“Is This All There Is?”

4 ways for couples to resist the lament of the COVID era.

It’s like a mid-life crisis, except that it is happening to adults of all ages, and they are talking about their most precious relationships. Never before have so many people asked me, “Is this it? Is this all there is?” It’s a relationship cry for help brought on, in many cases, by the pressures of 2020.

“What I was looking for,” one woman told me, “was a deep, meaningful relationship. What do you do when it becomes clear that that’s not possible?” Another noted how lonely spending so much time with her partner during the pandemic has made her feel. He has seemed lost and his inattentiveness turned into an unattractive aimlessness without the structure of work.

Many of us got a new view of our partner this year. A man noted, “Never before did I see how much my partner struggles with work. But now she’s working at home, and I see it all. Not only have I had to give up a lot to keep our family together, but with this closer view of the chaos that is my partner’s daily life I worry things will never change for the better…”

Stress has been a huge factor in the build-up of this relationship despair. Quick tempers; impossible schedules; fear of losing a job; less sleep; more anxiety. We expected solidarity in the face of crisis and, instead, got chaos, inflexibility, fear and defensiveness. It’s been exhausting.

This year has also made more people deal, at least a little, with the idea of their own mortality. This may be why the stress of 2020 is being expressed in a way that sounds so like that mid-life crisis. Our time is limited – perhaps very limited. Are we living as we wish to?

It’s hard to feel positive within the framework of our daily drumbeat of anxiety-inducing news. And few of us have as many outlets for self-expression and enjoyment as we used to. We can’t even really connect with friends and family. These things – and particularly connection to others - provide succor, nourishment and joy that can offset life’s smaller irritations, or lessen the impact of missed connections with a partner. 2020 has left our relationships emotionally ‘naked.’ It’s just you, your partner and…you and your partner.

2021 promises improvements – what can we learn?

COVID is far from over. We are in for a difficult winter and spring. And for the millions of people who have had a family member die during the pandemic, it may never truly be over. That said, there is at least light shimmering from the end of the proverbial tunnel. There is an opportunity to learn about, and build upon, what we have learned under pressure. Here are some of my take aways from working with so many struggling couples and helping them try to make sense of their feelings:

Our partners will never be perfect, and that’s okay. Neither will we.

One woman who is in the process of rebuilding her relationship noted, “Striving for that idealized partner and relationship creates barriers. 2020 helped me realize that letting go of the fairy tales can open up possibilities for us. I’m not letting go of my dreams, but we’re experiencing them in a new way.” By closing the gap between her idealized expectations and the reality of her relationship this woman was able to appreciate who her partner actually is, and relate to him in more positive and loving ways. Confronted with the stressors and stripping away of many of her pastimes in 2020, she ended up identifying the ‘underbelly of my idealism’ (her words) and replaced it with curiosity, appreciation, gratitude, and openness that she didn’t offer her partner before.

All that ‘play’ is critically important part of our lives

If there were ever a case to be made for creating a balanced life, 2020 made it for us. It turns out that couples really, truly need that time to do fun, new and challenging things together – and separately - to enliven their relationship and connections. The therapist’s call to have ‘date night’ doesn’t even begin to cover it. Having a bonfire by the beach with friends; playing the cello in an orchestra; attending art classes together or individually; volunteering at the local library. These hobbies and passions are the bright colored threads in the fabric of our lives. They bring joy and purpose that reaches beyond us personally and enlivens our time together. Without that joy we have too much time to focus on the stressors of our lives and the annoying habits our partner inevitably possesses. (And us, too, if we’re honest.)

Don’t discount the impact of the pandemic on your feelings

Depression, quick triggers, defensiveness, anger, and anxiety increased for many in 2020. As one benchmark, the registration for the couples’ seminar I give, which has held steady for years, has more than doubled since the start of the pandemic. Almost every mental health practitioner I know has a waiting list. We are experiencing negative feelings more often, and more deeply, than we usually do.

We feel something, such as “this relationship isn’t that good,” or “I feel depressed and I don’t like that my partner isn’t paying attention to my feelings.” These feelings are real to us at that time, and we don’t take into account that part of the reason this feels true and hurtful is that our life is so hard in general. We have less personal resilience than we normally would because the pandemic has worn us down. That anger your partner just threw your direction isn’t because he doesn’t like you, it’s because he’s terrified he’s about to lose his job and not be able to find another. He has lost his ability to moderate his fear. With that much pressure, over so many months, everything looks bleak, including our relationship.

A call for waiting

When we feel helpless, we want to do something. In an environment stripped of the pleasures of our lives and steeped in stress, that might mean considering divorce. "Is this all there is?" feels like a question that can be answered with escape from your current reality. Though we cannot control COVID, we sense that change could feel really good. I would urge you to explore your feelings with an air of curiosity because our feelings always deserve that. But ask yourself ‘is this impacted by the stress of the moment?’ Wait to make any decisions until life feels more normal again. The answer to “Is that all there is?” may be yes. But it’s more likely that it is ‘no’ because we know our lives do not currently have all of the color and joy they typically can have. Once the pandemic is under control, you will once again have the freedom to choose what you add to your life to bring it the balance, color and pleasure you seek. Once play is back in your relationship, that will be the time to assess whether what you have is what you wish to keep.