Post III: 2020, a pandemic romance–the view from a small island

By March of 2020, articles about isolation and the effects of quarantine on relationship proliferate the internet.  Some sexual, others platonic. Isolation serves notice to us all that life is different and a new normal could be expected.

In my business-coaching practice, clients begin to share comments usually reserved for a therapist’s chair. Long-term partners, new partners, unexpected partners—most were described with hurried ambiance about them. ‘I need to make a decision now’ was the most common moan tossed into a session usually reserved for dealing with a troublesome boss. Now personal relationships are frequently the complaint in our virtual sessions.

Client after client, the common factor is confusion about a deadly virus and its impact on decision making on work—working from home is not the panacea once thought. Bored children—the role of teacher now intrudes and certainly love life is changed.  Age is not an issue—those coming to me span decades. Victoria, a savvy woman, her long graying hair spilling over her bowed head, is particularly upset. This romance started when she made ‘a move on the tall balding man, Sam, so she tells me. “The quarantine had not yet begun. I knew him from years back; he was a family friend, so I thought, Why not? Single, no attachments and nice shoulders. So, I made my move,” she looks up into the camera coyly.

This is a text-messaging relationship and turbo driven: faster and faster. Move in together; travel together; decide. Misunderstandings, arguments – most unclear but driven to decide. Do I leave; do I stay?  But in the revealing—as text messaging often does—I could see the collapsing of more than a relationship in the texts that Victoria shared. The collapsing of Sam’s thought, its cohesiveness crushed by the stress of isolation or fear of the unknown. Or is this some symptoms of Borderline Disorder? And Victoria? Is the joy of sex driving her to stay when she can plainly see they are a mismatch?

In our Zoom session today, my client begins talking about how she ended the relationship:

Victoria

Good Morning, Sam – it is 3am and I hope this email won’t be too convoluted. We have texted much in the last 24 hours and as I indicated, I am much more at home on my computer keyboard – I type faster!

Let’s start with your offer a couple of days ago that we could be friends or friends with benefits. Actually, I cannot do either. Our liaison has taught that for me intimacy is accompanied with love and love I certainly do feel for you.

However, after the past week of intense arguing and upset, your way of ‘doing battle’ is harmful to me. Settling disagreements positively is unlikely to happen if the mode of settling is by screaming and shouting. Well, perhaps for the loudest shouter it may end okay. If ‘winning’ is the goal, then your shouting and screaming may work, but in a relationship ‘winning’ should not be the goal.

As you pointed out, your adult children can shout to the end of a concert hall without a microphone. This leads me to think that you find this mode—shouting and screaming—your way to settle disagreements. You certainly demonstrated it well over the past week. It just does not work for me and I think it is unhealthy for you as well. After a week of this intense disagreeing, I found myself emotionally beaten down as though I had been physically abused by you. I felt depressed and yet still loving you. This is the power of words and how they are delivered in a relationship.

(hours earlier)

Sam

Who abused who in their actions shallow woman.

I gave you a chance to love me and be good to me and you don’t know how to be nice and good to me at least. You are the one blaming me for your actions. Look at the beginning of conversation. There was only one being nice, giving you a chance to be nice, but it seems it is beyond your abilities.

Go look at all the conversations this week. And there was only one of us who ever tried to make things better. When you turned on me, yes I gave back what you gave me. You have no idea what love means it seems. Here you are doing it again and you are to blind to see. Can’t understand worse and worse behavior. You are a narcissist beyond anything I’ve ever experienced. I only know of one worse and you know who that is. Me and then there is me and then there is me. Trump is destroying himself with it, and so are you.

So glad this is over before you hurt me further.

I will always love you a little.

Not blaming yourself for this week is a damn lie. You have been mean and unreasonable and inconsiderate. Look up my name with Google there is no history of violence of arrest. That I am dangerous is a damn lie too.

Just leave me alone then crazy woman. You have done nothing for me except try to dominate me. You are shallow I guess. Smart but shallow. I know what I have done caring about you, and doing for you. You are the mean one. Thanks for nothing at all. 

The relationship between Sam and Victoria began in February before the lockdown of this little island. He is younger than she; she is an academic, he, a talented artist but lacking good financial sense. He is frequently without means. He has been friends with others in her family for several years. What began as a sexual relationship initiated by her had by April blossomed and by June wilted. She tried multiple times to break off the relationship—fear of isolation held both in its grip.

eHarmony counselor Rachael Lloyd said of recent research: “Make no mistake, we are living in historic times, with a pandemic and the resulting lockdown having a profound impact on the way we live and love. Relationships have been seriously tested, as have many friendships.”

Sam provided a haven of erotic sexual activity—hormone driven, they were free of raising children, she of academic studies and he, the stress of work. Rarely tired, they easily slipped into a pattern of exploration and sharing. His sexual prowess seemed all important and if she was less interested on any given night, he was thrown off balance. Disappointment followed by sarcasm, followed by anger.  She wrote this off to differences between them. His three marriages and multiple live-in relationships were a warning for her, but in a pandemic era, one is so eager for a touch, the future is a distant worry.

“If others had not interfered,“ his constant meme described his relationships. Infuriating Sam, each former wife had family and friends that she turned to for help or advice. All relationships, it seemed were troublesome for him and he talked about them with frequency. Victoria’s most meaningful relationship lasted 15 years, harmonious but without passion or love. Passion was primary for Sam, but there were rules. Often, she did not understand the rules or the cause of his anger. She was always at fault—blamed for all missteps. Apologies are expected, particularly about lockdown and safety.

Sam

You caused the problem for multiple days for no reasons. You told me you were seeing your friends only on their porch—you said nothing about eating together. Your love is a lie or you don’t know what it is. You put me at risk and I won’t tolerate it. I will be happy to look elsewhere to date since you have continued to be a selfish ass all week. Your doing, not mine. You are really a dumb smart person.

