“Every family has a secret and the secret is that it’s not like other families,” wrote Alan Bennett. During this pandemic, it has often felt as though every person has a secret, that our experience of the pandemic is not like that of other people. Despite having been mostly alone with my partner and our dogs, as a coach I have been privileged to hear about the lockdown experiences of many diverse people, and have come to the conclusion that, although the day to day realities of lockdown vary massively from person to person, we have much more in common than we might realize. In order to discover this, however, you need to reach out. And whether we’re prioritizing our immediate needs, or worry our friends are consumed by theirs, in order to connect we need first to share openly with one another, and that starts with taking the initiative to meet up – even virtually.
Reach out to friends and schedule video calls with them into your diary.
It may be reassuring to know that you are not alone in feeling alone. Unable to embrace one another, this pandemic has left most of us in what airlines call the brace position. We are braced against further loss, braced against the uncertain future, braced because we’re scared. Often struggling to take care of ourselves and our own needs, it feels like a big win to be able to look after our dependents. However, what suffers most is our connections with friends. And when we do try to reach out, frequently our closest friends are busy meeting the more urgent demands of children and parents.
It got to the point for me where I realized I was only video-calling with clients and my parents. So, I made a list of the twenty or so friends whose company I missed, and I sent them each an email letting them know I missed seeing them, with a link to my calendar, so they could book in for a video chat whenever they were free. It felt a bit scary, making myself available to people who had not reached out to me in months. I reminded myself that I had not reached out to them either. In any case, the result surprised me. Within hours, fifteen people had booked in for time together, and not for next month or next week, but for tomorrow and the day after. All my available meeting times for the week ahead had been booked.
Share vulnerably to connect.
However, after the first couple of video calls, I felt more lonely than before. We’d spoken, but I didn’t feel connected.
After some reflection, I figured out the problem: I’d forgotten how to be myself around friends with whom I hadn’t been in contact for ages. The reason I still felt lonely, despite now having made contact with people in my life was that, instead of sharing what was really going on for me, the rescuer in me was trying to work out who they needed me to be. So whatever connection they may have felt was not with me, but at the expense of me.
Once I started sharing my own sense of isolation, my own fear about the future, what I learned on these long, rambling intimate chats made me feel more connected and less alone in a number of ways.
“Getting back up and beginning again are risky. They both require courage and curiosity, and courage and curiosity are born of vulnerability. Are you willing to show up and be all in when you don’t know how it’s going to end?” Best selling author, Brene Brown asked students at the University of Texas earlier this year.
“The definition of vulnerability is simple. It’s uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure. We’re raised to believe that vulnerability is weakness, but that’s the greatest myth of all. It is not. It is actually the most accurate way to measure courage,” says Brown. But first, it’s vital to acknowledge that you’re down, that you’ve fallen. “You have to be brave enough to acknowledge that you’re hurting. That you’re sad, disappointed, grieving, feeling shame, whatever feeling you’re in, you have to own it. You cannot begin again when you’re dragging unspoken and unexplored emotions behind you.”
According to Brown, the most important question we can ourselves ask is this: “What have I learned from this fall that I can take with me as I begin again?”
Resist the temptation, even in this pandemic, to only share the joyous, sunny moments.
Because my immune system is compromised (I had a kidney transplant in 2001) I have been self-isolating, and effectively locked down since March. Any trip by plane or train is out of the question. I haven’t been with more than three other people at any point since March. So, watching news stories of people traveling abroad to spend their lockdowns in warmer climes, or hearing my family members’ tales of holidaying in Alaska made me feel alone, left behind. And, until I actually spoke with the people in my life, I’d assumed almost everyone was living a more connected, more social life than me. This turned out not to be true.
Several friends were shielding for their own (until now unknown to me) health reasons. Others had partners or parents who they were protecting. Very few had commuted into their workplace since March. Nearly all, like me, were working remotely. Those who had traveled internationally had not had the carefree vacations I’d imagined. They talked about holidays cut short and unexpected levels of stress.
