Love in the Time of COVID-19: Coping With Separation From a Partner

The COVID-19 pandemic has had a drastic impact on all of our daily lives. While many can stay at home with their partners, other couples are separated indefinitely while restrictions on travel are in effect, or as a means to prevent transmitting the virus to a partner who is especially vulnerable to developing a critical illness. It can feel especially isolating to be apart from a partner at a time like this when we most need support from loved ones, especially when the duration of the separation is unknown. Here are some tips for managing this difficult situation:

1. Find ways to maintain your connection while you are apart

Some things to consider:

– Technology now offers a variety of ways to engage with someone remotely. In addition to phone calls and video chats, consider multiplayer online games as an option. These are not limited to traditional video games. Some of these games allow you to simulate playing a board game or completing a puzzle together!), or websites that will enable you to stream the same video together. 

– Rituals can feel grounding at a time like this; consider having a shared mealtime or coffee over video chat, or making a point to wish one another good morning and good night each day. 

– If possible, consider having some of your partner’s favourite snacks or other things they enjoy delivered to them.

– Discuss what each of you needs when it comes to communication. What works best for each of you in terms of scheduling and other commitments? Having a conversation together helps to mitigate the chances of misunderstandings and hurt feelings in this stressful time.

2. Take things one day at a time

It is natural to worry about how long it will be before you can see your partner again, or what the worst-case scenario could be. Still, these worries often contribute to high levels of stress while not helping us to adapt to the situation at hand, especially as it has been rapidly evolving. What can you and your partner do to keep yourselves safe while staying connected today and in the near future? What are the things you can be grateful for, even in these challenging times?

3. Take time to speak about your concerns about the pandemic and how it will impact you or others

Understand that your partner may have very different concerns from your own, as this pandemic is having a range of impacts on people. Some may be worried about their health or the health of loved ones, others may be struggling with lost work or other financial difficulties, and still, others may be distressed about missing important events. Be sure to take time to talk about these concerns so that you can support and validate one another.

4. Take time to speak about literally anything else

While it can be challenging to maintain a sense of normalcy and to maintain your connection as a couple, it’s also important to talk about things other than the pandemic: different aspects of your daily lives, your hobbies, and interests, your hopes and wishes, etc. Consider whether there may be opportunities to talk more deeply about some of these things than you might typically, given the extended time apart and disruptions to your routines and way of life. While you may not be able to avoid a painful time away from your partner, are there ways you can use this time to develop your relationship in a new way?

5. If you live alone, identify others around you who can provide help if you need it (for example, if you are ill or otherwise self-isolating and need someone to run essential errands for you)

Our partners often take on these tasks for us, and it can be anxiety-provoking to be without them at a time when we may need such help; neighbours, extended family, friends, or coworkers may be able to help if asked. If you do not have a robust social network in your area, look into community resources that may be able to help those in need. If you are healthy, also consider whether you might be able to volunteer to provide help for others in your community.

The pandemic has spun the world into a challenging time, and it’s okay not to feel okay being away from your partner right now. In addition to these tips, be sure to take care of yourself and reach out for (and provide, as you are able) support from others in your life, to help cope with this difficult time.

Clinicians at CFIR can work with you to collaboratively set treatment goals to ensure that you or you and your partner’s concerns and needs are adequately addressed. Secure and confidential video and phone treatment options are available. Contact us today.

Dr. Tracy Clouthier, C.Psych. (Supervised Practice) is currently practicing under the supervision of Drs. Dino Zuccarini, C.Psych. and Aleks Milosevic, C.Psych at CFIR (Ottawa) provide psychological treatment and assessment services in both English and French to adult clients facing a variety of difficulties, including depression, anxiety, relationship challenges, concerns related to self-esteem and identity, difficulties with emotion regulation, trauma, and challenges adjusting to life transitions and other stresses.

Passionate Love, Lust, and Attachment: The Neurochemistry of Falling in Love, Bonding, and Staying Lustful! (Pt.2)

Does love lead to lust? Can lust lead to love? And how does all of this somehow end up in our developing an attachment bond with someone else? This is Part 2 of my blog series on adult romantic passionate love, lust, and the formation of attachment bonds in couples.

Passionate Love, Lust, and Attachment: The Neurochemical Relationship Between Romantic Passionate Love, Sex, and Attachment (Blog 2 of 2)

In the early days of passionate love, sexual desire is increased due to increasing levels of dopamine and testosterone. This increased sexual activity may then also be implicated in the development of our attachment bonds. Should you worry that, despite your efforts at restraint, your repeated lustful nights with a new love interest might turn into passionate love and attachment? Can falling in love lead to lust, or can lust lead to love and bonding?

