I once attended the London Art Fair back in the days when galas were exuberant events heaving with people and you could embrace a perfect stranger without wearing a vapor barrier. I was twinkle-toes in love with the man who took me and between the wattage I felt in his company, the prosecco served on silver trays, and my thigh-high leather boots, I essentially off gassed erotic energy throughout the evening.
I chatted and flirted, laughed and buzzed around the exhibits like a helium balloon with a slow leak. Because of the intensity of our New Relationship Energy, I engaged in a temporarily misguided outsourcing of my passions and bestowed them upon, innocently enough I believed, everyone else I encountered that evening, wanting them all to feel worthy of the desire and high regard I was feeling toward my man.
But after the party he told me I had behaved in a way he characterized as “carelessly separate.” Warm engagement with others had made him feel I’d disconnected from us as a couple. Instead of feeling bad about hurting his feelings, I snapped, “How about I’m not carelessly separate? How about I’m just me? Because this doesn’t feel like my problem, it feels like your problem!”
I still cringe thinking about this moment. It was actually our problem, but I didn’t want to reprimand the carefree person I’d become as a newly single woman. I understand now who I was then, jacked up on the androgens of an aggressive perimenopause and trying to navigate a new relationship so soon after leaving my long marriage. My dating profile should have had an ALL CAPS disclosure stamped across it that read: “This one is so not ready to treat you right!” But because we’d experienced the Second Coming of Jesus the night we first slept together, he and I continued to cling to the vapors of our infatuation and ignore our unprocessed personal issues before calling it quits. (I’m not saying you shouldn’t seize these kinds of opportunities and hang on for all it’s worth – just don your flame retardant duds and accept you could still get burned.)
I was reminded of this episode recently when the one man in my Covid bubble who sees me naked violated what I considered a boundary during a solo road trip when he stayed with an old friend in another state for a few days (in one of those states, where people believe that personal freedom hinges upon going without a mask during a pandemic). The words “carelessly separate” reverberated in my head and, as I lost my cool and berated him through a texting exchange, he diplomatically suggested we discuss it later…like in a week when he was actually home. I proceeded to call up all my friends and obtain a self-righteous litany of reasons why he was in the wrong and had violated my trust. What I failed to consider was that while I’m part of an enormous Covid bubble which includes a blended family of multiple kids and grandparents, my current lover lives an hour away on a small island and only sees his dog and the employees of Home Depot on a regular basis. Whether his sacrifice will continue to be worth the occasional delight of sleeping next to me, I’m afraid to ask.
I’m telling these stories because we are edging closer to the end of this pandemic and there’s a lot to consider regarding our intimate selves before we dispose of our masks. Despite all the ghastly death, stress and job losses, the Covid-19 pandemic has provided a safe space where, if we trust our partners, has given us security and structure. We have agreed not to be careless with the people in our pods and have entered, perhaps reluctantly, into enforced monogamy, a period of “I choose you” day after bloody day, a huge departure from our swipe fast and furious dating culture. The question is, will we come out of this pandemic interested more in the benefits of a long term relationship or eager to attend the bacchanal of the century?
In his recent book, Apollo’s Arrow:The Profound and Enduring Impact of Coronavirus on the Way We Live, physician, sociologist, and public health expert Nicholas A. Christakis explores what it means to live during a modern plague. In an effort to predict the aftermath of Covid-19, he cites lessons from medicine, history, sociology, epidemiology, and genetics to envision what will happen when the great force of this deadly germ is behind us.
“During epidemics you get increases in religiosity, people become more abstentious, they save money, they get risk averse and we’re seeing all of that now, just as we have for hundreds of years during epidemics,” Christakis told the Guardian. He predicts all these behaviors will be reversed in an attempt to make up for lost time once we have outwitted Covid.
“People will relentlessly seek out social interactions,” engaging in sexual licentiousness, lavish spending and a “reverse of religiosity.” This sounds every bit like my behavior after separating from my husband and the state I was in during the art fair.
Some media outlets appear giddy with the idea of a “post-pandemic fuck fest.” After the last pandemic of 1919, the Roaring 20’s saw an increase in the cheeky “petting parties”, mentioned in This Side of Paradise, by F. Scott Fitzgerald where young people gathered to dance, drink and make out, though rarely did this include intercourse. Those inconsequential party days are well behind us. According to a friend who currently practices telemedicine across multiple states, his patients are already engaging in multiple in-person encounters utilizing hookup apps, well before their first vaccine.
So who do you want to be post-pandemic and who else might be affected by your choices? Our lives essentially revolve around two key elements: freedom and change. And they shrink and expand in tandem. If we want freedom we take responsibility for the change it creates. If we want to continue with, or freshly seek, a post-pandemic couple bubble, we may be restricting our opportunities for change. This has always been a delicate issue for me as a woman, though less so now, who has often put the needs of others ahead of my own. Midlife women initiate divorce at a higher rate than men – perhaps because the person who has restricted her freedom hasn’t figured out how to negotiate for it within a marriage. Finding freedom while in a partnership can feel impossible and leaving the easier thing to do. But I ask, do you want easy or can you achieve a kind of freedom and retain a good relationship through some effort?
The challenging balance between intimacy and independence is something Kahil Gibran has immortalized in The Prophet where he writes of marriage:
Let there be spaces in your togetherness,
And let the winds of the heavens dance between you.
Love one another but make not a bond of love:
Let it rather be a moving sea between the shores of your souls.
Fill each other’s cup but drink not from one cup.
Give one another of your bread but eat not from the same loaf.
Sing and dance together and be joyous, but let each one of you be alone,
Even as the strings of a lute are alone though they quiver with the same music.
Give your hearts, but not into each other’s keeping.
For only the hand of Life can contain your hearts.
And stand together, yet not too near together:
For the pillars of the temple stand apart,
And the oak tree and the cypress grow not in each other’s shadow.
I believe we can and should retain a semblance of separateness within our loving relationships. The couples I know who appear to be thriving are those equally invested in friends and activities outside the ones they share. But I can imagine, with so much togetherness this past year, we’ll see a backlash against devoting time to the person we’ve been cooped up with for so long. Let’s be gentle with those we’ve chosen and those we will be choosing, whether it’s only for one night or the rest of our lives.
Context shapes behavior and we’re all about to be tested by post-pandemic freedoms, whether committed or not. We may act out our own narratives before we have the foresight to discuss them with the people we love. I couldn’t be wrangled, even by a loving man, right after I’d been let out of the paddock of a painful marriage. Maybe after the protracted isolation of Covid-19, all you want to do is get back into a yoga class. But what if it’s something quite different? Something careless? Something separate?
I’ve learned to enjoy the stillness and quiet of isolation more than I believed I could. It’s set me on a path of greater productivity, introspection and I’ve realized the value of growing slowly in love. I’m going to be choosy in allowing new things and people into my settled post-pandemic life. But we will all move forward in freedom and in change. I hope to navigate my new life less carelessly than I did in the past. But no one should expect me to stop being a good flirt!
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