What was more surprising to me was how several friends confessed to their own unwelcome feelings of envy towards friends whose lockdowns appeared fuller, more connected and joyous than their own.
This lockdown envy often extends to our imagination of other people’s pandemic partners.
If you are able to maintain a romantic and intimate relationship with a sexual partner, you are already pulling off something extraordinary. In normal times, you wouldn’t reach for the impossible by expecting them to also be your best friend, colleague, or carer. Yet, in this pandemic, many of us have been forced into the kind of 24/7 proximity that has threatened to turn our romantic partner into a domestic cohabitant.
Esther Perel is one of the world’s most original and insightful voices on personal and professional relationships. In her brilliant book, Mating In Captivity, she explores the paradox of intimacy and sexual desire and explains how lust and domesticity are unnatural bedfellows. You wouldn’t, after all, want to have sex with your best friend, would you?
“Love enjoys knowing everything about you; desire needs mystery,” says Perel, “Love likes to shrink the distance that exists between me and you, while desire is energized by it. If intimacy grows through repetition and familiarity, eroticism is numbed by repetition. It thrives on the mysterious, the novel, and the unexpected.”
Today, says Perel, “we turn to one person to provide what an entire village once did: a sense of grounding, meaning, and continuity. At the same time, we expect our committed relationships to be romantic as well as emotionally and sexually fulfilling. Is it any wonder that so many relationships crumble under the weight of it all?”
I spoke with Dr. Justin Lehmiller, a research fellow at The Kinsey Institute and author of the book Tell Me What You Want, who suggests three ways for us to rekindle desire during these testing times.
Try New Things
“One of the reasons many couples are struggling in lockdown conditions is because their need for novelty and excitement is being stifled—everything can feel pretty routine these days, even sex. This is why it’s important to mix it up and try new things in the bedroom.”
Several of my clients have been struggling with this too. I’ve asked each of them: “What could you do for your partner that would surprise them?”
There has been talk of dressing up, of wigs and even remotely-controlled sex toys.
“Trying new things can take different forms for different people,” says Dr Lehmiller, “whether it’s sharing fantasies, being intimate in new positions or new locations in the home, or giving each other massages—it all depends on the comfort level of the partners. An added benefit of pursuing sexual novelty is that it can create a more immersive experience that takes you out of your head and lets you be in the moment so that you can focus on pleasure instead of the pandemic for a bit.”
Give Your Partner Space
Another reason Dr. Lehmiller tells me some couples are having a difficult time right now is because “they’re encountering issues with personal space. They feel like they’re on top of each other all of the time, which is leading to conflict. These very uncertain and stressful times are putting a damper on sexual desire as it is, but when you add conflict on top of that, it can create some real intimacy issues.”
“It’s therefore important for couples to find ways to give each other some breathing room. Figure out a schedule where each of you can have some time alone to do something that you enjoy and that relaxes you, whether that’s exercise, working on a hobby, reading a book, taking a long bath, or just being alone with your thoughts. Giving each other some space can help to defuse some of the tension, which may pave the way to more intimacy.”
Be Proactive – Buck The Trend
One of my clients, living in a London apartment with her husband and 10 year old daughter, designed a date with her husband, and got her daughter to help out, by picking her outfit – and staying out of the way, in her room. She even succeeded in getting their favorite restaurant (now closed for diners) to deliver.
If you’re feeling lonely, trapped in domesticity, or feeling envious of other people’s pandemic experiences, it can be paralyzing. But there is no better antidote than reaching out, sharing vulnerably what’s really going on for you, and taking whatever action you can to nudge your own reality in a more joyous direction. Yet no matter how scary it feels to you to make the first move and schedule time with a friend or to ask a partner on a date-night at home, you may be surprised by their reactions. It’s possible that your friends and partner have been feeling lonely, trapped, and even envious too.
Take this quick quiz to discover where you’re feeling most out of balance right now.