Both women and men have sexual cravings fueled by testosterone. Higher testosterone levels create greater lustful possibilities and motivate us to seek out others for sexual play. Sexual desire is recognized as different than adult passionate romantic love in different cultures and it has been shown to light up different regions of the brain in fMRI studies. In my previous related blog post titled “Passionate Love, Lust, and Attachment: The Neurochemistry of Romantic Passionate Love,” I referred to Fisher’s (2004) work linking higher levels of dopamine with romantic passionate love and how these higher dopamine levels increase the release of testosterone, the hormone of sexual desire. As a result of the romantic novelty, a new partner automatically drives up our testosterone levels because of the related increase in dopamine levels. However, Fisher notes that the reverse may also be true: sexual activity raises testosterone, which also increases dopamine and norepinephrine in our brains, which means you could end up creating a more stable attachment bond and falling in love with a casual sexual partner.

Eventually, romantic passionate love moves into the attachment phase of love. For some couples, this will mean the chemically-induced romantic passionate phase with its more energetic and exciting versions of their sex lives will begin to wane as the comfort, calm, and relaxation of attachment security sets in. With the ensuing shift in neurochemicals, the exaggeration of similarities and the obscuring of differences between partners will also wane and the realization that differences exist may become a source of conflict and diminished connectedness. For some partners, a feeling of sameness and oneness was an important driver of their passion in the first place. For others, these newfound differences will not threaten each partner and can instead become a place of intrigue, curiosity, and new learning. At this stage, secure attachment might provide couples with the best possibilities for navigating the recognition of self-related differences as partners feel enough safety and trust in the relationship to tolerate and explore the difference.

Once the attachment phase of the relationship settles in, Esther Perel (2006), author of Mating in Captivity, notes that couples can struggle to reclaim the passion of these earlier days as it is difficult to reconcile the safety and security of long-term attachment with the excitement of eroticism. For Perel, the erotic is the exotic, meaning desire requires risk-taking, novelty, and space, which can certainly oppose the safety and security focus of the attachment phase of the relationship. Some partners who are securely attached continue to keep a healthy level of desire in their sexual relationships because secure attachment allows them to take sexual risks and create sexual novelty without the fear of rejection. The securely attached are, therefore, able to continue to explore the sexual, erotic, and novel, within the context of a safe, secure, and nurturing relationship (Zuccarini, 2004; 2008; Johnson & Zuccarini, 2010; 2012).

Further neurochemical action tethers together passion, sex, and attachment. Oxytocin is the attachment-related neuropeptide that may be physiologically implicated in the process of moving us from passionate love and lust to an attachment bond with our beloved. For instance, oxytocin increases dramatically during sexual arousal and orgasm, as well as in pair-bonding (Hazan & Zeifman, 1999). What this means is that, while we are lustful, we also benefit from the attachment neuropeptide, which results in a sense of calm, safety, security, and relaxation. We are then motivated to seek out the pleasure of sex and the ensuing sense of calm and relaxation caused by oxytocin. Over time, sexuality becomes a space that can deepen our attachment to another as a result of the release of oxytocin involved in our sexual interactions. In this way, we are tethered together through passion, sex, and attachment in a neurochemical manner!

Clinicians at CFIR work to support clients to develop passionate relationships within the context of secure attachment bonds. The more securely attached you are with your loved one, the more you can take risks to share your passions, fantasies, and explore the erotic without fear of judgement, rejection, and abandonment. At CFIR we recognize that sexual desire that includes novelty and risk-taking can solidify secure attachment, while at the same time understanding that secure attachment can facilitate the risk-taking and novelty required for a relationship of romantic passionate love.

Dr. Dino Zuccarini, C.Psych. is CEO and co-founder of the CFIR. He has published book chapters and peer-reviewed journal articles on the subject of attachment, attachment injuries in couples, and attachment and sexuality. He has taught courses at the University of Ottawa in Interpersonal Relationships, Family Psychology, and Human Sexual Behaviour. He has a thriving clinical practice in which he treats individuals suffering from complex attachment-related trauma, difficult family of origin issues that have affected self and relationship development, depression and anxiety, personality disorders, sex and sexuality-related issues, and couple relationships. At CFIR, he also supports the professional development of counsellors, psychotherapists, and supervised practice psychologists by providing clinical supervision.

Passionate Love, Lust, and Attachment: The Neurochemistry of Falling in Love, Bonding, and Staying Lustful!

We are all hardwired to fall in love, share lustful moments, and bond with others. In fact, there are complex neurochemicals that are released during all of these different phases of relationship development. In this 2-part blog series, I will share important information with you about the neurochemistry of falling in love, how falling in love influences lust, how lust influences falling in love, and how all of this leads to attachment bonding in relationships!

