Opportunity from Tragedy: Realign, Reprioritize, and Rebuild Emotional Connections

Esther Perel and Mary Alice Miller

While many people are living by the moving needle of reopening dates, hoping “to return to normal,” many others are reaching a critical realization: we’re not going back. 
And that’s not necessarily a bad thing. There were issues before, weren’t there? That version of life didn’t always feel great, did it? Many of us were in debt and depleted, if not financially, then spiritually. For the sake of future security, some of us were marching forward on a path that didn’t always align with our truest desires, and at times left us feeling more disconnected than ever. Now, with future security out the door, we’re realizing that the decisions we made were based on plans for a future that no longer exists. 

The New Normal is here and it requires a new mindset—a curiosity about what we want for ourselves, with our partners and families, with our dates and friends, and with our work lives. For individuals and couples who were already experiencing distance and misalignment, this redefinition of normal life can be an opportunity to rebuild, reprioritize, reconnect, fantasize, and even let go of some of the things that were holding us back long before the pandemic. 

What decisions does this new landscape require? What fantasies does it inspire? How do we talk about it? And how do we put those plans in action in a time when we’re either living with each other 24/7 like never before or living apart, in isolation, like never before?

Rebuilding Emotional Connections Requires Feeling it All

Nothing feels good about what we’ve lost—loved ones, jobs, human touch, safety, and the rites and rituals of graduations, birthday parties, weddings, and funerals which once served as life’s milestones. Misery is allowed, even encouraged. Feeling the contours of our grief has been paramount to confronting this surreal situation. The ambiguous loss, and other new pandemic-related emotions, run deep but they have a purpose. We’re in mourning for our old lives, our former sense of normalcy.

But these emotions signal that a change has happened and that we must change with it. Talk to your closest people about what those changes are and what they feel like. Share stories of difficult transitions from your pasts; doing so helps us ground each other in reality and triggers the emotional muscle memory of times when we’ve had to be strong and resilient before.

As psychologist Susan David has explained so well, difficult emotions experienced in an appropriate, healthy amount are a sign that you actually accept reality. Only then can you begin to use your skills in order to become creative about how to respond to a crisis that demands innovation. If you deny this reality—if you keep waiting for life to return to the way it was—you will be at a disadvantage for being able to emotionally and mentally handle this crisis. Those who can come together around the idea that we’re not going back to what once was have the opportunity to get a headstart into what will be. \

It may surprise you, but a great exercise to do with your loved ones, whether you are on top of each other or quarantined apart, is to complain your heart out. It’s a valve release for our feelings of loss and longing. Kvetching gives us a sense of control and camaraderie. Try it.

Staying Connected Now Means Balancing Fear and Hope

When you have complaints out of your system, you're ready to look at what’s on the other side of these collective losses that have piled up—the reorientation and restoration, the accommodation of loss and the hope for the future. Julia Samuel describes the importance of reexamining our grief, what she calls “living losses,” with our hope. “Hope is more than a feeling,” she says. “It’s a plan.” 

Take, for instance, the couple who have been dating long distance so they can prioritize their careers which happen to be in different cities. They thought it would be a year apart, tops, but it’s been several years now with no resolution of when and where they will live together again. Now, locked down in different cities, he can’t imagine living apart any longer. She, on the other hand, knows they’ve been avoiding a conversation about her crushing student loan debt and feels that their jobs still have to be the priority. Consider the couple who scheduled IVF treatments for June and now wonders if it’s safe to have the child they’ve always wanted when the world is in the throes of crisis. Or the man who, after a year of torturing himself with the difficult decision of whether to move his mother into a nursing home, signed the papers and began the process only for nursing homes to tragically become a high risk place for infection and death during the pandemic. He wonders now if she could come live with him and his partner, and if their relationship could survive it.

The Covid-19 pandemic, like so many crises, has acted as an accelerator for each of these situations, and there’s no easy solution. This is a moment in which the duality of fear and hope must be held with equanimity, thoughtfulness, and even humor and fantasy. It’s a time for laying the cards out on the table, and asking the following questions: 

  • What do we really want? 
  • Where do we want to be? 
  • What do we want to build? 
  • What’s a project we’d love to accomplish in the next year? 3 years? 5 years?
  • For whom are we responsible? 
  • To whom do we want to live close?
  • What do we have going well for us? 
  • What are our greatest challenges? 
  • What do we have control over? 
  • What do we have absolutely no control over? 
  • Where do we need to fight? 
  • What do we need to surrender? 
  • What are our strengths and weaknesses individually and together?
  • If we could be anything, go anywhere, and be happy, what would that look like? It might even be just a slightly better, more aligned version of where you already are.

How Erotic Thinking Helps Emotional Connections

Believe it or not, these questions are erotic in their very nature. They are about imagination, fantasy, exploration, curiosity, and navigating the trauma of this moment for the sake of cultivating pleasure. We know that some of the greatest pleasure comes from the deepest pain. How will you take the losses of this moment and transform them into possibilities? Let’s look at the couple quarantining apart again. 

They both need to answer the aforementioned set of questions individually before they can answer them together. Accessing their deepest desires, hopes, and fears in the context of our new normal may reveal new strategies for staying connected. She may present her student loan debt, in the context of our current economic uncertainty, as a reason for keeping her job exactly as it is and where it is. He may present his desire to be in the same place, and his lack of debt, as a reason for why he can be the one to relocate. Avoiding the conversation as a means of keeping the status quo—because the status quo feels like security—keeps them stuck in their pre-pandemic dilemma. But engaging in erotic thinking, submitting to their fantasies and desires, makes the challenging points loosen up. It breeds hope. Remember, hope is a feeling, but it’s also a plan. 

And this isn’t only for couples who are physically quarantined apart. How many of us have felt the internal quarantine—the separateness from our loved ones we feel when we can’t get aligned? If you’ve been struggling with this, the world has made it very clear that now is the time to reexamine your priorities. 

Reprioritize to Rebuild Emotional Connections

As counterintuitive as it may feel, from tragedy there can be opportunity. The loss of stability and security allows room for growth instead of staying put. The loss of plans is a chance to break patterns. It’s hard to see it this way, but doing so will help us navigate the New Normal. Even harder? Getting on the same page when no one—not even our leaders or greatest thinkers—seems to agree on the path ahead. We’ve spent our entire lives trying to control our forward motion only to now face a massive deviation that feels as if it’s forcing us sideways into the unknown. You can look at the unknown as a place of fear and loss. You can look at the unknown as a realm of possibility and progress. The reality is, it’s both.

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