When the world changed, so did my love life. Here’s what I’ve learned along the way.
– NADIA RANOE
Some people would prefer to dismiss the old adage, “If something sounds too good to be true, it probably is” as cynical — the pessimistic blabberings of a diehard skeptic. But as one half of a couple that’s emerged from quarantine intact but not unscathed, I see more truth to the expression than I’d like to admit. In theory, endless couch time, a bounty of snacks, and unlimited access to my betrothed sounds like some sort of stay-at-home fantasy scenario. Holing up alongside my beau with a stacked pantry and no social obligations? “Sign me right up!” a pre-2020 Nadia would’ve said with gusto, pen in hand and streaming service at the ready.
In practice, however, life on lockdown is a lot more complex than noshing and Netflix, especially when it involves two people, a laundry list of anxieties, and limited space in both head and household to accommodate it all. “Wow, so are you just having sex all the time then?” asked one of my friends, her hands full with around-the-clock responsibilities as a small business owner with two toddlers to feed, entertain, and educate. I realized how shiny my situation appeared on the outside: a pair of childless adults who managed to hold on to their jobs and their health with nothing else to do but each other.
“Ha!” I responded vaguely, maintaining the facade without having to lie about it. But what I really wanted to say was that, actually, floods of tears, crippling uncertainty, and spontaneous bickering can do terrible things for the libido. Not to mention four straight days in the same pajamas (a personal best).
In late May, during a period I’ve dubbed Peak Lockdown, renowned relationship expert Esther Perel said in an interview with Vogue that “every couple is going to either see the cracks in their relationship, or they’re going to see the light that shines through the cracks.” Perel is popular for her provocative TED Talks on the topic of intimacy, garnering millions of views and plenty of clout in the departments of love, sex, and everything in between. She’s even got a podcast dedicated to these subjects. But there’s something that’s not sitting right with me about her statement from earlier this year. When I first heard it — back when sourdough baking was still fun and dressing up for Zoom calls was a thing — I felt comforted knowing that my fiancé and I had seen the aforementioned light. Our bond was solid, blemish-free, indefatigable. COVID-19 had nothing on us.
However, as I prepared to write this essay, reflecting on my own highs and lows in the months following Perel’s interview, I revisited her comments with a much more nuanced perspective. Yes, my relationship is strong (stronger than ever, in fact), and I feel overwhelmed with gratitude for every single day I get to spend at the side of this extraordinary person. But as he and I step further into the great unknown of the pandemic, hand in sweaty hand, it’s clear that there’s not a lot of light in the abyss. Things are not as straightforward, as either-or, as Perel made them out to be in her interview. I was naive to assume that my partner and I would be smooth-sailing through the worst global health crisis in modern history. No matter what any doe-eyed duo tells you, love is work, and lockdown was no vacation.
The hours inch along at a snail’s pace when you’re in quarantine, yet I somehow felt like, in all its abundance, there was still so little time available for just me. As I weaned myself off the media’s nonstop drip of doom in an act of self-preservation, my fiance was consumed by it, reading anything and everything to convince himself that he had some sort of control over the uncontrollable. The line between our professional and personal worlds disappeared entirely, and with it, a hefty chunk of my sanity (his too, if you ask me, although he’d probably tell you otherwise). We were witnesses to every aspect of one another’s lives, going through the repetitive motions of each day as if on autopilot and becoming increasingly agitated as a result. I never thought I’d be the type to ask someone, through gritted teeth, to please just Stop. Chewing. Like. That. But there we were, a thousand home-cooked meals in, and I started to feel my jaw clench.
What Perel calls cracks, I consider to be the empty spaces where our routines used to exist. As much as I don’t like having these holes in the fabric of my relationship, I know that they’re unavoidable when the proverbial rug gets ripped up from underneath the world. I also know that, in the absence of normalcy, those holes can be filled with a sense of familiarity, and that’s something my fiance and I are working on together. Is there a point to asking someone how their day went when you observed the whole thing from start to finish? The answer, I’ve learned, is yes, there absolutely is. Because banal as these details might be, it’s the little things that help intimacy keep its delicate form: the noticing of a new clothing item when paired with a compliment, for example, or the instinct to grab your partner’s favorite candy bar while checking out at the grocery store.
Since being physically close does not equate to closeness, intimacy functions as the unique language through which partners can communicate their love for one another even under the most challenging of circumstances. I’ve become fluent in the needs and desires of my significant other during lockdown, but this is not a language that can be perfected. Relationships, like life, are constantly in flux, so rather than trying to always get it right, my partner and I are focused on keeping it balanced. A state of equilibrium inherently requires the presence of opposing forces, which means the love scales can’t be tipped in one favorable direction over another. Instead, we’ve embraced the fact that without darkness there is no light, all the while knowing that very few cracks are beyond repair.