The isolation from the pandemic has had a negative impact on many intimate relationships. As people have had to restrict interacting with others beyond their safe pods, both single people and established couples have suffered from challenges they have not had to face before.
A different type of loneliness
All people feel lonely when they experience isolation, friendlessness, and separation from loved ones. But even when they are forced to interact with only those they know well, they can also feel a different kind of loneliness and not understand why they feel that way.
Without the capacity to intermix with others outside of those with whom they feel safe, many have shared these feelings with me. Even when they are able to interact with those they know well, they somehow are still feeling a different kind of entrapment.
If there are fewer opportunities for expanded interaction with people outside of their intimate connections, even previously contented relationship partners can become bored with each other. They are more easily irritated, have less patient, and nitpick about issues that would rarely upset them in the past.
Established couples thrive on interaction with other couples, co-workers, close friends, and even hobbies outside of their relationships. They are able to come back to being with each other filled with new experiences that stimulate their interest in each other. Those external challenges and stimulations help them to create new conversations, ideas, and feelings, keeping them interested and interesting to each other.
As opportunities to interact in the outside world become more limited, couples may begin to unfairly and inaccurately blame their partners for their internal and personal dissatisfaction. Trapped between the same-old, same-old, and the inability to have access to outside stimulation, a new kind of alienation can develop.
In addition, the lack of involvement in the outside world results in a lack of connection with what others are experiencing. Not interacting with others can create exaggerated differences in perceptions, often deepening rifts that would have been easily solved with chances to explore and share. That separation creates less trust and more feelings of differences that can make the outside world a more threatening environment. It would be akin to living on an island and then returning to an altered civilization, unsure of what to expect, who to trust, and how to navigate the new landscape. Isolation or continued interaction with only a small group of people has created patterns of interaction that may no longer fit in the same way.
Even those lucky enough to work from home fear that personal in-the-moment connections in real-time might be awkward in a new way. How will people react to them when those relationships reemerge? Even children, learning remotely and away from friends for months, do not form the natural empathic and collaborative interplay that interpersonal connection breeds and have difficulty reclaiming those behaviors.
Limited connections with others over a long period of time also create more of a “them” and “us” mentality, causing less trust and openness to new experiences with outsiders. So many people now are hypervigilant and cautious, not having had access to the changes that have happened to others during the same time. They too often approach new people as potentially threatening strangers rather than simply unknown territory ready to be explored.
Navigating the world of re-connection
Understand that you are not alone. The sense of feeling alienated and isolated is incredibly common now, as is disappointment or boredom with your partner or fear of others you might once have been eager to meet. You may feel out of shape, less able to present yourself with confidence. Your coping mechanisms may have resulted in dependence on others’ experiences via entertainment from the media or online interactions. You have become rusty in being able to banter or play, worrying too much about how others may judge you. And, of course, you may still be afraid of contracting the virus and suspicious of others who may be contagious.
If you and your partner have lost interest or become increasingly alienated from each other, understand that it may have been the forced and continued exposure to only each other that has made you feel disappointed or uninterested and uninteresting. Try not to conclude that this would have happened anyway, when, in reality, it may not have. Don’t be reticent to seek professional help to rebuild the bond between you.
Your lack of extended social groups or forced alienation from family may have left you without support, consolation, and physical touch. Relationships must be fed and nurtured to remain vital, and your resources have been significantly depleted. Try not to blame yourself or others and just realize that much of this is just the result of what you have had to bear.
Time to reassess
The forces that have brought you this place of internal loneliness are, sadly, still in operation as the world reels from the continued threat. Fear begets a lack of trust and often results in the requirement to still remain unduly cautious. Begin to take calculated risks wherever and whenever you can. Reach out to those who have similar values and beliefs, where you can feel safe and yet still increase your social circle.
Realize that what you thought would be a more limited time might be a longer stint. If you are to remain intact, you will need to do those things that make you feel alive again. Start eating better, working out in any way you can, creating interesting and interactive activities where you are not just a couch-potato observer of life. Share your thoughts and feelings with those closest to you and plan better ways to reconnect by bringing new ideas and challenges to each other.
In short, maintain your interesting and vital self in every way you can, so that when you are able to once again expand your horizons, you will not feel like you’re coming out of a coma into a world that has passed you by.
Randi Gunther, Ph.D., is a clinical psychologist and marriage counselor practicing in Southern California.