Coronavirus

Therapists on Surviving Loneliness and Relationship Struggles

The shelter-in-place order takes a toll on people’s social lives

Therapists say getting through social distancing will require getting creative—whether that means spicing up your relationship or connecting with others.

The COVID-19 pandemic has hit our daily lives hard in so many ways, but not all of them are as obvious as gloves and masks. The virus and recent health orders have also placed a significant strain on personal relationships and social lives. As a result, many are seeking the advice of therapists to find their way through. 

“I’ve had about five new clients in the last week,” says Michael Guichet, a Santa Cruz psychotherapist specializing in sex therapy to clients in monogamous, poly, open, LGBTQ, kink and BDSM relationships. “People are trying to get coping skills, talk about sexual communication in their relationship, trying to remove resentments and connect sexually.“

Couples who live together face the challenge of spending a lot more time in the same space than they normally would. Meanwhile, single people and those who don’t live with their partners may grapple with loneliness, while figuring out what the new normal is for dating life. 

Gone, for now, are the usual opportunities to meet up with casual friends—whether to blow off steam or to reconnect.

“Those who are sheltering-in-place alone are feeling especially isolated,” says Santa Cruz-based therapist David Schulkin. “My clients who are single or dating report real frustration with how challenging this shelter-in-place order has been for them. It’s put a freeze on their relationship status for now.” 

PARTNER IN TIME

The dual shelter-in-place orders from Santa Cruz County and the state of California require that residents stay in their homes and only leave for essential activities like picking up takeout from a restaurant or making trips to the grocery store, bank, gas station, hardware store or pharmacy.

Residents are also supposed to stay six feet from anyone not in their household. For those in relationships, but not living together, the stay-at-home order presents a unique dilemma. 

“A lot of them had to make the choice of thinking about whether to temporarily move in with each other,” says Jen Joseph, a Bay Area therapist who focuses on sex and relationship therapy. “And perhaps it’s something that they otherwise wouldn’t have done if it weren’t for COVID—like maybe it’s early stages of a relationship.”

Those already living with their significant others or other loved ones are facing an entirely different set of issues. Boundaries at home might be difficult to come by now, if they even still exist at all.

“One of the challenges of the shelter-in-place order for interpersonal relationships is the new blurring of alone time and together time,” Schulkin says. “The natural breaks in our routines, our usual ability to be separate and then reunited in a regularly scheduled fashion, are all eliminated now.”

Joseph says that lack of separation and the inability to be alone can be hard on multiple areas of a romantic relationship. Those impacts often extend to people’s sex lives.

“For some people, their desire to be sexual with a partner comes from the other person being sort of a mystery to them,” Joseph says. 

That’s one reason why it’s valuable, Joseph explains, for each partner in any given relationship to engage in interesting activities and avoid the trap of doing nothing but sitting on the couch, watching television. 

One paradox of crowding together for an extended period under the shelter-in-place order is that it can actually lead to “emotional distance,” Guichet says. Intimacy becomes harder when partners aren’t going to work, leaving the house to hang out with friends or playing some basketball with their buddies, he explains. “Some people aren’t having the same stimuli that leads to them sexually connecting in their own bedrooms and houses,” he says.

Schulkin acknowledges that navigating these issues isn’t easy, given the circumstances. He advises that anyone sheltering in place with a loved one try redrawing their boundaries for “solo” and “mutual time.” 

“We have to practice asking for alone time, perhaps before we are annoyed with those we live with,” Schulkin says.

He adds that this could be a good time for someone to evaluate what’s important to them in a partner or to examine what they would like to work on in themselves. 

DISTANT NOTIONS

As a sex-positive therapist, Joseph attracts clients who know they can be open about their alternative lifestyle and not be judged. 

Some of them are navigating unique situations during the shelter-in-place order.

“There’s some people that their source of arousal is being able to sleep with multiple people. So, for folks where that’s the case and they’re not getting that kind of novelty, there needs to be added creativity,” she says.

Fantasy and role-playing with the partner they’re sheltering with can be a good way to fill the void, she says. 

The local chapter of Planned Parenthood provides a website packed with tips on sex during the pandemic, as well as access to free telehealth visits to anyone in the community. Among its recommendations, the nonprofit is advising that everyone should limit close contact, including sex, to the smallest circle of people possible. That helps prevent the spread of COVID-19. 

Santa Cruz County Health Officer Dr. Gail Newel says that while COVID-19 is not a sexually transmitted disease, people should assume they can get it while having sex with others. “Your intimate partner is someone you’re going to be sharing the COVID virus with, if you have it,” Newel says.

For single people and for those sheltering alone, local therapists, like Guichet, urge people to be creative in satisfying their own needs, sexual and otherwise. That could mean reaching out via phone, social apps, dating apps, and online video to connect with others.

“Looking at the dating scene right now is really interesting,” Guichet says. “A lot of people are really going to courtship. They’re on OKCupid, they’re on Tinder, they’re on Bumble. People are setting up virtual dates, and some people are setting up social distancing dates where they stay eight feet apart the whole time and take walks in the park. So people are being creative; they’re still trying to date.”

For more information on the coronavirus from Planned Parenthood, visit plannedparenthood.org/planned-parenthood-mar-monte/campaigns/safe-sex-covid-19.

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