For Couples, Being Stuck Inside Together Isn’t The Same As Being Intimate

Photographed by Karen Sofia Colon.
If you’re quarantining with your partner, chances are “more intimacy” is not something you think you need. After all, you guys are together, like, all the time. Sure, maybe you escape to different rooms during the day. But still — you breathe a sigh of relief when your counterpart leaves for a 15-minute CVS run.
As it turns out, the disintegration of our normal boundaries can actually erode emotional intimacy.
Renown relationship therapist Esther Perel writes about this idea in her book, Mating In Captivity. “Our need for togetherness exists alongside our need for separateness,” she asserts. “Too much merging eradicates the separateness of two distinct individuals. Then there is nothing more to transcend, no bridge to walk on, no one to visit on the other side, no other internal world to enter. When people become fused — when two become one — connection can no longer happen. There is no one to connect with.”
Advertisement
In other words, when you've been within 600 feet of your partner all day, when you can remember what they had for lunch yesterday as well as you can remember your own meal, when you can tell simply from the way they breathe that they've switched from “work mode” to “home mode,” that can feel a lot like intimacy. But that very closeness can completely squash your ability or desire to feel emotionally bonded to them. It would be like wanting to get closer to your right hand. No, thanks; I’m good.
Of course, if you’re quarantining without your partner, you’re facing a whole different type of barrier. Sure, couples have been making long-distance work since before FaceTime was a thing. But the era we’re living in puts them under additional pressure. “The world has changed, and we are going through extraordinarily stressful times,” notes Rachel Sussman, a licensed marriage and family therapist in New York City. “During such times couples do need to lean on each other. This is harder to do if you are long distance. Those couples may feel alienated from each other and as a result, they may feel isolated.”
All this is to say, all couples could benefit from a little bit of emotional intimacy building right now. We've got five strategies to help you do that.
Go back to basics. In other words, schedule a date night. Sound cheesy? It may be. But that doesn’t mean it’s ineffective. The benefits of setting up some “special” couple time is somewhat self-explanatory for long-distance couples: You need an opportunity to bond. For quarantined-together couples, though, date nights can actually help restore some of the boundaries that may be getting blurred. Dressing up for each other, asking each other questions, and participating in an activity together — even if that’s just eating dinner and choosing something to watch on Netflix — has a way of reminding you that the person across from you is a whole, separate individual..
Advertisement
Try something totally new. Okay, so you’re adapting your usual dinner-and-a-movie thing to work in quarantine. But there’s something to be said for taking a total left turn. Novelty is like Viagra for a relationship. The easiest way to keep it fresh in quarantine is by signing up for virtual activities, which you can do “together” whether you’re in the same room or across the country. “Some folks are taking MasterClasses or cooking classes together,” Sussman says. She’s also a big fan of couples signing up for workout challenges together (such as Yoga With Adriene’s 30 Day Challenge, which everyone I know is addicted to right now). The endorphins are good for your moods — and maybe your sex life, too.
Study up. The latest innovation in the relationship self-help space is Rise, a program designed to help couples develop “relational intelligence.” I think of it as a halfway point between “actual date” and “couples counseling.” Once a week, Rise emails you a guided conversation to have with your partner, with questions like “What have you felt optimistic and excited about lately?” and “Is there anything in your relationship you've been getting defensive about or avoiding?” The topics are designed to uncover and resolve any sources of tension and to help you deepen your bond — and right now, they’re offering a free six-week course that specifically targets coronavirus-related issues. It works IRL or over FaceTime, and the guides are natural enough that you won’t feel like you’re bringing a script to a date (which would be weird).
Advertisement
Think about your greatest hits. “Reminiscing is a positive tool that can keep intimacy at high levels,” says Channa Bromley, the lead coach at relationship coaching website Relationship Hero. Some ideas: During a more romantic moment, bring up some of your favorite sexy memories. Replicate your first date or the first vacation you took together by wearing a similar outfit or eating a similar meal (if you’re apart, have an order-in meal sent to your partner to be shared on a virtual dinner date). Cue up a Spotify playlist of songs that are meaningful to you.
Enlist the pros. It’s a great time to dip your toes into the world of couples counseling for the first time, or to recommit to the practice again. Plenty of therapists are offering virtual sessions, so it’s more convenient than ever before. Plus, right now is a good time to experiment so you can find a format that works for you and your partner. Relationship Hero, the service Bromley coaches for, offers group therapy sessions in addition to one-on-one relationship counseling. Many other practices are translating in-person therapy sessions to work virtually, courtesy of video conferencing platforms like Zoom. 
Presented by HBO Love Life

More from Wellness

R29 Original Series