Has social isolation made you reconsider your loving priorities?
Just as CoronaVirus was overwhelming the world, I burst into tears while driving when “If the World Was Ending” by JP Saxe played on the radio. The song refers to an earthquake, rather than a pandemic, and two former lovers who can’t help wondering if they’d choose each other to ride out their last moments on earth.
If the world was ending, you’d come over, right? You’d come over and you’d stay the night. Would you love me for the hell of it? All our fears would be irrelevant.
Clearly, my fear was it was I who was irrelevant, and the likelihood I would die alone was a near certainty. Sure, I have my son and two cats with whom to commune during this social isolation. But my visceral reaction to the doomsday song, and my attempts to blow my nose while keeping the car on the road, reminded me that I still didn’t have that someone, the person who would choose me to hold onto, and caress all the parts I don’t share with my son and cats, as our metaphorical Titanic went down.
Now that we’re all sequestered, cancelling our first dates and refusing to introduce our microbiome to new erotic interlopers, I’ve been asking myself if impending death would change my dating behavior. This annoys me, given I’ve found general contentment in being single. Then my mother, in a thinly veiled attempt to nudge me towards acquiring a new husband, declared that marriage, despite its hardships, was ultimately a profound comfort in our later (or soon to be over) years. Sigh.
I struggle with this oppressive cultural expectation that marriage or cohabitation should be the goal of dating, even as I walk the quiet streets, catching envious glimpses through other people’s windows of nuclear families playing Scrabble. The fact is, I don’t regret having left my marriage and going solo. I only regret I didn’t have more kids with whom to play Scrabble.
My polyamorous writer friend Charyn Pfeuffer (on IG @supergoodsex; Twitter @charynpfeuffer) is a paragon of responsible loving in the age of social distancing. Most of her social media posts now focus on Covid-19 facts and precautions, interspersed with updates on the importance of her orgasms. Though she’s not having people over, she’s committed to wearing the outfits she would normally don for her kinky social gatherings out walking her dog along the streets of Seattle (at a safe distance from passersby). And I have her to thank for posting this piece on the art of FaceTime sexting during a pandemic.
But while Charyn is rocking her virtual community of big loving people, she’s not immune to the restlessness of a shrinking physical love life. She writes, “My anxiety has been triggered more frequently during the COVID outbreak. CBD has helped with calming nerves and sleep. Although [this virus] presents a whole swath of unknowns, I try not to live my life from a place of fear or “what ifs.” There are certain things I can control — how I take care of myself, my daily routines, and how I treat those around me. The landscape of what we’re dealing with changes every day (sometimes, hour by hour) so I tend to focus on life right now in bite-sized increments and never more than one day at a time.”
An edifying piece in the New Yorker, “How Loneliness From Coronavirus Isolation Takes its Own Toll” written by Robin Wright highlights the health effects of diminished human contact, which is itself a risk factor for disease and early mortality. More of us live alone than any other time in history. In fact, one of the reasons Sweden has largely avoided a devastating infection rate, despite the fact there have been few restrictions on work and businesses, is that nearly 60% of people in Stockholm live by themselves.
But living alone and feeling lonely are two different things. How I feel about being single during quarantine is rather like how I feel being alone on a Saturday night rather than a lesser day of the week. Alone on a Monday night is no big deal. As my favorite modern-day philosopher Alain de Botton has written, “It doesn’t deviate at all from the norms of respected society and it’s expected of decent people at the beginning of a busy week.” But this pandemic is like Saturday night every single day, a “far more perilous psychological zone” where the impression I have is that everyone else is snug in their domestic castles with partners who adore them, receiving extra shoulder rubs for having survived another day of homeschooling and working from the couch. For those of you keeping your shit together and mustering the extra effort to appreciate your co-pilot, I salute you.
