Love in the Time of Coronavirus

The true test of a relationship.

Posted Apr 08, 2020

I’ve always said—somewhat tongue-in-cheek—to test the compatibility of a couple, put them in a canoe together. For a couple to operate a canoe successfully, each partner must agree on where and when to go and the timetable for reaching the agreed-upon destination.

For example, John Doe and his wife would have to agree on paddling their canoe to a specific island or beach; when they should leave—early morning when the temperature may be cooler or late afternoon. They will also need to agree on how fast to paddle. Oftentimes partners move at different paces. One partner might favor the scenic route taking in all there is to marvel at along the way: the trees, the birds, or perhaps just lounging on the water. In contrast, their counterpart might prefer to reach their objective as soon as possible.   

Couples often have similar goals but different ways of achieving them. The concept of equifinality comes to mind: many ways to reach the same objective. Nevertheless, couples with similar objectives and a like-minded pace can lock horns on how to achieve a shared objective.

In couples therapy, for example, it is common for a couple to be equally disappointed with the process of treatment. This is typical in sex therapy because exercises and other homework assignments are often prescribed. Too often, a couple’s sexual problems and nonsexual relationship dynamics are closely linked, making couples/sex therapy the treatment of choice. But many couples insist on exercises even if it is too soon or worse, contraindicated.

This has prompted me to tell such a couple that I agree with their goals but not necessarily how to reach them; and that their way might do them more harm than good. This is a response I have taught my students to use when they are placed under the pressure to find a cure for an anxious couple.

Here’s an example: John and Jane Doe presented for couple’s treatment because of John’s premature ejaculation (PE). But Jane let it be known she would not be attending any future sessions. Much to John’s dismay, Jane wanted me to work solely with her husband. “I told him to go for help a long time ago, but he refused. Now it’s his problem. I see on the Internet that there are sex therapy exercises you can give him and that he should be good to go in about 12 sessions. You fix him.”

If you like metaphors, you already know where I’m going with this. Most of us are “sheltered in place.” And those of you who are living with a partner are in a canoe with them at this very moment.

Agitation due to various factors, such as job loss and general restriction of freedom notwithstanding, if you are fighting or distancing, it may be an indication that your relationship was originally held together by an outside force.

For example, the non-intimate, child-centered relationship is held together by the children. Once they leave, the couple are left to determine the true merits of the relationship. The couple is exposed.

There are other couples who travel extensively for work. But oftentimes, it is the distance that travel brings that truly holds the relationship together. If one is trapped in a canoe, the travel is restricted, and the couple must then face the authenticity of their relationship.

There are other couples who exclusively vacation with friends or double date with them. It is the friends who serve as a buffer against intimacy.

My point is the coronavirus allows us to test the true merits of our relationships. Are you having fun hanging out with your partner? Having more one-on-one time, more sex, watching movies together, taking walks? Or are you huddled away in a remote part of the house? Are you fighting more? Do you find yourself constantly criticizing your partner’s idiosyncrasies?  

The truth can hurt, but once revealed, it can also make you think about where you really are in your life and who you are with. This may be especially true if you are older or have suffered the loss of loved ones while you’re stuck in your canoe. It can help you to make a life-altering decision that may have needed to be made. Or, it can force you to assess the true status of your relationship and work harder to repair it. In quoting a colleague, “You can’t fix it if you don’t know what it is."