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Love, Actually: The effects of the pandemic on human bonding

Relationships have changed drastically during enforced seclusion and togetherness since the pandemic struck.

Published: 27th June 2021 05:00 AM  |   Last Updated: 27th June 2021 07:07 AM   |  A+A-

As India awaits the Third Wave, the lessons of the recent past could lay the groundwork for a new, caring world.

As India awaits the Third Wave, the lessons of the recent past could lay the groundwork for a new, caring world.

There is a Close Relationships Laboratory at the University of Georgia in the US that studies the development, maintenance and impact of close relationships on the health and well-being of people. Its director, the well-regarded American psychology professor Richard B Slatcher, has launched a biweekly study ‘Love in the Time of COVID’ (you can take it too; just log in) to examine the effects of the pandemic on human bonding.

He concludes that intimate personal ties can either boost psychological and physical well-being in such traumatic times or be vulnerable to outside stressors, thereby adversely affecting even the most supportive relationship. The impact of the pandemic on couples is visible everywhere and strangely, they have no consistency in pattern. All is not bad news.

An Indian Psychiatric Society (IPS) study in 11 Indian languages and English has discovered that the lockdown had an overall positive impact on relationships in India, including on love and dating. Nearly half of the responders (47.4 percent) reported marked improvement in their relationships with their spouse or partner after the beginning of the first lockdown. Even as millions of people continue to get infected or are dying in the pandemic, the shared experience is bringing people together.

Therapists have identified some positive interpersonal markers after the nightmare began. “Relationships require time and effort to grow. Pandemic-related working from home has given many couples the opportunity to spend continuous time together, work and function in each other’s presence, understand each other’s need for space, support and nurturing, and also generally enjoy each other’s company,” says Dr Natasha Kate, Consultant Psychiatrist, Masina Hospital, Mumbai.

People are becoming better partners, say counsellors. The pandemic has made many of them question the true meaning of their lives and its lessons. This introspection is encouraging couples to re-evaluate their values and, therefore, feel responsible to sort out personality defects. Couples have become closer than ever before. Some lucky pairs have rediscovered forgotten quirks in their partners, while some learn new aspects. “It is the sudden change in lifestyle, which resulted in emotional distress for almost every individual. Some couples are realising that the pandemic has brought them closer. Those in a long-distance relationship felt this,” says Dr Navodita Kumar, Clinical Psychologist, Apollo Hospital, Hyderabad.

Covid-19 is a life lesson whose impact on interpersonal relationships, communication, time management and personal space will determine how we will negotiate the coming years. A lot of it is likely to be an improvement. Ryan Howes, Clinical Psychologist and former teacher at the US-based Fuller Graduate School of Psychology, writes that feeling moments of happiness during the crisis is okay. “It doesn’t make you a monster.

Actually, it can be really helpful. We all have to figure out how to get through this in a way that’s emotionally sustainable over the long run. Finding moments of joy where you can might help you endure. There’s also the fact that, even if you have to dig deep, you’ll probably notice that you don’t only feel okay (or even happy) right now. Having a lot of conflicting feelings is part of being human.” 

A VIRAL BONDING 
Ankur Kapur and Rina Chander had been dating for a year. The romance had the right kind of surprises. The sex was good. Both were hardworking professionals, Kapur in entertainment and Chander in banking. Marriage was still not being discussed but it was there nevertheless, a pleasant shadow in the suburbs of their relationship. Chander was toying with Kapur’s invitation to move into his Gurgaon house. Then she got a promotion, which came with a transfer to Mumbai. Her partner being in the entertainment industry moved too, so that he could be with her. When the first wave of Covid-19 struck, the lockdown kept them apart for two months.

