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When the outside world shuts down, what does it take to open your heart?
By Astrid Radermacher
So often we think of the beginnings of relationships – how people meet and get together. What happens after Snow White and Prince Charming ride off into the sunset…and slap bang into a global pandemic?
My partner and I had been together for a year and a half when we entered our first lockdown.
Before that, I had been in my own self-imposed PhD thesis lockdown, so my cabin fever was already in full swing by the time the outside world was forbidden.
When lockdown started, I was trying to change careers. I was also recovering from my PhD, which had been a long, arduous journey, clawing up the side of what felt by the end like an incredibly irrelevant mountain. My mental health was a steaming pile of garbage.
I was going through an identity crisis – who was I without the research career I had mapped out for myself? Would I still be interesting at parties if I just had a ‘normal’ job?
I was burnt out, but capitalism stops for no woman. I had to keep going.
While all this was going on, COVID-19 happened. My partner and I found ourselves working from home, in a loft without any doors, other than the bathroom door. The real challenges in our relationship began.
I had no capacity for anything other than brief discussions. Anything remotely deep in nature would send me on relentless thought spirals. Tangents about how meaningless everything is, how much easier it would be if Sim and I split up and I was alone.
It went to really dark places. Sim became anxious around the same time. I think most of her emotional reserve had been depleted in supporting the birth of my thesis. We entered lockdown scraping the bottom of the barrel.
I must have repressed the memory of that time. Months and months are a blur to me. Or the days were so similar that it is difficult to remember what happened.
We bickered and had big emotions we couldn’t begin to deal with. When it got really tough, my old coping mechanisms reared their ugly heads.
Way too much screen time, binge eating, and toxic independence (the irrational belief that I can’t do relationships) became my status quo. I started to numb out towards my partner.
When the world began opening up again, we realised we both needed to develop deeper and more meaningful coping mechanisms.
I started career and life coaching with a friend. Lara is an excellent asker of questions – the kinds of questions that help you drill down to the real reasons behind inclinations, decisions. and actions.
Our first session ended with her encouraging me to figure out what fills my emotional reserves. We spent some time over the following sessions asking the right questions about my working life, reframing and helping me adapt to this new non-academic world.
I started to feel more comfortable with the stresses all around me. I developed tools to cope with what was happening. I went on antidepressants. Things got better.
My partner started her own therapy journey. We learnt a number of important lessons that we started applying to our relationship:
Our needs are valid and important to communicate.
Changing the way we communicate to suit the needs and communication style of the receiver really, really helps.
We need healthy ways to deal with our stress.
We need to be proactive about connecting. Everything feels more manageable when we have made time for one another.
Sim was so patient with me. I tried my best to return this patience. There have been meltdowns, triggering tears and exasperation.
Slowly the numbing and petulance faded and was replaced by tentative, comfortable connectedness. We slowly wiggled towards one another.
It’s wild to realise that half of our love story has happened in the context of extreme pressure and proximity. Patience in the extreme has been our saving grace.
We don’t expect too much of each other, or ourselves. We check in before we bring up difficult topics. We ask nicely when we want something from the other.
When a big feeling comes up, we ask “is this a good time for solutions, or do you just want me to listen?”. Sometimes we just hold each other tightly and cry.
It’s been incredible to do this emotional processing together. But it’s taught us to suck the marrow out of the bones of life. The joys feel really joyous.
Vaccination opened up for our age group. I was overjoyed. I could not stop smiling, dancing, and rejoicing. When I got my jab, I had to restrain myself, lest I burst into song and kiss the nurse.
This last year and a half has taught me to be patient. I’ve learnt to be patient with others, but most importantly with myself.
I have learnt to love myself, and hold space for myself. I’ve learnt that my big emotions are not unmanageable. They’re just big.
I’m blessed to have someone by my side to hold them with me and help me untangle them. And I get to help her hold and untangle her big emotions. We’re a team.
Our story is not flashy or dramatic. But when you dig deep and hold space for yourself, you can learn to experience being held by another. I honestly don’t know what is more romantic than that.
- This article first appeared on the Change Exchange, an online platform by BrightRock, provider of the first-ever life insurance that changes as your life changes. The opinions expressed in this piece are the writer’s own and don’t necessarily reflect the views of BrightRock.
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