Therapist Esther Perel Shares Relationship Advice For Quarantined Couples

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A couple wearing face masks sits on a bench in Seville, Spain, on May 7, 2020, as the country prepares to ease its tough lockdown measures. (Cristina Quicler/AFP/Getty Images)
A couple wearing face masks sits on a bench in Seville, Spain, on May 7, 2020, as the country prepares to ease its tough lockdown measures. (Cristina Quicler/AFP/Getty Images)

Psychologists talk about the stresses of isolating alone during the coronavirus pandemic. But the pressures of quarantine can also take a toll on couples who live together or apart.

When partners are in lockdown, everything becomes intensified, says "Couples Under Lockdown" podcaster, author and therapist Esther Perel.

“In the midst of crisis, couples will often go to periods of destruction and then a repair,” Perel says. “And this reconnection demands trust [and being] vulnerable to what the other person is inviting rather than defending yourself, expecting the worst.”

Couples who find strength during crises or confinement are able to talk openly with their partners and even when it’s hard, continuously say, “I’m so appreciative that I’m going through this with you,” she says.

Since many can’t just walk out the door or find a distraction from conflict, it’s normal for a couple’s vibe to be off during this time.

“A couple has a rhythm that means that you leave, you go to work, you go to see friends,” she says. “This is what is missing at this moment.”

For those that might find it difficult to constantly be in the presence of their significant other, or find themselves feeling annoyed, Perel says kindness “will go a long way.”

Trying times tend to make us dwell on the negatives, but she says to be kind and open yourself up to what you can appreciate in your partner “rather than going around with a flashlight for the wrong, for the missing, for the criticisms.”

If you find yourself leaning into an argument, try this: “When you want something, ask for it rather than making a critique about what the other person hasn't done. Make a request rather than a protest,” she says.

And if you can, keep to one topic during a disagreement, she says, because it’s easy to start piling it on in the heat of the moment.

“This constant negotiation, which is very much normal and in the nature of the beast, also creates enormous empathic distress — moments of complete fragmentation where people, instead of turning toward each other, are turning against each other,” she says.

If anything, let the body speak when addressing disputes, she says. Because of social distancing, humans are craving human touch and affection, and a physical reassurance can “ground us,” she says. Allow yourself to celebrate, experience pleasure and engage sexually.

“You know, we are still alive,” she says. “Those of us who are closing ourselves off of any of the things that actually will ground us [and] will make us feel safe is actually a disadvantage rather than a resource.”

Interview Highlights

On how pandemics can be “relationship accelerators”

“We are living with a sense of mortality that is hovering over us, not just in terms of the physical lives, but the loss of the world that we have known. And when you feel that life is short, you kind of see, what am I waiting for? It throws the superfluous overboard and you say, ‘Let's have babies, let's be together, let's get married.’ Or you say, ‘Life is short. I've been waiting long enough.’ And then you say, ‘Open the door and let me out of here.’ We've always said: more divorces, more babies in pandemics and in disaster periods. And this is one of those.”

On a couple in New York City who filed for divorce right before the pandemic hit. The husband wants to see his girlfriend, but the wife is concerned about their children’s health

“I assumed the man is a smart man who knows what is right. So I said to him, if you could, you would want to see her. That's a given. I get that this is about duty rather than desire. And I respect that. That's what I say in a nutshell. … I mean, the wife tells him, ‘You're a jerk.’ I'm not there to say that. What I know is that he understands that he has three daughters at home. And in this moment, it is probably wise to be there with them. But I can give him both so that he doesn't have to counter me by keeping the other side secret. I've made it explicit. We know that if you could, this is where you would be. And we know that you've decided to act differently.”

On a couple she counsels in Germany who lived apart for work for the last year but are now suddenly forced to live together because of the coronavirus

“So that a couple is under lockdown. I am literally, through Zoom, entering their homes, their closets. ... They literally had to be in a closet in order to have some space away from their three young children. And it has a level of intimacy and revelation. This couple, he is feeling abandoned that she went to Germany for this dream job and she [is] feeling abandoned that he didn't follow. And lo and behold, it's the virus that makes the decisions for them. He appeared at her house in Germany. And in fact, they are really getting along a lot better. But when you have hurt someone, you want to be forgiven. But there's a part of you that doesn't know if you deserve it. And so you enter into a disposition that says, you know, 'Reassure me, but I don't believe you. But make me believe you because I really want to.' And when he says to her, 'I wanted to cook for you.' And he's actually saying, 'I care. I want to be with you.' She hears him say to her, 'What you did was wrong.' And that's the adjustment that needs to be made in that moment is listen to what is being said rather than listen for the confirmation of your assumption.”

"Listen to what is being said rather than listen for the confirmation of your assumption."

Esther Perel

On her advice to an arguing couple in Sicily — the husband takes care of their children while the wife fulfills her duty as a nurse treating COVID-19 patients

“Let me put it this way. Sometimes when couples come to my office, I learned this from my dear colleague Hedy Schleifer, I ask people to bring pictures of their children. And then I just say, here are your kids. They're watching you. Everything you're doing to each other is what they are learning. This idea that you have a responsibility beyond yourself about this is very humbling to people because when you fight, you often feel deserving. You feel entitled. You feel justified. You're not humble necessarily. So the presence of your children who are watching you humbles you.

“There's a concept called invisible divorce from Megan Fleming, and this couple in a way was living with that. They were separated, disconnected inside their own families. COVID-19 changes the balance of interdependence between them. They're in a small flat in Sicily. It's in the middle of the epicenter of that moment, and death is hovering all around. And you then begin to deal with the symbolic deaths that have taken place in your relationship. And now you have to decide, is it just going to disappear or are we going to fight to reconnect with each other? Because it is that connection, that sense of aliveness, that erotic force that is going to be the antidote to death.”

Karyn Miller-Medzon produced and edited this interview for broadcast with Tinku Ray. Serena McMahon adapted it for the web. 

This segment aired on May 7, 2020.


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