Of all the hurdles my partner and I could have imagined our trans-national relationship to face, a pandemic would perhaps have been the last. Until the year 2020. For 7 months, my partner and I were physically separated from each other, due to the international travel bans instituted in the wake of the global pandemic. We spent the lockdown months alone in two different parts of the world (him in France while I was in India), without having any idea of when it would be possible for us to meet again.
Eventually, we were able to be reunited in Paris, where we now live. Contrary to what cinemas would have us believe, the love story doesn’t end with the “happily ever after” once the boy and girl meet against all odds. What happens after, is the more significant story of togetherness that needs to be told. This is the part when falling in, and being in love, is replaced by doing love.
Let Solitude and Togetherness Coexist
Love consists in this, that two solitudes protect and touch and greet each other — Ranier Maria Rilke
Once reunited, my husband and I’s relationship transitioned from one where we were physically separated but strongly connected emotionally, to one where we were physically together all the time due to the lockdown and curfew measures in Paris, while the kind of emotional closeness we had felt in our months together slowly ebbed away. Sure, the distance might have led to heightened emotions towards each other, but it was also because, in person, we didn’t prioritize time exclusively to communicate and connect, as we did before.
In the humdrum of everyday living, and discussions around grocery and chores, it can be very easy to slip into a state of ease, ease that erases the partner’s individuality and starts viewing them as an extension of us: a wholly predictable human who I know better than anyone in the world, who I don’t even need to re-connect with since everything in their life seems so accessible and obvious to me.
It was only through checking on each other’s emotional well-being, that my partner and I recognized these bad traits before they could turn into toxic habits. I was in a new city without friends or family around, almost agoraphobic and anxious due to the tough months of isolation I had, while he would want us to spend time outside discovering the city. He would also advise me on routes for walking or for a run (which I previously did regularly). I was growing quiet and somewhat resentful of him, feeling he was pushing me away or pressurizing me to always be on the move. And he was frustrated, feeling like he was disappointing me all the time. Each projecting their own insecurity.
It was after a walk on a sunny day that our hearts came pouring out: how unfriendly the city felt to me, while for him, he wanted to make me better acquainted with it; that I just wanted some time to process the changes in my life, while he thought I wanted to be entertained outside. It was our assumptions over the other person’s expectations that caused our mutual misery: the idea that we could even predict what they need or are thinking without actually asking them and checking up with them. And even our feelings towards our inner issues were clarified to ourselves because of this re-assessment of each other’s emotional state.
While viewing a partner’s personhood as an extension of our own can provide us a comforting feeling of security, but being able to identify, cherish and celebrate them as individuals completely separate from us, is (though at times scary) an even more beautiful and respectful thing. Once we start viewing them as a separate galaxy than us, it can be amazing to discover them in all their varied moods and their ability to surprise you. What’s more, in the process of re-discovering them again and again, we might end up discovering new things about ourselves.
We all need our inner solitudes to be nurtured, even with the most amazing partners, since that is the source of what makes our times together more meaningful. While a lot of us equate love with possession when we are younger, it doesn’t take long to dispel this myth. Either through gentle words or hard experiences in life, we find out that it is folly to expect people to belong to us, just as we wouldn’t want to be someone’s possession. But a more difficult lesson is the one to not only recognize our otherness, but also to actively keep learning how to “border, protect, and greet” the solitudes within us: the part that I called doing love.
Let’s not mistake Proximity for Intimacy
The popular assumption this year, was for a major baby-boom to happen, after the shelter-in-place orders. But the truth is, that love, relationships, and intimacy have been challenged like never before this year. For some, quarantines and lockdowns have renewed how much value we put in our close relationships, but for others, they have strained intimacy and desire. We cannot mistake proximity for intimacy. We all need a healthy balance of proximity and distance to be able to have fulfilling relationships.
There are a lot of conversations my partner and I have every day, about what we read and the media we consumed, about ideas for our podcast and our respective work. For a time, both of us were comfortable with this intellectual and physical proximity, but we realized in time how these can sometimes be distractions from emotional proximity.
The moments to build an emotional intimacy must be earmarked, carefully guarded against the other distractions. In another world, it would have taken the form of a nice dinner outside the home, a holiday, a weekend hike maybe; things that take us out of our everyday context. But in this pandemic-afflicted world, we must make such spaces inside the home.
The Dance of Familiarity and Mystery
If what you have read so far seems a far cry from the “togetherness” we had been taught to expect from relationships, remember that the “separateness” we refer to here does not connote isolation or loneliness.
Separateness implies a state of feeling satiated with self-love and self-respect: that you know you are a complete person unto yourself before being defined narrowly by your social, cultural, or professional roles (of wife, mother, worker, etc.)
This separation between self and the partner is necessary for desire to bloom. Esther Perel, the renowned and ever so eloquent psychotherapist, and writer puts it brilliantly in her seminal book Mating in Captivity: Unlocking Erotic Intelligence,
Love rests on two pillars: surrender and autonomy. Our need for togetherness exists alongside our need for separateness. One does not exist without the other…………. Thus separateness is a precondition for connection: this is the essential paradox of intimacy and sex.
Further, she talks about our need to “cultivate separate selves”, which seeks to begin from a place of self-assurance rather than defining oneself solely through a mate.
Barack Obama’s quote on his partnerships with his wife Michelle Obama beautifully surmises the above.
Sometimes, when we’re lying together, I look at her and I feel dizzy with the realization that here is another distinct person from me, who has memories, origins, thoughts, feelings that are different from my own. That tension between familiarity and mystery meshes something strong between us. Even if one builds a life together based on trust, attentiveness and mutual support, I think that it’s important that a partner continues to surprise.
I love the metaphor of dance that Obama uses. The imagery is not only musical but also powerful: two people not fighting each other for control, dominance, or subjugation but co-ordinating each other’s rhythms so that even when they are not identical, they are in sync. The struggle between independence and co-dependence doesn’t have to dissolve into a tug-of-war, but it can be evolved into a graceful dance.
Cultivating Separate Selves
Since we have all been spending so much time at home, transforming homes into offices, and kid’s classrooms, let’s also take a moment to not forget to carve out spaces which not only permit the flourishing of separate selves but also enable these separate selves to come together and meet.
Comprehending a partner’s otherness can be scary. Acknowledging a partner’s independence can be scary. And here I mean independence in the full scope of what the word means: that they are an entity wholly separated from us, creatures who we might not be able to know ever. But how can we hope for that, when most of us will go through life not even knowing ourselves for who we are. This unending journey of discovering each other is itself the beauty of life and relationships.
A healthy partnership is to not being with our partner just for how they make us feel, but because we also enjoy the adventure of discovering who they are, and seeing them for who they are. A healthy partnership doesn’t reduce one another with certain assumptions of each other’s personhood, but provides the scope to change and grow, opening the possibility to reconnect and re-discover each other now and in the future.