Relationships

How to Nurture Intimacy During Social Distancing

| 04/03/2020

Illustration by Emma Olswing

Thanks to the rapid spread of COVID-19, “social distancing” has entered our vocabulary and, for many of us, become a way of life. This absolutely impacts our relationships. How do we adjust now that this is the new normal? And what can we all learn from long-distance relationships?

I’ve offered remote therapy services for years now. Frankly, in this modern era, it seems silly to me when a health provider doesn’t offer this in some capacity. These days, more of us are moving towards a more remote lifestyle by necessity. As a therapist who has worked with clients virtually, I bring you some of the most helpful suggestions I’ve come across in supporting clients who may be physically distant from their loved ones.

Make Time to Be Present…Truly Present

Whether or not the distance is due to necessary social distancing, one of the most helpful things couples (or loved ones) can do to maintain connection is to simply schedule time to chat regularly. It sounds very simple, but it’s often easier said than done. Being able to be truly present often starts with synchronizing schedules.  As you can imagine, this is even more difficult when the person you care about is in a different time zone, in another part of the world.

And it’s not just about schedules—it’s about making sure that you’re present during your text exchanges, phone chats, or video calls. Have you ever been on a casual call with someone when they’re in the supermarket or handling some other task? If so, then you know how intense any little disruption can be. Now imagine that you’re forced to make any contact via electronic means. It gets frustrating very quickly when you feel like the other person isn’t being present and attentive to the conversation at hand. And when you’re trying to maintain connection and intimacy during social distancing, that presence is all you have. 

This means that not only will you have to find time when you’re both available, but also time that won’t be encroached on by other duties or responsibilities. Prioritizing that time together can make for very connected and intimate exchanges.

Use Technology Wisely

Everyone has their own perceptions and comfort with the use of technology. You might know someone who prefers Instagram over Twitter, or someone who uses TikTok above all else. Communicating your preferred way of connecting to your significant other will help you avoid misunderstandings.

Play to your strengths rather than trying to force one “right” way of communicating.

That also means being self-aware. If you’re notoriously bad at texting—you don’t tend to communicate in full sentences or thoughts, for instance—then it’s likely to be very frustrating for your partner. Similarly, if sitting at your computer to video chat makes it hard to ignore all your incoming desktop notifications, then consider how you might manage that so you can make the most of your exchanges. 

As a therapist who meets with some clients remotely, I can attest to how much personal preference affects the quality of communication. I’ve had clients who struggle with talking on the phone, as it feels too different from a face-to-face conversation; those clients often prefer video. Other clients struggle with staying put in one place for an entire session and may need to move or walk around to actually focus; therefore, phone calls work better for them. Being able to communicate effectively is about knowing your strengths and playing to them rather than trying to force one “right” way of communicating.

Certain times or situations might call for different ways of communicating, aside from personal preferences. The important thing is to be patient with yourself and your partner, and be flexible enough to try out different things. Being forced apart due to circumstances is notoriously difficult to deal with and is likely to negatively impact your mental health. Try your best to be aware of how you’re responding and what tech seems the most accessible and productive at any given time.

Know that Research Is on Your Side

When most of us are faced with the possibility of physically distancing ourselves from a loved one, our natural tendency is to assume the relationship will suffer. What if that weren’t the case? There is one study that suggests that couples in long-distance relationships report greater relationship satisfaction than the average couple in close physical proximity. 

Here’s one reason why: Those in long distance relationships tend to think more methodically and intentionally about the contact with their partner. They often think ahead and make the most of their communication time. They also might be more present during conversations, because they recognize the limited amount of time they have together.

A sudden separation can magnify any existing problems, no matter how big or small.

Unfortunately, that means that many people take each other for granted the more time they spend together. Of course it’s natural to become habituated to a certain way of communicating; however, the way to ensure that your relationship is sustainable and healthy is to keep up high behavioral investment. That is, be intentional about how you communicate: Opt for in-depth sharing and practice active listening. If you do all these things regularly, the odds are your relationship will bring you satisfaction, rather than cause you stress, during this difficult time.

Don’t Let Problems Fester

Not allowing problems to linger for too long is sage relationship advice no matter the physical distance between you, but it’s paramount when you’re not able to see the person face-to-face as much as you normally would.

Many of us struggle with fear and anxiety in relationships that are rooted in past attachments, some of which haven’t been secure. We fear that we’re not good enough and sometimes believe that our partners will leave us for someone else, and distance can amplify that fear. For many, physical closeness helps soothe those nasty ideas that run rampant in our minds when we’re left to our own devices.

That also means that a sudden separation can magnify any existing problems, no matter how big or small. When this happens, it’s important to strike a balance between addressing concerns head on and learning how to self-soothe and seek out outlets for those anxieties that don’t include your partner. You definitely want to avoid centering all your conversations around anxiety and fear rather than sharing and building intimacy.

Relationships are rarely easy, regardless of the distance between you. Try your best to be honest with yourself and your significant other so that you two can negotiate how to build up trust and goodwill in the relationship, until you can be reunited again.

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