Relationship therapist, Peter Saddington, comments: “Disagreements about lockdown rules are common across the board no matter how long a couple has been together.”

COVID isolation is difficult with long term committed relationships—one that starts as strictly sexual quickly hits the wall. They were like the ‘odd couple,’ frequently breaking up, yet the companionship, not to mention the sexual attraction kept them together. Disagreements about quarantine, disagreements about her house and disagreements that were unclear—the source often unspoken as Sam did not like to rehash ‘old’ arguments. When asked about his shouting episodes, his response was often:

You don’t really want me to go back into that terrible week we had and detail it out to you? I would rather have my teeth pulled.

In early June, something between them fell apart. The texting and phone calls were more bitter.

Sam

You are a little crazy

Victoria

Yes, but didn’t you know that from our very first encounter?

Sam

I always ignore the signs because I want to always think the best of people I care about.

Are you sure it is not just a lust letter?  Love is different.

Victoria

I’m working – go quiet

Sam

Always something more important than me.. …

The difference in what I said about the other three Aries that love me before you is all I would have to do is crack the door and they would come back. Once you have time to realize what you are throwing away, you might be in same boat. The reason I said friends with benefits is it would be the only way the things you do wouldn’t crush me. I would know you didn’t have control over my life forever which would allow me not to be hurt, therefore no need to be upset. These are very simple concepts. Just like better treatment gets better treatment back and worse treatment gets worse treatment. Very simple and easy to understand.

(15 minutes later)

Sam

I know when someone is harsh with me and I can be harsh back. Which I am sorry for, but it goes hand in hand with what I have explained to you many times about worse and worse behavior. It leads down a dead-end road. While better and better leads down the road to happiness.

Shut off from most of the world, the two have primarily one another—for better or worse. With only each other and on an island, peculiarities surface: family of origin, only child syndrome, spoiled-child traits, first-child birthrights. Island acculturation. Personality preferences: leading from the mind or leading from the heart. Yet Sam’s response is always anger with often extreme and loud shouting. Victoria is calm and soft spoken but with a sharp tongue—a reaction that can often accelerate his impatience. Then projections step in. Personality foibles, personality abnormalities. It is hard to know what normal or abnormal behavior is in a pandemic. All are at play in our daily lives normally, but in a life void of interactions—a smile, a handshake or a pat on the shoulder from others—touch now falls on the responsibility of the one in your bed.

Victoria

One night, as we sat on the sofa, he lowered his voice and spoke in this strange whisper: “Every woman I have ever been with wants me back. All they need is a crack in the door and they think they are in. They keep loving me, long after they are gone. What do you think that means?”  The whisper sounded like another person, not the Sam I knew.

Sam – after an ongoing argument

You are so mean; you did nothing last week but abuse me. Any anger you got you earned and then to do it again today. I hate you, hate you. Sorry you are so cold. You are dual personalities when it comes to me. One, the first one who wanted sex and then the last one who didn’t give one damn about me. Then there was the one in between that I felt actually loved me.

Frequently, with personality disorders, projection plays strongly into relationships. Has Sam confused his internal voices—and are the two personalities a projection onto Victoria? Everything he says he really believes about himself. He is still in the anger stage but will shortly move to charm Victoria and charm his way back in? Trapped in confusion and chaos because she is not compliant, will he move away looking for the next conquest who will love him unconditionally?

Victoria

            Sam,

You must not text me anymore. I am feeling the pain of your being angry at me and that you are even able to consider another relationship. I could not even touch another man in an intimate way such as holding hands. I’ve told you repeatedly that I don’t feel jealousy, but I do feel pain when I realize that you could touch someone else. You have told me repeatedly that you don’t intend to be alone or lonely—hence the socializing virtually.

Breaking off with you came because you cannot control your anger and your shouting. I cannot deal with that. It is unhealthy for me. If you interpret that as trying to control you, so be it.

Knowing that you are out there looking for Miss Perfect is too painful for me. Best we stop now as you suggested last week. I promise no more calls for intimacy—no matter what you call it. It is more than sex for me.

During the two-week breakup, Sam goes on a ‘meet and greet’ with a woman from a dating site. They hold hands. Knowing Sam as she does, Victoria thinks kissing was involved—French kissing, his favorite. Cautious, Victoria requests he test for COVID before they meet again. The test is arranged in eight days. Anger is Sam’s response.

SAM

I didn’t say I kissed anyone plus I was not with you. You knew you were coming back to me. Much worse. Not going to argue, that is why we are not together now because you always want to argue. You wasted so much good time with your not just enjoying the moment, but instead messing the moment up. Being disagreeable where you are right or wrong. I was trusting you because we were together. We were not together and at every point I have been more careful than you. I was not breaking your trust, nor did I make bad decisions.

A few hours later an errant text arrives on her phone: ‘I’m headed off to class. If you wish to come this weekend you are welcome. If not, I understand’.

Victoria blocks Sam on her mobile. Enough.

Perhaps Sam’s anger is a byproduct of our time: fear of COVID 19, anxiety driven by economic woes and a loss of social connections. Aging and loving a complicated woman may be more than his fragile temperament can manage. He is left in a constant state of anger always blaming Victoria for real and imagined issues.

Perhaps Victoria’s need for relationship, for touch overrides her thinking. She overlooks all the signs Sam laid along the roadside. Separation from her far-flung family, an aging body distresses her and in a time when illness and death surrounds her island she clings to Sam for far too long.

Loving in the new turbo-driven normal does not survive.   

Next week: Through the lens of unconscious bias two deadly viruses: where racism and COVID 19 intersect

                                                                                                                                                            

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