Two months into our co-quarantine, my husband did something unusual: He went somewhere without me. By the time he left our Toronto apartment in mid-May to retrieve some things from work, we’d been self-isolating together for 68 days—that’s 1,632 consecutive hours. After 10 years together, including five years of marriage, the honeymoon phase is long over; we do not need to be together constantly. So, far from dreading his departure, I was eager to indulge my bad TV habits and watch 90 Day Fiancé without his commentary. Instead, I felt anxious. I was suddenly and unnervingly alone. In the “Before Times” (read: pre-COVID), separate friends and interests meant we had regular solo outings, but that independence had been interrupted and replaced by constant proximity to one another.
That my husband’s quick trip to the office made me uneasy was alarming and frankly very unlike me. It made me wonder if other couples were feeling the same way and whether pandemic-imposed isolation has forced cohabiting couples into a kind of pressure cooker for unhealthy attachment.
As provinces progress through the reopening phases and household bubbles expand, couples will find themselves apart more often as they reintegrate into the world as individuals—it’s like the coronavirus version of conscious uncoupling. And it will be an adjustment. During a lockdown, couples don’t have much exposure to other people or the outside world. Routines are disrupted, including work, events and community connections that can provide fulfillment and shape identities. We’re left feeling disoriented and introspective with only our partner to fill the void as substitute co-worker, personal trainer and therapist. These may be symptoms of a pandemic, but they feel eerily close to the isolation tactics used by cults, which begs the questions: Could being cooped up foster that same cultish dependence on a partner?
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“Codependency” has become a pop-culture term, a catch-all for clingy displays of affection or jealous insecurity. And though there is a spectrum for these kinds of behavioural traits, severe codependency assumes an almost pathological devotion, “which usually means insecure or anxious attachment,” says Renata Kulpa, a Toronto-based psychotherapist who specializes in codependency. Kulpa’s codependent clients are mostly women who are married or in a relationship, though not always. Codependency can be associated with any significant person, like a close friend or a therapist, and is marked by an overwhelming need to please that negates one’s own identity, often without realizing it. This compulsion to care for others can also manifest in a need to have control over a loved one’s whereabouts. “They worry endlessly about where their significant others are,” Kulpa says.
But while codependency can include a need for control, Kulpa says the cult analogy doesn’t exactly translate. “I don’t see a direct relation,” she says, explaining that codependent behaviour is usually established long before adulthood. It tends to emerge at an early age and often stems from fears of abandonment, so it’s unlikely that codependency would develop due to heightened proximity during self-isolation. However, for those who already have codependent tendencies, the isolation could exacerbate them and lead to increased anxiety over, say, the whereabouts of family members. (In fact, Kulpa has seen a rise in client intakes, with “two or three [requests] a day from people who are codependent,” since early March—in other words, since lockdown started). On the other hand, lockdown could also lead to positive self-reflection. Many of Kulpa’s new clients tell her that fewer external variables have meant that they’ve had more time to notice their own behaviour, recognize it as problematic and seek help. “Every one of them said, ‘Now that I’m under quarantine, I want to use my time to work on what’s important to me.’”
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And as for my moment of surprising anxiety, brought on by a brief separation? “You just experienced separation anxiety in a normal situation—if we can call [the pandemic] normal.”
But how much time together is “normal” or even healthy? Certainly my husband and I hit our limit around hour 1,500, when we fought about how to cook a frozen pizza. (The instructions were on the box.) Couples have reported spending more than 20 extra hours per week with one another as a result of physical distancing, according to a survey conducted in April by wedding publication The Knot. To use the word of the year, this amount of time seems unprecedented. Dr. Rami Nijjar, a Vancouver-based clinical psychologist, says there’s no need for couples to impose a limit on the amount of time they spend together “if there’s a healthy degree of interdependence and each has different interests and feels secure.” However, inconsistent dynamics—if one person is avoidant, for instance, leaving the other to compensate by being more affectionate—“limit the amount of time that feels healthy for each person.” A cycle of distant behaviour, anxiety and reassurance can alter brain chemistry. “It can give one intermittent hits of dopamine,” Nijjar explains, which might cause an addiction to a partner and increase stress over time.
But the opposite is also true. In pairings where both partners are consistently available, emotional and physical intimacy can ease tension and “provide a buffer between our stress and the world—like our situation with the pandemic.” (You know you’ve found someone special when they help regulate your nervous system during a crisis).
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With all of that partner-induced dopamine in our brains, surely those in healthy relationships could also face withdrawal when this is all over. “Couples will likely experience a bit of a shock when they come out of this,” Nijjar says. “They’ll have to integrate into other relationships. They’ll have to leave the safety and security of having that one other person in their lives. And, sure, anxiety will increase.” But she expects that any post-pandemic separation anxiety for couples will be temporary. “Will it have a lasting impact? I’m not sure it’s that bad.”
Since no one knows what the world is going to look like going forward, she advises couples to pay closer attention to their relationship now. The best strategy for a situation we can’t predict is to build up internal reserves by working on our capacity for recovery, both as couples and individuals. Nijjar lists increased communication, mindful listening and boundary-setting as well as discussing the preferred amount of physical intimacy and personal space as ways to achieve this. (We’re about to get a lot more personal space.)
“We can’t predict the future,” she says. “We can only foster resilience now.”