Unsure when or if the pandemic will end, they moved in together. This time, it was Kapur who packed his bags to stay in Chander’s Bandra apartment. Now, two lockdowns, viral waves and a lot of we-time later, they have no complaints. Kapur is already talking marriage. A survey by Weddingwire.in concluded that 13 percent of respondents moved into their partner’s house during the lockdown to stay close through the pandemic. It says, “Partners who chose to move in together to survive this phase chose each other to walk the rope of these unprecedented times and definitely made their relationship a ‘24 hours together’ thing.” Forty-three percent of these couples were working from home, which gave them another common ground to respect and support each other. The recent American Family Survey data found that about 58 percent of participants received increased appreciation because of the pandemic and almost half said it “helped deepen their commitments to their relationship”.

SHARING, CARING  AND HAVING FUN 
The majority of the couples (41 percent) in the Weddingwire survey spent more than 20 hours together, sharing domestic chores, cooking and exploring new recipes, enjoying entertainment options such as television and music, and making fun TikTok videos. Kapur and Chander have been grooving to the peppy ‘Coincidence’ by YouTuber Handsome Dancer that has taken the TikTok world by storm a competition to see who is the better dancer. Thirty-seven percent who took the survey admitted that they spent 6-19 hours with their partners. TikTok has had an unexpected effect on couples fun. It soothed apprehensions.

A TikTok dance challenge to a song by Conkarah requires participants to put a cool pair of shades on their forehead and drop them over their eyes when the song says “Drop!” The one who lands the shades first is the winner. Australian singer Tones and I composed ‘Dance Monkey’ that is meant to loosen you up with frisky lyrics and beats—tbh dance like a monkey! “I can make a fool of myself, goof around and make mistakes knowing that my partner won’t be judgemental. It exposes our flaws and brings us closer,” says Chander.

According to Mollie Eliasof, Couples Therapist and Head of Mollie Eliasof Therapy, “Quality of time is so different than quantity of time. Couples, who want a deeper, richer connection, need to invest in getting curious about one another. Not only in how their partner is spending their day, but truly searching for what makes them smile, blossom, feel moved, or hungry for life.” Lovers innovated to beat Covid blues. London doctor Annalan Navaratnam and girlfriend nurse Jann Tipping got married at the hospital they worked in. A Brooklyn photographer sent a drone with a message inviting a neighbour on a date, which she accepted. A Malayali couple set up a Zoom wedding attended by parents, friends and relatives. 

The prognostication of international scientists is that free from the fears, anxiety, forced seclusion, infection and bereavement, vaccinated Americans will throw caution to the winds. The Washington Post speculated on a return to America’s ‘Roaring Twenties’ that happened after the 1918 influenza pandemic, which was marked by both excesses and expansion of individual freedoms. People partied madly, women declared sexual freedom and independence, and an urban renaissance invigorated America. But a Roaring Two Thousand Twenties is unlikely to happen in India considering its past pandemic record of government ineptitude and terrible healthcare. However, Chris Kraft, Clinical Services Expert at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, US, notes that pandemic separation has a bright side, too. Couples will get to know each other through conversation, not physical contact. “Learning more about the other person can help intimacy grow, and create a strong foundation for when they are reunited,” he writes.

IDENTIFYING STRESSORS
Interpersonal dysfunction is a visible fallout of the coronavirus fear. The signs were clear. People are still struggling harder with their relationship problems. This is because when a couple is facing any crisis, major or minor, existing differences will get amplified. Partners accelerated relationship goals by hurrying to move in together or even get married. But once they start to play house, some of them begin to feel uncertain about the wisdom of their move. Couples were suddenly fighting more. Mental healthcare experts attribute this to pandemic twitchiness. “The closeness provided ample scope to concentrate on each other’s negatives and deficiencies, which was expressed as frequent displeasure, criticism, taunts and belittling. The frustrations arising from life restrictions and job scenarios led to verbal and physical violence,” says Dr Rajiv Mehta, Consultant Psychiatrist, Sir Ganga Ram Hospital, Delhi.

