During quarantine, the couples we work with in our virtual couples therapy have endured significant changes in their lives and relationships in a short amount of time: self-isolating together in small apartments, finding ways to balance work, parenting, and their relationship, trying to not to regress into old conflicts, and just attempting to deal with the daily stress of a pandemic. Working remotely since March, our couples therapists too have experienced substantial shifts in how they provide couples therapy via phone and video chat platforms, such as Zoom and Google Meet. In order to reflect on these last few months of both self-isolation and virtual couples therapy, two of our remote couples therapists–Liz Graham and Kelly Scott–got together online for a discussion:
Kelly Scott: What has it been like for you to practice phone and video couples therapy in the epicenter of the pandemic since March when everyone was ordered to stay home and people felt like they lost all sense of control over their lives?
Liz Graham: For the couples I worked with prior to COVID-19, that work has really evened out since mid-March. Early on, folks were all dealing with the same crisis. There was a new commonality amongst all my patients as everyone struggled with the same things. I tried to offer that solidarity–there’s a hopefulness in something being universal.
At that time, we did a ton of work to help couples adapt to the transition and change of quarantine. A lot of folks were able to do that in really badass, successful ways, and now are back to the building work we were doing before. Of course, building doesn’t mean there aren’t moments of tension or conflict. The work always makes room for both.
I also started working with many new couples in teletherapy and video chat therapy since mid-March. It seems like quarantine and the stress of COVID have switched on a flashlight to some existing pain points within relationships that couples have previously been able to avoid or develop their family system around covering up. Not because these couples were intentionally avoiding tough stuff (though this is also true in some cases), but more so because their lives facilitated or cultivated paths around the muck, rather than through it. Couples realized: “This thing we’ve been trying to out-maneuver caught up with us, and now we’re drowning.” So for new couples in my online couples therapy sessions, there have been a lot of big needs to be dealt with fast.
Kelly: In mid-March, we were all in a rapidly cycling state of hope alternating with shock. No one knew how to assemble their coping mechanisms because we didn’t know what we needed to cope with yet. Now that things have settled a lot, my online couples therapy consists of much less triage and is now closer to how the work felt pre-quarantine. With some of my couples in remote couples therapy, the pandemic hasn’t even been acknowledged because it has so little to do with what we’re working on.
Liz: Yes, I think that’s really right. Then there’s this other portion of the work that is specific to maintaining a relationship during a pandemic, which takes even more planning and organizing right now, especially for couples with kids. Couples are always pressured by this idea that relationships and love should “feel easy” and fluid. Generosity around time and intimacy should always flow like the salmon of Capistrano (yes, a Dumb and Dumber reference). Sometimes this is true, and that’s really wonderful and should be celebrated. Other times, though, there are blocks to closeness and intimacy like, for example, a quarantine, a pandemic, added stress, exhaustion, or a prior unresolved conflict. In this case, couples have to work hard to identify the obstacle and work through it in order for the desire to be generous with and close to a partner to lead.
How are you finding virtual couples therapy sessions?
Kelly: I’ve gone in waves, but right now I’m really enjoying remote couples therapy work. The setup requires couples to appear on the same screen, which also requires them to get over themselves a little. They can be mad, but they have to sit next to each other. There’s definitely less acting out in session.
In general, I’ve been surprised and appreciative of how game my couples have been–both with each other and in our online couples therapy sessions. Generosity is so essential. My couples are finding new ways to be generous with each other and also with me. If I had a nickel each time my dog interrupted a virtual therapy session…
Liz: For me, virtual couples therapy sessions have become quickly normal and a non-issue. It’s crazy how quickly our brains adapt to change. My online couples therapy sessions feel as deep and energizing as therapy in person. We can make space for big feelings in the same way too. Technology can be frustrating, but it also gives us opportunities to either join in a moment of aggravation or laugh at a ridiculous glitch.
Kelly: I’m feeling a ton of appreciation for the courage couples are showing in diving into tough stuff when they’re smushed next to each other on a couch, on the floor, or in bed to see a computer screen. They’re also unable to get away from each other if a session or conversation goes badly. I’m really feeling the responsibility I have in being the Safety Director. I am vigilant about pacing, specific topics, depth of conversation, and how much disruption a couple can tolerate. I think that’s part of what makes remote couples therapy more exhausting–we’re just literally having to work harder as online couples therapists.
Liz: Absolutely. Every session I’m doing heavy weight lifting to assess, manage, and contain.
I’m also appreciative of how hard my patients are willing to work right now, with themselves and each other. I’m repeatedly surprised as we go deeper and deeper into the work. It’s both amazing and deeply strenuous. Since COVID began, I’ve felt so impressed by how much my patients have given to each other, the relationship, and the work we’re doing. Even when they don’t want to, they’re still showing up. It’s hard to be vulnerable week after week, and get down in the muck in the face of added stress. But I’ve continued to watch my online couples therapy patients do it. And we’re all able to relish in the expansiveness we’ve created.
I feel like I’m romanticizing the process a bit and I don’t want to. It includes a lot of blood, sweat, and tears. It isn’t always linear (sometimes we go in a circle or backwards). But I think you’ve caught me at a particularly gratifying moment in which I am just feeling so grateful, touched, and energized by the work my phone and video couples therapy patients are willing to do on themselves and for each other.