Advice From the Trenches

Behind Closed Doors: Did COVID take their relationship off the rocks?

Dear C and Dr. B;

Before the pandemic, my boyfriend and I were about to call it quits. When COVID hit, we put our break-up on hold. During this time, because an easy exit wasn’t possible, we started finding other ways to solve the differences we’d been having. For instance, when either of us got super pissed, instead of storming off, making threats or going out drinking with our friends, we’d shut our respective doors (we’ve been in separate rooms) and cool off. Before, I’d probably go out drinking with my girls, and they’d take my side – “Yeah, you’re right, he’s an asshole, you could do better” – and by the time I got home, I was ready to leave him. 

The upshot is that my boyfriend and I have actually been able to work out problems instead of starting a cold war every time we disagree. It makes me wonder if maybe a lot of relationships would be worked out if people weren’t so quick to just look for something better … or were always hoping for the ideal, supportive partner with whom there were no problems. Talking with my girlfriends usually made me want to date other guys. Is my relationship better than I thought? Or have I  just lowered my expectations? 


Dr. B says: Yes and No. The trapped-in-a-room thing going on now is temporary, and being trapped is by no means a guarantee of working out. In the book No Exit by Sartre, a bunch of people are trapped together and through their dysfunctional relations they bring out the worst in each other, coining the phrase: “Hell is other people.” But sure, if two people commit to work things out no matter what, then it can work out. The question in your case is: What will happen when the pandemic is over and the doors are once again open? Will the same level of commitment persist?  

You are correct in that most American relationships are built on self-indulgent fantasy and there is no real commitment, just expectation. But according to studies I’ve read, there is no greater percentage of happiness even in countries with arranged marriages. In that case, there might also be more expectation than real commitment from both parties. So, again – if two people commit to working things out, and have a sense of duty, respect and tolerance, along with good communication skills, it can work out. If two people are expecting romance, mind reading and sacrifice, and also have poor communication skills, it won’t work out. 

C says: I look at this a different way. If your pre-pandemic coping method for friction was to stomp off and get hammered, that alone could kill the best of relationships. Drunk advice from besties is usually just a bitchfest inspired by their own last lousy relationship. Skipping that whole scenario probably improved things right there. To be honest? I don’t think you really had a relationship at all before – it was more like two kids playing a game and each taking their ball and going off to sulk whenever they didn’t get their own way.

It seems as if you are both acting like reasonable adults for the first time. If so, this is a whole new ball game. If you guys are capable of being trapped together and bringing out the best in each other instead of the worst, that’s  great. Hell may be other people, but it’s not you two. If you can cooperate and solve problems together, you most certainly have a chance at a relationship. Just keep in mind that there are all sorts of relationships. If a romantic relationship isn’t in the cards, you’ve at least got a really good friend.

Go ahead, give it a shot. Just keep the adult behavior thing going. You have not lowered your expectations – from the way it sounds, you’ve actually upgraded them.

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