Some people felt okay being on their own, staying apart. This is also making them concerned about the health of their relationship. Some feel guilty for needing time alone. Counsellors, however, say that keeping personal space is healthy. Since couples were living in each other’s pockets all the time, there was no chance even to miss each other—an integral part of longing. “Familiarity breeds contempt. This is because of certain factors like spending too much time together, disagreement over child-related issues, financial problems, inability of carving out some alone-time, not giving each other adequate space, etc,” says Dr Kumar. Some partners even felt that they would break up once the pandemic was over and they were stuck right now because of the situation. They were probably right. People just didn’t need the additional stress right then.

In 1988, a team led by academic psychologist James House at the University of Michigan demonstrated that stronger social ties encourage lower levels of mortality. Their report sparked an upsurge in research on the connection between social relationships and health. The IPS study explains that a reason for improvement in relationships in the age of Covid could be attributed to the fact that couples set aside mutual differences in the face of a common enemy—the virus. It also noted that, despite improvement in interpersonal exchanges, negative emotions affected about one-third to nearly half of the participants. About one-fourth to one-third reported getting stressed over Covid-19-like symptoms.

Take the Nairs for example. They are a New Delhi couple who have two school-going children. The husband, a mid-level manager in an export company in Kochi, was laid off; his wife is a nurse at a large private hospital. The constant fear of infection, sight of sudden deaths and lamenting relatives, interacting with exhausted doctors and long working hours trapped in PPE suits, took a toll on her. Tasks like reading, teaching and caring for the children were left to the husband, who resented his unfamiliar role. Eliasof points out that everyone today is in triage mode, simply trying to keep existing and getting by. “Intimacy requires risk. To be open and vulnerable when we are already so raw can be petrifying.

The safer answer to keep functioning and existing is to simply co-exist, put the depth of connection aside so any semblance of normalcy can occur.” Mrs Nair had isolated herself to avoid infecting her family. With the parents of both stuck in other localities, the Nairs lacked an additional support system. “Talk to each other and understand what you reasonably expect from each other. Whether you are close or apart, communication, understanding and a genuine willingness to find solutions will improve things. It is about walking a mile in the other person’s shoes,” advises Gurgaon-based marriage counsellor Vidhya Goel.

LOVE IS LITERALLY CHEMISTRY 
Explaining romance and love biologically is a downer. For centuries, people thought love was a matter of the heart. In the 1990s, scientists found that love is a brain function that stimulates the body. Dr Helen Fisher, a scientist at Rutgers University, US, categorises romantic love in three stages: lust, attraction, and attachment. She sums up the process in three segueing stages: Evolution created the brain circuitry and the hormones that cause feelings of deep attachment to a partner. This circuitry changes and the feelings grow over time.

In a healthy union, it is that attachment that sustains the relationship through hard times like now. Lust is induced by two hormones namely testosterone and estrogen. Agents of attraction are dopamine, norepinephrine and serotonin. Oxytocin and vasopressin promote attachment. In all the categories, the brain shuts down parts of the prefrontal cortex that governs rational behaviour. The paper ‘Making love in the time of corona—considering relationships in lockdown’ by Belgian clinical psychologist-sexologist Marieke Dewitte, medical scientist and psycho-sexual therapist Chantelle Otten, and clinical psychologist Lauren Walker examines the changing role of sex and gratification during the pandemic. Dewitte points out that some people completely lose interest in sex; while others crave it as a coping mechanism. It is not that couples are having more sex during the pandemic, but that the sex has become more adventurous.

Since sex is a great stress-reliever and mood-booster, Otten advises that “sex can help us feel more in tune with our partner and ourselves; it can anchor us to the present, making us feel stable and secure in the now (which is a rarity at the moment). Sex, as a pretty energetic activity that gets our hearts pumping, blood flowing and pleasure senses tingling, is a no-brainer to improving our mental health.” Agrees Bengaluru-based psychologist and crystal healer Shivani Sharma, “Let go of existing sexual templates. Find something new to help break the monotony. Like any other healthy habit, making love raises endorphin levels in the body. These mood-boosting biochemicals calm you. And why stop at intercourse? Non-penetrative sex can bring stress levels down, too.”