Passionate Love, Lust, and Attachment: The Neurochemistry of Romantic Passionate Love (Blog 1 of 2)

Have you ever found yourself tightly gripping and constantly checking your cellphone awaiting contact from your new love interest? If so, you may be in the phase of the universal experience of adult romantic passionate love. Across history and cultures, we have fallen in love, lusted for others, and attached to them as a result of innate emotion-motivation systems in the brain that drive us to create relationships. In her book Why We Love: The Nature and Chemistry of Romantic Love, Helen Fisher (2004) describes the adult romantic passionate love phase as an initial phase in the formation of an adult attachment bond. Read on to find out how the neurotransmitters in our brain – dopamine, norepinephrine, and serotonin – are implicated in you falling in love.

First, Fisher described the universal experience of romantic love based on her research. When falling in love, our new partner is imbued with special meaning (i.e., unique, all-important, novel). We also develop strong focus as our beloved becomes the centre of our attention and we pay special notice of our shared events, messages, music, etc. During this period, we also aggrandize our new love. We may magnify positive aspects of our adored one while minimizing flaws and exaggerating our similarities. We experience intrusive thoughts as we just cannot stop thinking about our new loved one. Emotionally, Fisher describes us as being “on fire.” We experience intense emotions and find ourselves feeling anxious, shy, and awkward at times. We have an increase in energy as well. All of a sudden we find ourselves staying up late, having sex all night, and still making it to work … then doing it all over again the next day. This energy burst also comes with a loss of appetite and sleeplessness. Driven by a deep stirring to connect, our moods can shift rapidly from ecstasy to despair depending on whether our beloved is as responsive to us as we would like. We also become hypersensitive looking for clues about whether our beloved is into us or not! Finally, Fisher noted that when we are infatuated, we are more likely to change elements of our personal identity like clothing and music preferences, alter our mannerisms and habits, and even take on new values, all to win over our new love interest.

Once you fall in love, it is hard to turn back, as a result of the numerous neurotransmitters at play. Fisher’s research using fMRI studies found that dopamine, serotonin, and norepinephrine are the neurotransmitters at the root of passion for our new love. She found elevated levels of dopamine, which is at the root of the hyper focus, high motivation, high energy, and exhilaration, sleeplessness, and loss of appetite. She claims that this neurotransmitter, when heightened during romantic passionate love, creates something within us similar to an addiction process, intense dependency, and cravings to be with our lover. High levels of dopamine are also found in fMRI studies of individuals experiencing a drug addiction. Love becomes so addictive at this point that when you do not have access to your new loved one, more dopamine is released to energize you to focus on further pursuing the reward of being with them. Testosterone, the hormone at the root of sexual desire, is also increased in our bodies as a result of the higher levels of dopamine. In other words, increases in dopamine come with novelty and passionate love, which then increases sexual desire through a heightening of testosterone.

Finally, the neurotransmitters norepinephrine and serotonin are also implicated in romantic passionate love. Increased norepinephrine adds to the high, exhilaration, energy, and sleeplessness we experience, and fuels us to remember the smallest details about our lover. Serotonin is lowered, which results in the obsessiveness and racing thoughts we experience. With increases in dopamine and norepinephrine, and decreases in serotonin, we enter into positive states of mind about the other and obscure negative aspects of the beloved. We are neurochemically primed through these transmitters to also experience a sense of oneness based on exaggeration of similarities and minimization of difference. These effects facilitate a sense of symbiosis, which eventually wanes after about 8 to 12 months when the tidal wave of neurochemicals subsides. At this point, we begin to realize our differences with our beloved, which can then bring on more conflict for some couples. Fisher’s conclusion based on fMRI studies was that adult romantic passionate love is a primary motivation system in the brain and stems from the changes in neurotransmitters summarized in this blog post.

Fisher’s research studies explain why in the early stages of a relationship, particularly during the adult romantic passionate love phase, many partners will describe having had “tons of great sex” and then later wonder “where did it go?!” For those of you who wondered, this chemically heightened period that revs your sexual motor only lasts for about one year. After this period, sex within the context of an attachment bond becomes motivated by different goals. See my other blogs on attachment and sex, including Part 2 of this blog series, to see what happens to couple sexuality once couples move from romantic passionate love to a more stable long-term bond.

