That C-19 has changed the way we relate is an understatement. As one couple is grappling with the stress of closed borders, not knowing when they will see each other again, the other is threatening to burst at the seams from being around each other all the time!
The unattached haven’t been spared either; take social distancing, add a dash of being single and voila…the mind concocts an endless desert of alone nothingness. Nobody has been spared the emotional turmoil.
“I just want to go for a daily long walk by myself; not with the kids, not even with the dogs!” declares Liz, a 40-year-old PR Director. She, her husband and two sons have been working and studying from home for the last two months. “It is not that I don’t love them. I am not angry at them or anything. I just want an hour to myself; time when I don’t have to anticipate anyone else’s needs but mine.”
In Liz’s case, conventional ‘romantic’ wisdom would point towards some idyllic family walk, “But instead, what I really need is for everyone to take a literal breather from each other without thinking it as a personal slight.” Even on the normal days, romantic relationships required a healthy dose of emotional intelligence; now we need more of it as we live in extreme times, co-existing in confined spaces and surviving in isolation.
“I think people’s emotions are flared, even if they don’t know it. And we just need to cut each other some slack and be gentle with each other. That’s how I define emotional maturity, recognising which battles I need to fight and which one I need to say, you know what, it’s not about me,” a financial advisor friend in Nairobi who is currently ‘stuck’ at her mother’s house in Embu, says.
Joan and her boyfriend met last year, at an international conference in Diani. He then went home to America for the Christmas holiday and had to extend his stay because his father was sick. Joan says; “I was supposed to go visit him when I went on leave in May. But now…” Joan shrugs. “do you realise that I don’t know whether I will ever see him again? Like, literally, no one knows about tomorrow!”
Joan says they are both ‘taking it a day at a time’, “For now we don’t want to make any decisions because neither of us is thinking straight. I literally can’t see beyond the fear of not ever seeing him again. So my logical brain is telling me to just wait and see.”
Sat story body text: Once upon a time, Joan could smooth over these rocky feelings with an alternate social life, “but now I am just here.” she laughs, “I know we love each other. But surviving this is going to take a lot more than ‘love’.” She admits that she has thought of a time on the future where she may have to be mature enough to say, “You know what, we have been apart long enough. No one did anything wrong, but this isn’t a relationship anymore.”
When people fall in love, it is often declared that they ‘complete each other’. This, to an extent, is true, but not complete. “At birth, an infant cannot yet determine where she ends and the universe around her begins – her and the world are one,” writes Psychiatrist Scott Peck in his classic best seller, The Road less Travelled, “But further on in the first year of life, she begins to develop a sense of ‘me’, my hand, my physical limits. In other words, she develops an identity – a separation of who she is and who she is not. These are called ego boundaries. However most of us yearn to escape the walls of individual identities. We yearn to be more unified with the world outside ourselves. The experience of falling in love allows this escape. Falling in love is a sudden collapse of an individual ego boundaries. It allows our identity to merge with that of another person.”
At last! (cue in all romantic songs since forever!) My love has come along! My lonely days are over! And life is like a song! Oh yeah! “It has the echoes from the time we were merged with our mothers in infancy,” Peck continues, “We experience a sense of omnipotence which we had to give up in our journey out of childhood.” But just like reality hit us when we were two and realised that the world didn’t revolve around us, here too, in the adult version of separation, reality does eventually check in. Sooner or later, as life and bills and careers and children and pandemics unfold, we realise we are individuals with different sensibilities. Gradually or suddenly, Peck explains, real life forces ego boundaries to snap back into place. It is at this point that couples are known to state that the ‘romance has died’ or that they have ‘fallen out of love’.
The beginning of mature love
The insinuation here is that what most of us have grown up defining as romance is not ‘love’ but a temporary dissolving of individuality, “It is dependency,” Peck writes, “Dependency may appear to be love because it is a force that causes people to fiercely attach themselves to one another. But sooner or later, we must tell couples that they are too much married, too closely coupled. That they need to establish some psychological distance from each other. That a healthy relationship can only exist between two independent people.”
“Here is the bottom line,” Says Caroline Mwakio, a clinical psychologist currently working at MSF Kenya, “We tend to think that the difference between good and bad lies in the quality of the events. But to a surprising extent, the difference actually lies in the way each of us is able to interpret events. There are freshly diagnosed patients who know how to not add shame, persecution, self-hatred and panic to their already difficult situations. I am sure you know people who know how to incorporate a soothing commentary to a battlefield – that one person you call when in a crisis because they greet catastrophe without catastrophising – that is Emotional maturity.”
Romance, Mwakio explains, is good only to the extent that it makes us feel good. But as Scott Peck retaliates, real love is not necessarily a ‘feeling’; it is when we ‘act lovingly despite the fact that we don’t feel loving/good’. “You want to be able to handle yourself and others with gentleness and empathy,” Mwakio concludes, “In a time of crisis, this triumphs romance.”