The pandemic has affected every corner of the world, and every corner of our lives. Within the sphere of mental health, we’ve got our relationships — our dating and romantic and sex lives, our friendships, our family relationships, our relationships with ourselves… you get the picture. And nearly all of it has been strained, tested, called into question, and has forced its way into an evaluation in the past year.
And since it’s the month in which lots of people think about romantic relationships and dating, we called on one of our favorite experts in the space — licensed therapist Rachel Wright, LMFT, sex educator, mental health advocate, relationship expert, and host of the Bachelor/Bachelorette podcast, The Wright Reasons.
For starters, listen to our recent two-part podcast interview with Rachel — she goes over a lot of “pandemic dating 101” (including how to date in COVID times, how to navigate relationships and mental health, and how to talk about STIs). We caught up with Rachel again to talk about relationships even more — because TBH, we need as much help as we can get these days.
Ahead — the times we’re dealing with, what we’ve learned, how we’re growing, and how to keep on keepin on (with — of course — a little update on surviving and/or celebrating V-day).
This Past Year Has Been HARD on Our Relationships
So many of us have had some kind of relationship issue in the past 12 months — whether that’s within our relationships, an absence of relationships, or otherwise. Here’s who Rachel says has been most affected by the pandemic:
- Single peeps: this group has been forced to stop dating, blocked from meeting new people, and in general, life ‘timelines’ were thrown off significantly, she says. This block from romantic activity and intimacy has been a significant stressor that has disrupted the mental health of millions of people.
- Partnered and cohabitating peeps: for some, weddings were put off (big stressor) and couples who have lived together for months or years were suddenly COMPLETELY stuck together inside, for a good amount of time — spending more marathon time together than ever before. “This type of pressure cooker is a recipe for conflict,” she says. “The conflict can help bring you closer or drive a wedge between you — it’s just what you do with it.” Regardless of outcome, this group has certainly been put to the test.
- Partnered PLUS kiddos: having kids during the COVID-19 pandemic has been one of the more challenging scenarios, Rachel says. “School? No School? Home school? They’re just THERE ALL THE TIME? And can’t see their friends? Oy.”
Even if you’re not on this particular list, we’re still feeling the effects of COVID on our relationships and mental health. Strong suggestion: find a therapist you trust to get some extra support.
We’ve Changed in the Process
There are some things that have changed, and things that have been called into question. Chiefly, Rachel says within relationships, one of the biggest challenges and questions is: “Can we stand to be together this long?”
Other questions to ask yourself when it comes to relationships and cohabitation:
- How do you set boundaries for alone time when you can’t leave? How can you create “alone time” even when you share a living space?
- Do I like what I do for work? How is your relationship with work, your employer, your coworkers?
- Do I like my friends? Do you miss them, do you feel called to talk to them and connect to them? When the distraction of activities, outings, travel, partying etc has all fallen away — do you like these people?
These are all things to dig into a little more this month (and, you know, always?) and figure out. This may help you do a relationship refresh, or set the tone for a new chapter of your relationships. A new era has begun!
But It Hasn’t Been ALL Bad … Some Silver Linings:
Some of the good things to come out of this madness: figuring out our priorities, and breaking down stigmas with important health talks.
For starters, we have a MUCH easier time with the “STI Talk” now — “We’re all getting used to this kind of conversation — which is a really important one — about who we’ve been around, what exposure we’ve had, and what safety measure we have put in place,” she says. “The COVID talk is the STI Talk. So, hopefully this means we can feel more comfortable having that conversation with a new sexual partner.”
Think about the last time you talked to someone about 1. Who you’ve been around and exposed to 2. If you’ve been wearing a mask 3. If you’ve been tested lately, and what that experience was like, and 4. If you’ve been sick, or have had any symptoms. That entire list could be applied to both COVID-19 and STIs! Hopefully, this has lessened the stress around the STI talk for many people, since this conversation is more and more commonplace.
She also brought up the idea of prioritization — “We’ve figured [or are figuring] out who is important to us,” she says. “It’s been a really interesting experience to be forced to stay put, not travel, and only talk to who we choose to connect with over Zoom or phone.” As such, “It has taken a lot of intention to maintain some relationships and it is interesting to notice which ones we’re not feeling called to connect or interact with. We each get to decide what this means for ourselves, but it’s a really great experience to sit and reflect, even if it was forced.
