Bianca Bagnarelli

Editor’s Note: Every Monday, Lori Gottlieb answers questions from readers about their problems, big and small. Have a question? Email her at dear.therapist@theatlantic.com.

Dear Therapist,

I always used to daydream about spending more time with my boyfriend. We have been together for more than two years, and although we live together, we both have busy work lives. He is a chef and restaurant owner who is out of the house from 9 a.m. until after midnight most days, and I work long hours in the film industry.

Before the coronavirus pandemic, we used to spend an hour at the end of each day catching up about our lives. Sundays, which we both had off, used to feel like special occasions, and we would make the most of them by spending quality time together.

My boyfriend is autistic, and it took me a while to appreciate the ways in which he is different from me. Most of the time I admire his outlook on life, but during this time in isolation together, I’ve begun to find him irritating in a way I’m not used to. He tends to repeat himself when he feels anxious, so we have had many daily conversations about the coronavirus, his cooking, and what our plans are for the next few days. I feel that his anxiety is making him get stuck in his own head, so while he is more than happy to talk about his thoughts, he is rarely ready to listen, and often distracted. I miss the days when we used to talk about other things— cinema, literature, psychology, and our feelings. I have spoken with him about this, but it hasn’t made a difference yet.

What’s more, he is used to having a structured schedule and working under pressure, but now he doesn’t know where to channel his excess energy and instead tries to remain productive with a long to-do list. I usually like to be productive as well, but something about his need for structure annoys me now—maybe because I recognize it in myself—and I’ve been condescending toward him. To complicate things, we are staying with his mother, and I find it difficult to contain my anger in front of her. It comes out passive aggressively instead.

This time spent under the same roof is showing me the problematic aspects of our relationship, and making me question whether this is really the right fit. I have wondered this at times before. For the most part, I feel like I am with someone special who “gets me” and makes me happy, but now I’m second-guessing myself and wondering what all of this dissatisfaction really means.

Anonymous
London


Dear Anonymous,

Many couples are feeling challenged right now as they adjust to close quarters and 24/7 togetherness during what is already a stressful time. What were once unremarkable or easily tolerated habits become major annoyances; innocuous comments are perceived as acts of aggression; and differences in personality or perspective suddenly call couples’ compatibility into question.

Now is not the moment to make big decisions about a relationship—these kinds of decisions are best made from a place of calm thought and reflection. What this time does offer, however, is a great opportunity to learn something new about yourself and your boyfriend—because it’s in crisis that we are most revealed. Instead of focusing on what your boyfriend is doing during this crisis, I want you to get curious about what you’re doing.

Both of your routines have been upended by the pandemic, and given the intensity of your regular work schedules and the significant role that your jobs played in both of your lives, you’re having to make major adjustments. What you seem to have in common is that you thrive on work and structure, so it makes sense that now having long expanses of open time is going to affect both of you—but perhaps in different ways. This last point is important, because while most people get together because of what they have in common, the strength of a relationship tends to be determined by how people tolerate their differences.

Many couples are finding that whatever differences existed between them before the pandemic are now amplified. With my therapy clients, I’ve seen manageable differences between a partner who’s more laid-back and the one who’s less so turn into battles about who’s “overreacting” or “underreacting” to the coronavirus based on how many times a day counters are cleaned and hands are washed. I’ve seen people who generally cope well with differences in temperament—one person prefers more alone time and quiet; one prefers more interaction—completely lose it in irritation with the other person.

And I’ve seen couples who truly enjoy spending time together getting annoyed by repeated anecdotes, jokes, and mundane observations because they have none of the normal breaks—from each other, from the monotony of being home all the time—that used to give those conversations a sense of freshness. Isolation also places a tremendous burden on coupled people to meet all the needs of their partner that used to be met by a combination of friends, family, co-workers, and even small talk with the barista at Starbucks.

In other words, it’s natural that your relationship feels harder than usual right now, but the song of a relationship has many notes, and especially during stressful times, hearing them all is important.

Often in therapy, I’ll pay close attention to the first thing someone says about a partner, so what struck me most about your letter was how it began—with a wish, in normal circumstances, to spend more time with your boyfriend. It was a lovely sentiment, a daydream about being with each other, and one that supports something you wrote later: that your boyfriend makes you happy, he understands you, and you consider him to be a special person whose company you enjoy.

This isn’t to say that you were never irritated by him before (and he was likely sometimes irritated by you as well), or hadn’t ever questioned the relationship. But I also sense that you used to feel seen and heard in a different way than you do now (if he normally “gets you,” you must have felt listened to before), and that whatever aspects of the relationship led to those questions were outweighed by its positive qualities. Don’t forget, too, that focusing your anxiety on what’s “wrong” with your relationship might be easier than allowing yourself to feel even greater anxiety about a global pandemic.

Ultimately, I don’t think you can know if this is the right relationship for you until you come to understand both yourself and your boyfriend better in this stressful time and in the transition that comes when we emerge from it. I have a few suggestions for how to do that.

First, you mention your boyfriend’s autism diagnosis, and some people with autism do have difficulty reading other people’s cues or having their daily structure disrupted. I want to caution you, though, to be careful not to attribute to autism whatever behaviors irk you, and also to consider that autism is a wide spectrum. If you default to viewing your boyfriend through the lens of autism, you may lose sight of the person right in front of you. Many people—neurotypical or not—fail to notice at times that they’re talking too much or aren’t making space for their partner. Also, many people without a diagnosis of autism are struggling with the loss of their daily routines. If you can view your boyfriend as a person with his own personality and quirks, just as he must view you as someone with your own personality and quirks, you'll be helping yourself not only during this pandemic but also when things normalize as well.

Second, during hard times, current stressors commonly trigger memories of a past stressful time. Ask yourself, Does the present situation remind me of another stressful time in which I felt unheard or angry? Consider, too, that in addition to the change in your work lives and time spent in close quarters, you’re temporarily living with his mother. Anyone who has ever gone home for the holidays knows that it’s easy to regress to a younger state in the presence of one’s parent. I’m sure that being in this new living situation is hard for you, but you might also get curious about how it’s affecting your boyfriend.

I realize that I’m asking you to ask him more about himself, when you’re the one who doesn’t feel heard. But the best way to get someone to listen to you is to listen to them first—which means not resentfully or half-heartedly hearing their words, but making the person “feel felt,” as we say in therapy. Some people repeat themselves because they don’t feel as if the person truly heard them the first dozen times. There’s a good chance that if your boyfriend feels truly understood by you—which will regulate his anxiety—he’ll be less distracted and more able to hear what your needs are as well.

Some practical things you can do to try to normalize the relationship during this time include reaching out to friends on FaceTime so that you don’t rely on your boyfriend for all of your emotional needs; creating a routine that works for you so that you aren’t so focused on his (this should include taking care of yourself and doing activities you enjoy); and trying to get outside and take a walk each day, either with your boyfriend or alone. Spend time apart in separate rooms and do different things so that there’s a newness when you come back together. Have a date night by ordering takeout and watching a movie together so that you don’t neglect the romantic aspect of your relationship (including physical intimacy). And make an effort to notice what your boyfriend is doing well or that you appreciate, even if it’s small.

Dealing with a global crisis adds stress to many relationships, but it creates a great opportunity for growth as well. We don’t have control over much right now, but how willing we are to examine our role in what’s not working and take action to make things better—that’s one choice we all still have.


Dear Therapist is for informational purposes only, does not constitute medical advice, and is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician, mental-health professional, or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. By submitting a letter, you are agreeing to let The Atlantic use it—in part or in full—and we may edit it for length and/or clarity.

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