Wednesday, May 13, 2020
From the New Yorker:
Relationships are hard, even when we are not in the midst of a global pandemic. Nobody knows this more intimately than the Belgian psychotherapist and author Esther Perel, whose hit podcast, “Where Should We Begin?” allows listeners to play fly on the wall as she conducts actual couples’ therapy sessions. Perel is also the author of the best-selling books “Mating in Captivity,” about sex within monogamous relationships, and “The State of Affairs,” about navigating infidelity. In late March, as countries across the globe were enacting social-distancing measures, she launched a special podcast series called “Couples Under Lockdown.” In the series so far, Perel has done therapy sessions with couples in Italy, Belgium, and New York City, counselling them through the challenges of this very anxious, and often exasperating, time. “If we want to look at the challenges of communication, of sexuality, of desire, of conflict in relationships, this is such a Petri-dish moment,” Perel told me recently over Zoom. During our conversation, which has been edited and condensed, we spoke about how to fight with your partner during quarantine, how to go on dates from home, what to do if your partner’s habits are driving you insane, and how to maintain a sense of self when you can’t escape each other.
You’ve often pointed out that too much is expected of modern relationships: your partner is supposed to be your best friend and your lover and your psychotherapist and your child-care co-worker and, you know, your dishwasher. Everything. And those roles, historically, used to be spread out within communal structures. And it seems like this pandemic has only magnified the degree to which we’re forced to rely on our partners.
I think that, really, what is essential at this moment, especially when we have just one person to give us what an entire village should be providing, is that we create boundaries, routines, and rituals. There needs to be, as best as possible, a separation between daytime and evening, week time and weekend, working time and idle time, family time and individual time, moments that are task oriented and moments where we stop for a bit. When we’re going to eat, are we going to reset the table or just push our work stuff away a little bit so that we have room to put a plate down? I think that, more than ever, the routine that creates a structure, that brings a certain sense of order in a world that feels so chaotic and so unsure, is crucial. The ritual is what separates the ordinary and the mundane from something that becomes more elevated, more separated, more sacred. All of these three things are essential.
Some of my friends have commented that being at home with their partners has made some of the “invisible work” they do, which their partners took for granted, quite visible. For example, they’re, like, “Who did you think cleans the house and does the dishes? Suddenly, you see all that that I’m doing.” Or, vice versa, maybe someone says, “You have finally seen what I do at work. And you see how hard I work. And you’re not acknowledging it.” What effect does that have, to have these things suddenly visible in a new way?
What is happening now, in this expanded view of ourselves and of our partners, can go in two directions. In one direction, you say, “I’m curious. Tell me more. I never knew. I really appreciate it. I realize how clueless I was, how I let you do everything.” And it becomes really a source of connection. In the other version, it becomes a source of blame: “You want me to tell you how much I’ve been doing? I just did the laundry! I just cleaned the sinks! You would just live in a pigsty! What’s the matter with you?” You begin to complain in such a way that insures that the other person is going to try to chew you out as fast as possible, and you’re not going to get the help.
This brings me to the question of how people should fight. Couples are going to get into arguments and log jams during this time. But you literally can’t walk away. I’m wondering how you are seeing couples work through things when they cannot physically separate.
You don’t need to have a door to leave the house. You can be somewhere there without being absolutely present. I think that couples, by definition, go through harmony, disharmony, and repair. This is a dance that we do no matter what. By definition, we fight. What matters is how you fight. When you get really mad at something, can you afterward say, “O.K., got that out of my system—how are we going to solve this?” or “Look, I realize I was quite unfair. Let me first say what I do appreciate about what you do before I dump on you the whole list of stuff that I don’t think you do.” That’s why I play this little exercise of ten yeses and ten nos, which my colleague Dan Siegel taught me. It’s so powerful. Because if you start with the yes, you will fight differently. You will actually have a different argument. You can diffuse it with humor.
Begin by saying to yourself, “What are the one or two things that they have done that I can appreciate?” Otherwise, it’s whatever is negative I will highlight, and whatever is positive I will take for granted. If we made it on time, it’s because there was no traffic, and, if we got there late, it’s because of you. The negative is attributed to the other person, and the positive is just taken as “that’s the way it should be.”
And you can be all entitled about this and say, “Well, there’s no reason I should appreciate that, because I have done a whole bunch of things, and you haven’t appreciated them either.” But the productive thing is to start with you. You want to change the other? You change you.
What else can you say about how to fight better?
Stay focussed on the task. When you want to talk about the dishes, don’t end up talking about five different things, two of which are years old. Don’t “kitchen-sink” it. Keep yourself to the one thing that you’re upset about at this moment.
Also, make a request and not just a protest. Tell your partner, “I really wanted you to do this. I counted on you. Can we agree you’ll do it by twelve o’clock today?” Fight from a place of enlightened self-interest, as [the family therapist] Terry Real says, not just to get it out of your system. To get it out of your system, call your friends. Vent as much as you want. And then go back to your partner and be strategic about it. Because you don’t just want to get it out of your system. You actually want a change.
How about sex: There are jokes going around about how many babies will be born in nine months, just so many babies, but how do you create space for sexuality when you are trapped indoors with pets, kids, jobs, etc.?
There are such myths that need to be debunked around what actually preserves erotic interest in a couple. The idea that there is no mystery because I’m in the same room with you is somewhat true, if you simply think that being away from the person is enough. By definition, we need to create that space. For those who have little kids in the house, look at what they do: they don’t need to leave the house to suddenly become the captain of a ship, or the officer of the fortress, or the driver of the truck. They just enter into a character, and, from that “play mode” through their imagination, they transcend all the borders and the limitations of reality. It is the same with the erotic mind. It is the adult version of what children do when they play.
Read more here.