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Too close for comfort

Updated: Jan 26, 2021

As we’re all finding out, COVID-19 is not only bad for our bodies and our pocketbooks, it’s bad for our relationships as well. But why?

Distance. One of the great hidden rules of how relationships work is that there’s no problem between two people that can’t be solved by creating more distance. If my neighbor and I violently disagree over politics, we can make distance by not talking about politics or, if necessary, by not talking at all. Problem solved.

Couples do this kind of thing all the time. Suppose I come home from work in a bad mood. My husband and I can’t talk our way through it. So we just don’t talk. Not a bad solution.

The pandemic has revealed the way a certain amount of distance from our partners is necessary for our relationship health. Let’s say that Sam and Pam love each other to pieces. It’s just that, sigh, Sam can drone on and on about work issues and Pam can dredge out her worries, which seem to be endless. Sam is boring. Pam’s annoying.

But they hadn’t noticed it so much when they were both working out of the house. The problem of not having enough time to be together was in fact the solution to the problem of their finding each other boring and annoying after a while.

Distance as a solution to problems occurs everywhere. Take sex. For couples who’ve been together a while, sex isn’t always the most perfect, wonderful thing in the world. Boredom and other problems creep in or get worse over time. But “not having time for sex” (distance, again) comes to the rescue for many couples. It’s both a way to not face the problems with sex and to make sex a bit more special when you do have it.

Then the pandemic comes along and makes it harder for distance to come to the rescue. You’re both so...there all the time. No way to buffer boredom and annoyance with distance. The experience of love crash lands into the experience of finding the other person under foot all the time.

This is very scary and disappointing.

So what do you do about it?

First of all, don’t take it too seriously. All relationships work at a certain level of distance, and don’t work at another level. It’s okay that being together is hard for you. Most people aren’t meant to be rubbing up against each other 24/7.

Second, note that intimacy is not the same as closeness. I guess this is what people mean by quality time. The point is you can be truly intimate, meaningfully sharing thoughts and feeling, without being close all the time. Some people need the space to make intimacy work.

Third, if it’s any comfort, vaccines will become available and someday the pandemic will be over and most of us will be back to our old lives, more or less. If you can manage not to overreact or make things worse, everything will be alright.

Fourth, there are things you can do to get the needed distance. The time-honored method is to have a huge fight and stop talking to each other. Try not to do this. It’s the equivalent of paying 75 bucks for a Big Mac. Big Macs might be nice if you like that sort of thing, but you can get them for a hell of a lot less pain in the pocketbook. In the same way, isn’t it better to just say, “Honey, I think maybe we’ve been getting on each other’s nerves these days, being so closed in and all. Can we just agree we won’t talk to each other if we see the other on their computer?” Or you could agree to not talk to each other every day until noon, or between 9 and 5.

Now what if one of you needs more contact and connection than the other? That is a problem, but it’s not hard to solve. Suppose you need to be, shall we say, left alone from 9 to 5, and your partner responds to that need as if you were totally abandoning them.

Well, one thing you could do that helps a lot is to ask what in particular makes it so hard for them to leave you alone for eight hours? Is it that they have questions about stuff? Problems they need help with? Are they lonely? Bored?

And why exactly does being interrupted bother you? Does it break your much needed concentration? Do you feel it puts you at risk of becoming annoyed at your partner? Do you just resent not having the time to yourself?

As always, solutions begin with understanding the true nature of the problem. If you can pinpoint what you need most from your alone time and why exactly your partner most needs to break into it, then you’re most of the way to a solution.

If your partner’s main need is help with things, then maybe it would work for you if they just texted you their questions.

The point is that the more you understand about each other’s needs, the better solutions you’ll come to and the faster you’ll get there.

And by the way, I talk a lot more about getting your needs met and about this issue of distance in my new book Why Couples Fight, which you can preorder now, and which can change your life. Really.


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