Clinicians at CFIR work to support clients to develop passionate relationships and secure attachment bonds. We recognize that novelty and a connection are important contributors to a lifetime of passion. We also support our clients to recognize that falling in love might be a different experience from the process of establishing a secure attachment bond with a partner. Once the adult romantic passionate love phase ends, usually within one year, the dust settles and our self and relationship experience can shift. Learn how to recognize the telltale signs of whether you have found Mr./Ms. Right in a future blog post titled “Is This Mr./Ms. Right or Wrong?: Consider This Dating and Relationship Screener Before You Say ‘I Do’”, so that when the adult romantic passionate love phase settles, you will be ready for a lifetime of love.

Dr. Dino Zuccarini, C.Psych. is CEO and co-founder of the CFIR. He has published book chapters and peer-reviewed journal articles on the subject of attachment, attachment injuries in couples, and attachment and sexuality. He has taught courses at the University of Ottawa in Interpersonal Relationships, Family Psychology, and Human Sexual Behaviour. He has a thriving clinical practice in which he treats individuals suffering from complex attachment-related trauma, difficult family of origin issues that have affected self and relationship development, depression and anxiety, personality disorders, sex and sexuality-related issues, and couple relationships. At CFIR, he also supports the professional development of counsellors, psychotherapists, and supervised practice psychologists by providing clinical supervision.

Can You Fall Out of Love?

My colleague and friend, Genevieve Boudreault, and I were interviewed for a university podcast. At one point, the show host asked us, “Can you fall out of love?

Gen and I are therapists who specialize in working with both couples and individuals who come to us facing loneliness, heartbreak, and uncertainty whether they can make their relationship last.

Gen remarked: “No, I don’t think that you can fall out of love…” She seemed so confident in her answer. It made me pause.

Can you fall out of love?

I pondered this question for a while, thinking about the clients who come to me for help – many who have scars based on past relationships, showing that the effects of loving another are far-reaching.

Love changes your body chemistry. It can change the way you see the world and, conversely, when love ends, the world can feel like it is falling apart. The wounds of lost love can feel devastating. Therefore, when I was asked, “Can you fall out of love?” I responded that despite whether you can or can’t ‘fall out’ of love, there are some essential ways to keep yourself together if a relationship ends:

  • Talk to someone. Often when we are hurt, it can be a tendency to keep out feelings bottled up, to slink further into ourselves. Opening up about our heartache can lessen its effects.
  • Realize that love can come from more than a romantic partner. Friends, family, and colleagues can give fulfillment and a sense of security.
  • Take time to write out a letter to yourself about why things ended. This exercise has been incredibly useful for my clients who have had recent heartbreaks. Writing a loving letter can help keep perspective when we start to miss this person and wonder why it is over.
  • Talk to a therapist. While friends can offer love and comfort, therapists are skilled at seeing patterns of relating and can help guide you to feeling worth within yourself, so when you love again, you can feel stronger.

Psychologists and clinicians at CFIR help individuals and couples discover how to identify and express their selves in their relationships with others. We also support individuals and partners on how to exit from challenging relationship patterns and become more accessible and responsive to one another. Healthy relationship functioning is essential in maintaining a good sense of ourselves.

Jess A.L. Erb, D.Psychotherapy, R.P. (Qualifying) is a Registered Psychotherapist (Qualifying) who believes that the best therapy happens when a deep trust can form between counsellor and client. She works with adults and adolescents in an array of issues such as depression/suicidal ideation, anxiety/panic disorders, grief and loneliness, as well as all forms of abuse – emotional, physical, sexual, self-harm, and eating disorders. Before working as an associate at CFIR, she trained as a doctor in psychotherapy at the University of Edinburgh, UK.

Forgiveness and Reconciliation for Couples Post Affairs

Forgiveness and reconciliation after an extramarital affair is a complex process. Forgiveness occurs when there is an experiential shift in the injured partner toward the betraying partner— a movement toward softer feelings. This experiential shift requires an unpacking of different types of emotional reactions associated with these types of relationship traumas. The shattering of one’s sense of self, the other, and one’s sense of future identity in the aftermath of an affair can create instability and insecurity in one’s self and the relationship. These types of injuries result in complex emotional reactions that require resolution. Reconciliation, the next step in recovery, occurs when steps are taken to rebuild trust and restore the relationship after a forgiveness process. These steps are essential for the restoration of security.

The team of psychologists, psychotherapists, and counsellors at CFIR employ evidence-based interventions to support relationship partners beleaguered by emotional injuries in the aftermath of an affair. Steps to forgiveness and reconciliation and the interventions required for successful resolution of an extramarital affair have been delineated in research conducted by Dr. Zuccarini, C.Psych., co-founder of the Centre for Interpersonal Relationships. (Zuccarini et al., 2013). Clinicians at CFIR are prepared to support you in promoting healing in your relationship.