Melanie Joy Ph.D.

Relational Literacy


Love in the Time of Corona

How do we keep our relationships from being destroyed by the coronavirus?

Posted Apr 23, 2020

In Love in the Time of Cholera, Florentino Ariza wins back the love of his life after waiting for her widowhood for 51 years. Finally reunited, the couple goes on a boat trip—and to prevent others from coming along, Ariza orders the yellow flag of cholera to be raised. The ship is barred re-entry into their city, and when asked how long they can keep floating around between ports, Ariza pronounces heroically, "forever." 

For those of us in love in the time of corona, the thought of being quarantined with our partner forever has more the makings of a Stephen King novel than that of an epic romance. Many of us who are locked in—with our partner, family, or roommates—can do no more than cling to the Alcoholics Anonymous maxim “one day at a time.” (And those of us who are locked out, separated from our loved ones, are doing the same.)

We’re forced into excessive closeness or distance to prevent ourselves and others from being exposed to the coronavirus. However, the very measures necessary to protect our bodies have put our relationships at risk. 

Indeed, relationship breakdown has become its own pandemic. And how could it not be? In the best of times, most of us struggle to effectively manage our relationships, simply because we haven’t been given the tools to do otherwise; while we have to learn complicated geometry we may never need to use, most of us don’t get a single formal lesson on how to relate effectively. (And what we do learn is from less-than-ideal modeling by our family, teachers, pastors, and—yes—Hollywood.) 

So it’s no surprise that we are woefully unprepared to manage the acute relational stress caused by the current pandemic: Not only are we feeling psychologically and emotionally destabilized, living in the midst of what feels like the apocalypse, but many of our normal coping mechanisms have been taken away.

Because we are in a state of chronic anxiety and frustration, mild infractions become major triggers and we take our emotions out on one another, becoming opponents when we most need to be allies. We can’t hit the gym to blow off steam after an argument. We can’t hole up in our office to get a break from the demands of our children and we can’t just pop out to meet our best friend for dinner to get some perspective on the lovers’ quarrel we’ve just had.

Such stress causes the differences between us to become magnified and the problems we face to become catastrophized: our partner’s extraversion that we once saw as the yin to our introverted yang now seems like a fundamental incompatibility that heralds doom for our union. 

But there’s good news. Just as we can take measures to reduce the likelihood that the coronavirus will sicken or kill us, we can do the same with regard to our relationships. There are specific principles and tools we can apply to boost our “relational immune system,” such that our relationships become more resilient—better able to withstand and bounce back from stress.

And these same principles and tools apply to all kinds of relationships, from brief encounters with strangers to our life partnerships; from the interpersonal to the collective (how social groups relate). So the very mechanisms that help us manage a lover’s spat also help prevent a row with our best friend or a conflict with our boss. They even improve our relationship with ourselves. 

In a nutshell, resilient relationships are those in which all parties feel secure and connected. When you’re feeling stressed in your relationship, you can ask yourself: “What do I need in order to feel more secure?” “What do I need to feel more connected?” You can also ask the other person what they need in these areas. The answers to these questions will help you know what actions are needed to increase your relationship’s resilience

Because many of us are feeling anxious at the moment, increasing the sense of security in our relationships is especially important. We need to feel physically secure (e.g., we need to trust that our roommate won’t track coronagerms into our home) and emotionally secure (e.g., we need to trust that our concerns will be taken seriously).

So one powerful step you can take to build relationship resilience is to commit to doing whatever you can (as long as it doesn’t cause you to violate your integrity or feel unsafe yourself) to help the other person feel secure. For example, if your partner asks you to use Purell when you enter your home or to take decontamination measures beyond what feels necessary for you, just do it. If a small amount of effort (or even a lot of effort) means we prevent someone from feeling extra anxiety, why wouldn’t we be willing to do so?

There are many tools to help build resilience. All these tools, however, reflect the practice of integrity, which is the North Star of relationship resilience. When we practice integrity, we treat others (and hold others accountable for treating us) with both caring and fairness. This is behaving with respect, in a way that we would want to be treated. The practice of integrity is a safeguard against violating another’s (or our own) security needs, and it leads to a greater sense of connection. 

At the moment, even the most resilient relationships are suffering under what for many of us is unprecedented stress. So don’t expect your relationships to be in better shape than they are. Just as you wouldn’t expect yourself to be the frontrunner in a 5K when you have a head cold, you shouldn’t expect your relationships to be anything other than the challenging mess they are in this time of corona.

Much suffering could be prevented simply by accepting that our relationships are not at their best, and by not creating a story about what the problems we’re facing mean or making decisions to act based on that story. Rather than assume, for example, that the extreme situation you’re now in has made you see your partner’s “true colors,” you can ask yourself if you’re merely seeing the part of them that emerges when they feel helpless and afraid, or when they don’t have their normal coping mechanisms in place.

We all deserve the generosity of being given the benefit of the doubt; most of us wouldn’t appear to be the ideal partner if we were observed only in our most dire moments. (I don’t mean to suggest that we ever accept disrespect; this blog post is for those who are in essentially respectful relationships that are taking a nosedive under the current circumstances.)

We can use this time as an opportunity to develop our relational skills, which is vital if we ever hope to truly thrive in our relationships and communities, and which we may have backburnered over the years so we could deal with seemingly more immediate concerns. We can learn how to protect our current relationships from sickening and dying, as well as to prevent our future relationships from falling ill. Imagine how differently the coronavirus would have progressed had nations been prepared for such an emergency or, if they, and their citizens, had already established practices—promoting healthy hygiene, not keeping animals in intensive confinement, ensuring that public health institutions were fully funded, etc.—so that such an epidemic was averted in the first place. 

Love in the time of corona can survive. And, with attention and compassion—toward others and ourselves—it can emerge stronger, so that in the future it may even thrive.