Illustration by Xixi Qin
Each week, Dr. Took-One-Psych-Class-Sophomore-Year will be answering Colorado College’s questions about the one thing that most perplexes our student body, Love on the Block. This week, we ask about quarantining with your partner. Some couples have chosen to quarantine together in order to avoid the costs of being distant from each other. How should someone in this situation cope with what may feel like a lack of personal space, or a newfound familiarity with one’s partner? Email your burning questions about love, sex, and relationships to Catalyst@ColoradoCollege.edu for a totally free, totally anonymous consultation in these very pages.
Dear Dr. Took-One-Psych-Class-Sophomore-Year,
I’m a sophomore who’s been in a long-term, committed relationship for a little more than a year now. My boyfriend and I have been friends since the beginning of our first year at CC, and though our romantic relationship was casual at first, it has since become much more serious. When we heard that CC would be transitioning to online learning we made plans to quarantine together at my house along with my parents and siblings. This seemed like the best option since I didn’t want us to go our separate ways without knowing when we’d see each other again. We’ve now been quarantining at my house for several weeks, still with no clear end in sight. I never spent this much time with him at CC, and though it’s nice in a way, I’m also finding it exhausting. I feel like I have no personal space, and I’m noticing that I get very irritated by his little, annoying habits, which didn’t bother me so much in the past. The two of us talked about taking space from each other, about him going back home while that’s still possible, but right now we’re pretty much stuck here. I want this relationship to survive, so how can I best cope?
There are countless poems and songs, odes to surprising joys and novels filled with angst dedicated to loving someone far away and out of reach. Recent technological developments have lessened the strain of long-distance relationships, and have made them more frequently possible. We’re now able to maintain relationships, mediated by devices and platforms, with loved ones we aren’t going to see for some time, and even with those we’ve yet to meet in person. The love letter is a dead form, made extraneous by the brave new wirings of modern love.
That isn’t to say that distance always makes the heart grow fonder, or that its effects can always be overcome by recourse to gadgets and gizmos. But with enough effort, and with the feeling that distance’s challenges are worth enduring for the sake of the relationship, love needn’t fall victim to mere gaps in space-time.
Distance, however, is not the only challenge facing those trying to sustain romantic relationships while navigating a world made strange by disease. For many, COVID-19 has meant a novel distance from romantic partners, a distance that can be bridged, albeit imperfectly, by video calls and the like. For others, though, it has meant a novel proximity to romantic partners, a closeness previously unknown. And proximity, when forced on us by external circumstances, can prove just as difficult as distance when romance is at stake, as you’ve been discovering.
Given a choice between parting with your boyfriend for an indefinite period of time and quarantining together, you’ve chosen the latter. You felt that this would be preferable to distance with no obvious end. And you felt that the resultant proximity would be less of a hurdle for your relationship than that distance.
There’s no reason, so far as I can tell, to think that you were wrong about any of this. You and your boyfriend judged what would be best for your relationship, and for the two of you respectively, and acted on that judgment. You agreed that it was worth risking togetherness, and all of its challenges, in order to avoid separating. This, I think, is pretty much water under the bridge.
But that doesn’t mean that what you chose is devoid of obstacles. Being at home with your boyfriend and family, unable to leave and perhaps reasonably anxious about what the future holds, may well be preferable to distance; but it also may make for a very challenging situation.
There are three significant challenges that proximity can throw up for your relationship. First, since you haven’t spent this much time in close quarters with your boyfriend before, some of his quirks might newly frustrate or irritate you. Some of this may have more to do with you and your situation than with him. You might feel practically and existentially anxious about the world and your place in it, and you might worry about the future in all its palpable uncertainty. This could lead you to become irritated by things that previously didn’t annoy you. Some of this annoyance probably also has to do with your boyfriend, who is likely facing similar anxieties and experiencing similar frustrations.
Sure, it may be that the quarantine has been an opportunity for you to discover pet-peeves, or why your relationship is doomed. But it seems much more probable that your frustrations are the result of a tricky situation and its attendant anxieties, as well as those of your boyfriend. This is a problem that calls for honest and vulnerable conversation with your boyfriend; tell him genuinely how you’ve been feeling and see what he says. This may be enough to get things moving in the right direction.
A second problem with proximity can be the feeling that you don’t have adequate time and space to yourself. Here, I have two suggestions.
It isn’t a bad idea to have a conversation about this with your boyfriend, and with your family. They might not realize how you feel, and this might create the needed space. (This might also help in managing any boyfriend-family challenges that arise.) Tell them that it isn’t that you don’t like being with them; it’s just that you also need some time on your own. If your relationship is worth maintaining, your boyfriend will understand. You might also consider starting a project for yourself, something to which you can devote energy and thought. It needn’t be too substantial, but finding something to work on alone, a project that’s yours, might create the space you’re seeking.
Finally, proximity can make it hard to see the bigger picture. It might be difficult to focus on anything but the present, since it may feel as if there are people everywhere who need your attention. When our loved ones are distant, it can be difficult to stay present; our attention may be directed toward a future we await. When our loved ones are very close and it feels as if there isn’t enough distance, it can be difficult to do anything but stay present; all of our attention may be directed toward the hecticness of now.
There is no need, though, to sacrifice the future to the sometimes-frenetic energy of proximity. Take some time to yourself — this can be part of your solo project — to think about the far-off future, and to reminisce. It isn’t always a bad thing to be something of a time traveler, and this may create some of the space you’re after. You can be present without denying yourself a wider view of things.
Even though proximity can prove challenging, its challenges can be managed. And, when these are managed, proximity can turn out to be the source of real joys. When we are irritated by our partner, we can find a chance to get to know them better, and we can be reminded of the qualities that drew us to them. When we feel there isn’t space enough for ourselves, we can discover the wonders of slow and ordinary time with those we love. And when we feel the bigger picture slipping away, we can come to see the outlines of a future that might be very promising indeed.
Proximity may never be easy, but you might find that, for all of this, and when it’s carefully managed, it can in fact bring out the great goods of your relationship.