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What Couples Therapy suggests about relationships after the pandemic

It’s practically the official catchphrase of December, right up there with “happy holidays.” The three (always capitalized!) words that top every news feed beginning around Thanksgiving and continuing through New Year’s Eve: I SAID YES!

This year, though, the annual engagement announcement bonanza seems to carry a secondary boast: We survived. In truth, all couples, whether new or long-term, married or cohabiting or freshly engaged, have had to adapt dramatically over the past nine months to make it this far. But even if there’s no denying the make-or-break pressure of quarantining together for the duration of a global pandemic — tellingly, both divorces and engagements are up this year — a question lingers as an end to the ordeal starts to come into sight: What will this experience mean for the couples that lasted, in the long run?

That is not, or at least not directly, the concern of Showtime’s special COVID-19 episode of Couples Therapy, which airs on Sunday. Like the first season of the show, the special uses four couples to offer surprisingly insightful generalizations about human relationships: our difficulty articulating our vulnerabilities, and our defensiveness or resistance when hearing them expressed by others. But the special also, significantly, implies that our relationships are changing as a result of the pandemic, as well.

The one-hour episode begins before the pandemic, when the problems Dr. Orna Guralnik is helping her participants (she doesn’t call them patients) navigate are far more mundane. Lara and Trey’s first visit, in February 2020, centers on the strain that stems from Lara’s work on Broadway, which keeps her away from home. But when the pandemic hits weeks later, it serves as a kind of fast-forward button for the couple: Though it had seemed like their struggles came from their physical separation from each other, lockdown forces them to confront that their problems run much deeper. Another couple, Michelle and James, had come to Guralnik after finding themselves unable to put aside their vast political differences while raising a young son together; lockdown pushes them into an even tighter proximity. In other words, pre-existing tensions are exacerbated by the pandemic, not created by it: As Guralnik puts it to her clinical adviser during one session, “This is kind of an amazing social experiment, where couples are forced to deal.”

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But the special’s lack of a concrete conclusion — the episode ends during those sunny summer days, when things looked briefly and naively like they were getting better — actually only emphasizes how transformed the foundations of our relationships really are. For example, though Michelle and James’ strife predated quarantine, the outcome sees Michelle ultimately becoming a stay-at-home mother. For Michelle, it’s a victory: “I feel like a huge weight has been lifted off my shoulders,” she explains. But because of the nature of the special, we don’t get to hear her grapple with the decision in the ensuing weeks, and have no insight into how the transition looks for her family in the longer term.

Though Michelle and James’ context is unique, their experience is not; the episode represents a new, documented phenomenon that sees women leaving the workforce to become stay-at-home parents, and has experts worried about a backslide in workplace equality, as well as in the balance at home. As sociologist Aliya Rao tells Anne Helen Petersen in her Culture Study newsletter, “unemployed women’s job loss is usually not seen as a problem that must be remedied as soon as possible. Instead, there is an expectation — both self-imposed and from husbands — that wives should take over the unpaid work.” There’s no telling if this is the case for Michelle, but it never has the chance to be investigated.

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The pandemic isn’t just shifting the responsibilities and expectations between couples, though. It could have a lasting effect on how they respond to future crises together. Lauren and Sam — a fan-favorite couple who return from the show’s first season — raise with Guralnik the possibility of mass trauma following the outbreak. Though again, there isn’t time to explore it more fully, it’s a fascinating concern. And science backs it up; in a study of the 2002-03 outbreak of SARS in Hong Kong, researchers found that “one year after the outbreak, SARS survivors still had elevated stress levels and worrying levels of psychological distress,” including “depression, anxiety, and posttraumatic symptoms.” Who knows, then, what the COVID-19 outbreak will mean in the long run for couples who’ve survived this event together.

There is no use looking for a sweeping conclusion, though — every couple is unique. But what therapists agree on, and what Couples Therapy suggests, is that “there’s something totally new in what’s happening” to our relationships during the pandemic, as Guralnik at one point muses. “People are willing to suffer through their own vulnerabilities and tolerate the fact that we don’t always know what’s going on, we don’t have a solution, and sit through the ambiguity of things, and let things happen, and let things unfold,” she goes on. How we handle this together, and what we learn from it, could have implications for a decade, or a lifetime.

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In that sense, the Couples Therapy special is optimistic: The couples it features might be honest about their struggles, but they’re also people who love each other enough to put in the work of trying. They — like every other couple this year — are navigating a life-changing event together, unsure of what it means for their future, but also willing to find out.

Willing to say yes.