Dopamine, which well-known clinical psychiatrist Gail Saltz calls “the neurotransmitter of reward”, is released during feel-good moments like sex or spending time with loved ones. Dopamine and norepinephrine egg on the body to exhibit symptoms of “being in love”—giddiness, high energy, euphoria, poor appetite and sleeplessness. But no long-term relationship can survive on lust and attraction. Attachment is the cementing factor. It creates a social environment for relationships to thrive. Then comes the time for the hypothalamus to release the “cuddle hormone” oxytocin that floods the neural pathways during sex, breastfeeding, and childbirth—all bonding factors.

But Walker could well be referring to the Nairs when she says that health anxiety, financial uncertainty, threat to safety, social isolation, and increased demands associated with full-time childcare are Covid-related “libido killers”. Dewitte cautions “sexual and relational problems are considered as ‘secondary’ problems, thereby disregarding the mutual influence between sex, relationships and mental health, as well as the impact of relational stressors specific to this pandemic.” Walker is happy that for couples separated by distance, sexual gratification does not need cohabiting. She, however, warns that sexting, erotic chats and intimate webcam interactions must not be done on an account linked to your name or phone number to avoid embarrassment or worse.

What advice do experts have to give on sex in the time of Covid?
Be kind to yourselves. It is okay not to be feeling sexy and sexual. Instead when you get the time, 
be experimental with your partner.

Do not complain at a decline in the frequency of sex. Value the importance of intimacy and physical touch as a stress-reducer.

In relationships that have lost their lustre, leverage the pandemic as an opportunity to find a new activity or common hobby that will rekindle desire. These are exceptional circumstances, so be mild, tolerant and mutually accepting. Avoid hasty decisions. “When things get tough, have an action plan to work on actively improving it. It could require persistence or/and professional help. Use the identification method to start. Become aware of what, how and why you’re thinking so currently. The ‘why’ is very important. Answer honestly. You will notice that often, there is no good reason to be thinking like that,” says 

Dr Krithishree S, Consultant Psychiatrist, KMC Hospital, Mangaluru. Covid-19 has given couples a unique opportunity to deepen the focus on each other since outside social interaction is minimal.
The great 14th century Italian poet and scholar Francesco Petrarch lived through the most disastrous pandemic in world history—the Black Death, which killed 200 million across Eurasia and North Africa. As India and the rest of the world prepare for the Third Covid Wave, Petrarch’s words written in 1374, the final year of his life, have never been more relevant since Italy lived with “this plague, without equal in all the centuries”, for over 25 years.

His torment echoes that of millions today who have endured nearly two years of the pandemic. When Petrarch’s French lover Laura died of the plague in 1348, he recorded her passing three years later on the pages of his treasured copy of Virgil’s works, “I decided to write down the harsh memory of this painful loss, and I did so, I suppose, with a certain bitter sweetness, in the very place that so often passes before my eyes.” In that “very place” that is the personal space of today’s partners in love, life, although bittersweet, will flourish through renewed values of understanding, connecting and sharing.

Sources: University of Georgia, Big Think, self.com, Verywell Mind, Nature Reviews Urology, surveys and media reports

(With inputs from Ayesha Singh, Medha Dutta Yadav and Manju Latha Kalanidhi)

