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For Couples in Quarantine, Therapy Is an Exercise in Privacy and Trust

As the world sits on pause, therapy has been imported directly into households and relationships need to build the spatial infrastructure to support it

Alissa was in her bedroom, headphones on, engulfed in one of the many anodyne Netflix shows we’ve buoyed ourselves on during these interminable weeks of quarantine. Meanwhile, her boyfriend was in the living room, talking to his therapist. This was the detente they’d established; both of them are stuck at home, in accordance with a state-wide shelter-in-place mandate, which means that traditional counseling offices are shuttered. Fortunately, their therapists of choice are offering their services remotely, meaning both of them could get the mental health care they need provided that they could carve out the privacy for a makeshift session within their household. 

Which seemed easy enough. Their coffee table could be converted to a digital shrink’s enclave, and Alissa made sure she wouldn’t overhear anything sensitive by ensconcing herself in the only other room in their 600 square foot apartment.

But on this one fateful afternoon in March, Alissa’s distraction programming was over early, and the walls of her self-imposed bedroom sequestering were breached. “I overheard him talking about his frustrations with someone,” she remembers. “I couldn’t help but listen closer to hear if he was talking about me. He was talking about his dad, thankfully. I felt really guilty for listening in, though, and have been more careful since.”

The coronavirus has destroyed so many of our routine comforts, but Alissa’s story is the one I relate to most acutely. It’s weird to ask your partner what they’re talking about in therapy; we’re all entitled to a safe space to complain. But now, as the world sits on pause, therapy has been imported directly into households, and relationships need to build the spatial infrastructure to support it. 

So many of us have an Alissa story: I wandered into my kitchen the other week and accidentally caught a glimpse of my girlfriend’s therapist, whose face was beaming through a washed-out MacBook webcam. That alone felt like a violation; I don’t need to know what her shrink looks like.

Alissa doesn’t even like the idea of remote therapy in the first place. She finds video calling to be both strangely alienating and shockingly intimate at the same time — a paradox I think we’re all feeling as we offload the bulk of our social diet onto Zoom calls. “I was worried it would be awkward,” she admits, reflecting on her first post-coronavirus therapy session. “I wondered about the importance of the space in which we meet. The office is professional and neutral: Is that a necessary boundary?” 

Eventually, continues Alissa, she discovered that the ersatz strangeness of remote therapy was a useful way of framing her sessions. There is a sense of solidarity in the peculiar ritual of administering care over the internet; doctor and patient, doing what they can despite the circumstances. “[It] led to new and interesting talks with my therapist about boundaries and intimacy,” says Alissa. “Once, I noted that both she and I were Skyping in from our beds and it felt weird. When she asked me to delve deeper, I realized that the sameness of our situations made me uneasy because we’re all living the scary shared experience of this pandemic.”

In fact, everyone I interviewed for this story says they were surprised at how quickly they were able to replicate the trust and familiarity of a therapist’s office in their living space, as long as they’re able to ensure that nobody else in the house is catching any confidential thoughts. This has provoked some unique concessions between partners. Tim McLaughlin, in Indianapolis, tells me that he pencils in his pandemic decompression walks for whenever his girlfriend has a therapy appointment scheduled, though he also admits that there’s been times where he’s locked himself in the bathroom with headphones turned all the way up to seal off the rest of the floor plan. “I don’t care at all what they’re talking about so I have no interest in snooping,” he says. “I’m just happy she’s taking steps to help herself.”

Jane, who asks to remain anonymous, says she takes over the back porch for her FaceTime therapy calls. For extra security, her boyfriend has occasionally jumped in the car for one of those aimless, brain-emptying drives that have become so common during this lockdown. Still, quarantine living has a knack of leaving us exposed no matter what precautions we take. “He found my notes that I took [during my first session], and I felt embarrassed,” she says. “And nothing I wrote was even bad!”

Annie, in Austin, is in grief therapy, which she describes as a treatment that’s more heavy duty, and often more emotionally draining, than standard talk therapy. Because of that, she says, a maximum level of insulation is necessary for her to feel fully capable of being honest with herself, and her clinician, while they’re in a session together. As Annie has moved her therapy into isolation, she says her boyfriend has been more than amenable to the delicate nature of her needs. He retreats to their shared garage and occupies himself with something — doesn’t matter what, as long as it ensures that Annie’s call is the last thing on his mind.  

After the dust is settled, and Annie feels protected enough to leave the house on a regular basis again, she says she still expects to continue to use remote therapy. In the past, there have been times where she’s cancelled sessions because she didn’t have the bandwidth to schlep to the office. But now, Annie has proven that she can create the same quietude she needs to reveal her truths at home — so long as her boyfriend continues to respect her therapy itinerary. “I’m comfortable enough now to say, ‘Hey, I’m sad, I don’t feel like going into the office, can you video chat me?’” she says.

Alissa, on the other hand, is excited to get back to her shrink’s office. She thinks she’s able to open up more efficiently in a professorial space, though the success of her remote sessions have made her think she might call up her therapist in the future when she’s sick or on vacation, where in the past she’d probably “skip a week.” Jane echoes that same sentiment; she is looking forward for her therapist to see her “whole self” again. 

I can relate to her desire. It feels like the longer I sit in Zoom calls with my friends, the more I feel unnourished for social interaction, and the more I desperately want to see them.

Still, this pandemic has a way of bringing out the empathy in us. If you’re doing a cohabitation quarantine right, you’re more patient and loving than you’ve ever been. And what’s more romantic than sliding on your headphones and getting lost in a Roku hole so your partner can complain about you in peace?