Mark B. Borg, Jr, Ph.D., Grant H. Brenner, MD, & Daniel Berry, RN, MHA

Relationship Sanity

Pants-Optional Existence

Sane relationships in an upturned world.

Posted May 05, 2020

How many of us wear pants for our Zoom meetings? 

What time are we actually getting out of our PJs—much less, bathing, shaving or what-have-you?

Are changing expectations around those parts of our lives a reflection of change in how we view our relationships with intimate partners and others? 

Half-Dressed and Half-Present

During the first few weeks Dr. Borg was seeing Yumi and Sebastian for couples therapy via a secure video platform, Yumi described quarantine with their sons, ages 8 and 12, as “exhausting, but, well,  interesting.” 

Sitting beside her on their living room couch, Sebastian nodded in agreement, but then began reflecting on adjustment to the novelty of the dynamic of therapy via video as well as of sharing that experience with one another. The following week, Sebastian and Yumi discussed the challenges and flow of continuing their professional lives—she a social worker and he an advertising executive—and how this had changed how they manage child care and school via the virtual classroom provided by the New York City Department of Education.

In their third video session, Sebastian volunteered, "I think that we're doing okay," winked, and continued, "and I find it oddly comforting that we walk around here half-dressed."

 Yumi missed a beat, and then put in, "And half-present,” without even pretending she liked it.

This opened up a list of concerns about how each felt the other wasn’t showing up for her or him—for domestic responsibilities, child care, shared time together, and even sex, which seemed to have vanished—both remarking on how their libido seemed to be on holiday.

Recovering Relationship Sanity

The distance between Yumi and Sebastian seemed to continue to grow as the next few weeks passed. Sebastian voiced increasing acceptance of their "more casual" existence in quarantine; but Yumi countered that Sebastian’s idea of “casual” seemed to be little more than refusing to wear pants. "But, Yumi," Sebastian said defensively, "Remember the time Takashi (their 12-year-old) took pictures of me without pants in my office?  We thought that was a riot!” Yumi’s face, however, seemed to indicate she thought the incident was anything but funny. To her, it reflected a little too uncomfortably the presenting problem that brought them into couples’ therapy a year before: Like many professional couples, they hadn’t found a way to balance the division of tasks associated with running a household and raising children. The baseline issue proved to be that that had not found a way to approach what the authors call relationship sanity.

To Yumi, Sebastian seemed unwilling to reciprocate in all the areas of their shared life that Yumi expected. In therapy, Yumi realized how hard it was for her to allow others to care for her, while Sebastian seemed to be withholding because of the number of times that friction between him and Yumi had left him feeling that what he offered “wasn’t good enough.” 

This felt like a not-quite-sane impasse for both of them because each conscientiously believed they were giving what was asked of them. Not finding a way to communicate across this gap resulted in a deterioration of intimacy throughout their relationship. As happens classically in irrelationship, Yumi and Sebastian were co-creating a dynamic in which each believed what they offered was what the other needed; but in actuality, neither experienced what was offered as useful or even sincere. This locked down any possibility that either could ask for, take in and make use of what the other had to give.

When the coronavirus pandemic hit, and they had come a long way in learning how to receive and feel cared for by what they other offered. But the “pants-optional” lifestyle felt to Yumi like a slide back toward their pre-relationship-sanity days because it seemed a rejection of an important contribution to the quality of their domestic life. Though Sebastian initiated their pants-free home life, awareness and sharing about what each needed was a challenge to Yumi as well. 

Enough, already

Yumi’s annoyance with Sebastian’s “casualness” didn’t stay beneath the surface long. After several weeks of ignored hints, Yumi threw their dinner—a bowl of hard-boiled eggs—at Sebastian’s head, bowl and all. They entered their next therapy session via split screens. "And then hell came to our house," said Sebastian on his side of the split screen (wow, thought Mark, though video couples therapy was already unprecedented for him, this took it to a new level). Yumi, on another screen panel on Mark's computer just glared.

"What does this mean?" Asked Dr. Borg. "Where are you two?"

Yumi began. “I’m in the living room. Sebastian’s in the bedroom.” Then she described the scene with the eggs.

"Wow. Then what happened?” asked their therapist.

"Well, I called her a psycho and threatened to divorce her, just like in the bad old days. But this time I stopped myself, but not before she’d locked herself in the bathroom, also like the bad old days. But this time, unlike the bad old days, I pulled myself back. I knocked off the yelling and demanding that we work this out. For some reason, in that moment, I realized that my ‘demanding’ was just a way for me to control how it all played out. This made a space for me to begin to see how my insisting on controlling looked to her—especially my laughing off her hints about wearing pants. I was being really stupid not to look at what I was doing through her eyes. She is Japanese, after all; and I’ve always loved her for her sense of propriety. Well, that made me take it a step further: Neglecting how I looked around the house wasn’t just insulting; it’s a way of letting myself off the hook for taking care of her and the boys.” 

Yumi looked almost taken aback by the honesty of Sebastian’s analysis. After a moment, her guard lowered, she admitted to “not directly asking for what I need. It was a silly relapse into my idea of self-sufficiency. And I knew all along it was just going to make me more and more angry.” 

After a moment, Sebastian said, "I’m gonna have to put my pants on.”

"Great! Come into the living room and we can finish talking to Dr. Borg together.”