfort in my chair as I am trying to figure out what is happening for this new couple client. Steve and Louise contacted me three weeks ago for couple counselling. Steve said in an email that he realised he is not in love with Louise any more, since the COVID-19 situation has forced them to be in lockdown under the same roof. The intensity of the situation has been unbearable from the beginning for Steve, and he would like either to have an amicable separation or find a new equilibrium with Louise, to be worked through in therapy.
During the pandemic, I have worked online with a few couples, and despite the challenges of the online world, such as providing good enough containment or, more simply, not being let down by technology, I have often felt I have been dealing with more than the presenting issues in a way I have not experienced before.
Steve and Louise are an example of these couples. After they leave the session, I recollect myself and my notes and begin to process. I think, breathe, and start feeling again. I feel uncomfortable and frustrated. What does “carry on carrying on” mean for this couple?
Despite the ease of the lockdown, the pandemic is still here – it hasn’t left us – and it is demanding of us more and more. The COVID-19 situation is an example of a traumatic “Real” breaking through our collective unconscious fantasy that we can just “carry on carrying on” – which in my view is an omnipotent fantasy in denial of our own mortality.
I have realised how much very early and primitive memories in each of us are being evoked by this pandemic, early memories of struggling to stay alive and feeling like we are about to die at the same time. It is a reminder of the struggle we have all lived through when we were born.
When a baby is born, they are faced with the threat of death. The baby and their mother are both fighting and fearing death each second that they are alive. Mother and baby spend their first year of life closely knit together, just fighting death and coming alive all the time (Klein, 1946).
Our birth happens with death and with the struggle of death.
We are all born with these feelings of anger and aggression and impulses to destroy, to kill, to create, and to live. These early feelings and these early anxieties are what we are being reminded of while together struggling with this pandemic. Will I live or will I die? Will my primary carer live, or will they die? And as these anxieties come into our lives, they manifest in the consulting room and in the virtual spaces in which we work online with our clients.
As James Hollis (1940) puts it in his book The Eden Project: “All relationships begin, and end, in separation.” When we are born, we are separated from the body of the mother, when we grow as children into adults, we separate from the care and dependency of our carer(s), and then our intimate and loving relationships end in separation or in the death of one of the partners.
Sex therapist, Esther Perel, highlights the fact that such a traumatic event as the pandemic is a relationship accelerator, where uncertainty in the context of mortality and separation encourages people to re-assess their priorities including their love lives.
This aligns with results from a recent study by the Kinsey Institute (Lehmiller et al., 2020), in which 1,559 adults completed an anonymous survey on “Sex and Relationships in the Time of COVID-19”. The study found that 43.5% of the sample population reported a decline in the quality of their sex life,while 42.8% reported that it stayed pretty much the same,and 13.6% reported an improvement.
The study concluded that this situation seems to be “accelerating” both good and bad relationships.Some participants reported a deeper intimacy and experimentation with new and different sexual activities together, while others reported a real struggle with issues of less frequent sex, infidelity, conflicts and domestic violence. A third group of participants did not report any change, but the majority reported a change for the better or worse in their relationship.
Whilst it might seem very difficult to predict, looking purely at the idea of acceleration, which relationships might survive and which will be stricken by the traumatic “real” of COVID-19, there is some early evidence from an Italian study that links the risk of psychological distress in response to the COVID-19 pandemic to specific attachment styles (Moccia et al. 2020).
Moccia (2020) shows that both secure and avoidant adult attachment styles are protective factors against the risk of higher psychological distress during COVID-19 compared to an anxious style. When we consider that one of the functions of attachment is to regulate distress (Bartholomew and Horowitz, 1991), anxiously and avoidantly attached individuals are less able to regulate their emotions than the securely attached.
Moccia’s study (2020) suggests that people with an anxious style might report more distress to ensure their needs of care are fulfilled. Likewise, they argue that people with an avoidant attachment style might not exhibit distress on social separation and might perceive self-isolation and preventive social distancing measures as less stressful than anxiouslyattached individuals.
I am sitting in my chair again. Louise sent me an email with the subject – A split home under the same roof. She says that they decided to separate and they will not need couple therapy anymore,but she would like to continue with individual therapy. I never hear back from Steve.
As I grieve for the loss of this couple, I am left with questions about how we respond and live in the face of an acceleratingly precarious, inter-connected and inter-dependent world and in the face of our mortality? How can our clients and relationships navigate through this? How does our clinical experience continue to support us in this journey?
Fabio D’Apice PGDip, MA, MSc, Reg COSRT
Hollis, J. (1998). The Eden project.
Klein, M. (1946). Notes on Some Schizoid Mechanisms. Int. J. Psychoanalysis, 27, 99–110.
Lehmiller, J. J., Garcia, J. R., Gesselman, A. N., & P, K. (2020). Less Sex, but More Sexual Diversity: Changes in Sexual Behavior during the COVID-19 Coronavirus Pandemic, Leisure Sciences. Mark. https://doi.org/DOI: 10.1080/01490400.2020.1774016
Moccia, L., Janiri, D., Pepe, M., Dattoli, L., Molinaro, M., De Martin, V., Chieffo, D., Janiri, L., Fiorillo, A., & Sani, G. (2020). Affective temperament, attachment style, and the psychological impact of the COVID-19 outbreak: an early report on the Italian general population. Brain, Behavior, and Immunity, 87, 75–79. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.bbi.2020.04.048
Swisher, K., Galloway, S., &Perel, E. (2020). The Internet is buckling under COVID-19 pressure, Esther Perel on our relationships in quarantine, and the possible Fox News reckoning. Pivot. https://itunes.apple.com/podcast/id1073226719