How to Improve Your Relationship With YOURSELF
This is the foundation for all the relationships in your life — romantic or otherwise. At the end of the day, this is fundamentally the most important! And, it ensures we can be the best version of us when we’re in other relationships. “In order to relate to others, we have to relate to ourselves first; otherwise, we have nothing to connect with,” explains Rachel. “We are best in relationships when we’re whole ourselves, so it’s important that we understand ourselves and spend time with ourselves to build a relationship with ourselves!”
How do we do that? Loaded question (and the answer is… it involves some therapy).This is a long, nuanced process that requires a good amount of work — but that load of work can be broken into simpler steps. Here are two of her favorite ways to get rolling on upping your relationship game with me myself and I:
- Make a joy list. What makes you light up inside with glee? Start thinking about places, people, things — sights, sounds, scents, tastes, touches — experiences that you love, and put pen to paper. Write down every little thing that comes to mind. From the way the morning light hits your window at a certain time of day, to the scent of the ocean, to dogs and wine to Broadway shows and pho. Whatever it is, jot it all down; not only will the experience of writing it be a joyful one, but you’ll be creating the first pages to a sort of “user manual” while you get to know yourself better.
- Find self care practices that “fill your cups.” Rachel says to “Think of self care in four buckets: physical, emotional, cognitive, other (spiritual, religious, work, kink, whatever other bucket you want to fill!)” — and from there, create lists for each bucket. What “fills your cup” in each bucket? For physical self care, maybe it’s a workout or a massage. For emotional, it could be therapy, or binge watching old SNL episodes. For cognitive, maybe some CBD and meditation helps get your mind crystal clear. And the other category… well that’s up to you too. Learning what self care makes you feel best is another part of that whole “user manual” of sorts while you continue your self exploration.
Assessing Your Relationships With Other People
Rachel’s mantra: relationships are relationships are relationships. What does that mean? Essentially, it’s the opposite of a Myspace Top 8 and “relationship status” on Facebook (and yes, I’m dating myself with these references).
“We so often put our relationships in boxes and have unspoken contracts based on what society has told us that relationship means,” she explains. “For example, society has taught us that a romantic relationship at some point in life is more important, or prioritized over friendships, where at other times in life friendship is prioritized.” (If this feels familiar, that’s because it’s a nearly universal experience).
But that’s not necessarily good for us, posits Rachel. “This can be incredibly confusing at different points in life as we navigate life’s twists and turns. While yes, there is of course nuance in every relationship and every type of relationship, relationships are relationships are relationships are relationships are relationships. What would be different in our lives if when we met someone, we let what was naturally there surface rather than deciding what the context of the relationship is going to be before you meet?”
Valentine’s Day in a Pandemic — to V or not to V(-Day)?
OK, we can’t talk about relationships in February without talking about Valentine’s Day. Whether we like it or not, it’s a pretty significant cultural calendar moment. And in a year of isolation, this wintry romantic holiday may exacerbate feelings of loneliness (especially if you’re single). So her advice is to make the most of it — or ignore it completely!
“Valentine’s Day is what you want it to be,” she says. “If the holiday brings up feelings of loneliness for you, check-in with yourself on what helps you to feel connected and content [ie, that joy list from earlier!] and plan that for Valentine’s Day. Make yourself your Valentine this year.” We love this idea.
Let’s say you’re in a relationship, though — you can still celebrate if you want! The key is to not put unnecessary pressure on the day, especially since we’ve been stressed within an inch of our lives for the past year. “If you want it to be a day of chocolate, teddybears, and roses, tell your partner(s) that — and if you want it to not be acknowledged, tell them that too! Here’s the thing, you get to decide in your relationships, how you want to do things — including on Valentine’s Day,” Rachel says.
Embrace Love This Month
Like Rachel says — relationships are relationships, and in that vein, love is love. We have relationships with so many different types of people, with ourselves, with pets, with our jobs, etc. Thinking about all of this, let’s focus on love — the part of relationships that fills us up, gives us strength and hope and joy, and reminds us that things will always be okay. Take some time to set your intentions about love in each of your relationships, and figure out what allows you to love and be loved best. Self love, familial love, romantic love… whatever it is.
And on that note, we love you! Sending you so much love, happy energy, rose-quartz-heart-chakra-vibes, etc. Enjoy this month of ~love~ <3