Pandemic Relationship Advice

• Allocate more time to connect with friends and family. After all, time is what you’ve got in spades.
• Pay attention to people in your life by not getting distracted by external factors such as  gadgets and gizmos, work issues and other interests 
• Listen, not merely hear others, and try to understand what they are telling you. Focus on their needs in that moment.  
• Allow yourself to be heard by honestly sharing your feelings, and welcome support from others 
• Recognise toxic relationships to move forward and find solutions
• Look after yourself and establish a routine like regular sleep hours, waking up on time, getting dressed as if for work, eating nutritious food, scheduling work breaks at home, such as a midday yoga video or meditation session together  
• WFH couples must fix separate hours for work and time spent together. To escape pandemic-induced anxiety, people may tend to be immersed in their work. 
• Avoid substance use and abuse like excess drinking, smoking and drugs to escape pandemic stress  
• Exercise outdoors together in your garden or terrace. Wear masks and go for a jog or a walk with each other. Work out to exercise videos together.  
• Plan the routine of children in advance when possible, and share an equal amount of time to keep them occupied and happy 
• Don’t expect amazing sex. The pandemic and its attendant aggravations like job loss, a Covid death in the family or of a friend interfere with sexual desire. 
• Have a larger support system. Depending solely on your partner for sustenance is overburdening them. Use computers, phone and email to maintain your support network.  
• Plan something fun like a drive together, a special meal; or buy something both enjoy. Use social apps to meet other couples for dinners, game nights or movies at home. 
• Be on your best behaviour since courteous and considerate behaviour will strengthen the bond after normal life returns 
• Ask for professional help if you need it
• Write down your deepest thoughts and feelings about your relationship. Couples who did this opened up to their partners better, thereby strengthening their association. 

IS LOVE AT FIRST SIGHT REAL?

Artist and writer Philippa Found launched Lockdownlovestories.com as a participatory art project in May 2020, asking people to anonymously submit a real-life love story during the lockdown that has affected love and dating. It is still open for submissions. One story is about a girl in London who met a man before the lockdown and had an affair. He got stuck in France during quarantine. Over three months of separation they bonded online.

Back in London, he moved in with her for five days after which he vanished. “But you just gotta trust that the universe is working it out for you. It obviously wasn’t meant to be.” In a survey last year on Indian millennials in love, 30 percent of both sexes said that they were still driven by the idea of true love. Fifty-six percent of Americans believe in love at first sight (LAFS), and one out of three claims to have experienced LAFS. Researchers call it a “positive illusion” or a biased memory that couples create to better their relationship.

Hence, some people may think that they knew all along, from the very first moment they met that they were going to be together. In the opposite case, they tend to dismiss the LAFS factor. Some couples project their current feelings back to the first moment they met to convince themselves that it was LAFS. Physical attraction and LAFS are connected when meeting someone new. Studies show that it is physical attraction at the first meeting that decides the outcome of speed-dating sessions. The “Halo Effect” that glorifies and enhances the traits of the object of desire could inspire the LAFS illusion.

Florian Zsok at the University of Zurich and Matthias Haucke at the University of Groningen, the Netherlands, are the authors of ‘What kind of love is love at first sight?’ Data showed that LAFS was inspired by physical attraction. A single unit of increase in attractiveness increased the chances of LAFS nine times—the majority being men… “The perceiver might ‘convince’ the LAFS target of their mutual LAFS across the trajectory of relationship development. This might be enhanced by the cognitive biases of couples in love.” The authors also noted that couples that experience LAFS by mutually construing the memory have more passionate relationships.

CONFLICTING URGES

1 Experience constant sexual urges
2 Your autoeroticism is through the roof because of pandemic boredom. Then you get bored 
of it.
3 Sex isn’t as enjoyable as before and you don’t feel sexy anymore
4 You are having an abundant sex life. Young people feel that this is the time to make the most out of being together since the pandemic will not last forever. 
5 You’re becoming sexually dysfunctional. Grief and anxiety are the culprits.
6 You crave touch more than sex. People feel it is more reassuring since a cuddle lasts.
7 Single people living alone are watching porn and consuming erotic literature
8 The joy of flirting is missing. It makes you feel desired.
9 Your emotional intensity has increased due to dramatic atmosphere and techno-flirting becomes a substitute to actual sex. Sex haZ s become more emotional.
10 You experience different motions daily. Your mood never stays constant. Therapist advice: take it one day at a time.

Relationships have changed drastically during enforced seclusion and togetherness since the pandemic struck.  As India awaits the Third Wave, the lessons of the recent past could lay the groundwork for a new, caring world.



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