But for those of you, like me, who are wrestling with the spectre of mortality looming ever brighter and wondering if a lively sex life while remaining single was a better deal than shacking up with one person, here are some things I try to remind myself:
Being single is a choice (though social distancing is a responsibility): I won’t ever enter into a partnership for the sake of delivering myself from the perceived shame of being single. Better to enjoy my own company, and that of my friends, than settle for something that doesn’t ding my bell on many levels. As de Botton writes, “We’ve chosen to experience the pains of existence by ourselves for now. But having a partner has never protected anyone from the void for very long.”
Partnered people are not necessarily happier (or having more fun): I would venture there were few people having more fun (in bed) than a horny single woman with an unabashed enthusiasm for sex. It may be awhile before we singles can be erotically exuberant again, but that time will come. And we can send a partner home, not just to the couch, when we have exhausted each other.
We are not alone in our alone-ness: The facts of our physical lives are that we’re multicellular organisms, eating, breathing and shitting daily. But our mental and emotional lives are 100% perception. To think that no one could be more lonely, financially stressed or despondent over life’s purpose than we are is simply absurd. If a statistician could quantify all the folks who have it worse I, for one, would qualify for the privilege of spouting sunshine out my asshole. And though Lori Gottlieb writes in her excellent book Maybe You Should Talk to Someone that “there is no hierarchy to pain” (in an attempt to validate that any emotional pain is legitimate) I might argue that, during a pandemic, there is a hierarchy. And those of us angsting at home over the first world problem of diminishing toilet paper, should find something better to do with our pent up mental energy.
There is nothing shameful in being alone: Even without forced isolation, I believe this. There are many noble reasons people choose to be loners which often has to do with creativity. There’s the writer of the book that brought you great joy, who spent countless hours in isolation for that purpose, or the scientist whose breakthrough required long hours of thinking and observations, devoid of human contact (Hopefully, several of these solitaries are working on a solution to the present and future pandemics.) Chances are these loners are good company when they get a free moment. We should all find something mesmerizing to do in isolation (and to continue doing when this is over).
It helps to understand our pasts: “The sense of shame you experience at being in your own company is coming from somewhere very particular: your own childhood.” writes de Botton. Yep that’s me. A slight mishap in my early developmental stages have affected my adult relationships and, though fairly successfully treated through therapy, I still occasionally hear myself moaning that I’m not lovable. I don’t actively fight these head gremlins any longer. I disarm them with kindness and self-compassion. One of the most helpful books on the topic is (though the cover drawing makes the inner child appear to be a distressed fetus bobbing around in ectoplasm. Don’t judge this book by its disgusting cover.)
Having said all this, and being generally convinced that I’m completely fine being single, there’s one thing that’s really getting to me as a solo woman during CV-19: I want to take care of others. Were I still medically credentialed, I’d be on the front lines of this pandemic, doing my part to care for the people whose defenses can’t rise to the challenges of CoronaVirus. Suddenly, my desire to nurture is feeling thwarted. I am more motherly with my son, but he’s a pre-teen and not particularly interested in my mental health. Fortunately, he doesn’t resist my frequent hugs.
The advantage of intimate partners is we can dote on, caress, cook and undress for someone with whom closeness is fulfilling our basic human need to love and be loved. It does require time and effort and I’ve been largely avoiding such efforts for the sake of productivity and fear that a new relationship will go tits up again. And though all the things I said here about the advantages of being single are still true, they tend to pale in my mind to the joy of loving others, whether that’s halfway across the world or right at home. When we’re not in lockdown, I tend to fritter away the day without attending to my love connections. But I can’t feel loved until I put some effort into being loving.
So, I’m spending more time reaching out virtually to those I care about and a lot more time with my hand down my pants. It’s not quite as good as the real deal with another body pressed against my own, but it’s helping grow my loving life, even in isolation. And for those of you determined to date during Covid-19, the apps we have heretofore been using are offering updates on how to continue to create new connections without meeting in person. Here in the States, a restless developer has launched Quarantine Together. Yes, let’s do that.
Stay healthy, y’all.