A new kinda love

Anouchka Grose hopes healthier relationships might emerge after lockdown

One annoying thing about deadly and highly transmissible viruses is that they severely complicate our proximity to other people. For those of us not ensconced in live-in relationships – or in any romantic / erotic / pathetic relationship – the prospect of lockdown was scary. We were going to be unequivocally on our own. Of course, it must have been equally, differently horrifying for those stuck in frustrating / conflictual / tedious relationships. You tell me. We were going to be imprisoned either way, with or without someone, and in each case it might not be nice.

A short way into Lockdown #1 articles started appearing, drawing up the effects on, loosely speaking, “love”. Bad relationships were getting worse and domestic abuse was soaring, divorces were being filed for, while a few lucky couples were really digging the extra time together. Old flames were being reignited, and sometimes it even went well.

Perhaps more surprisingly, dating apps were booming. New, Covid-friendly modes of wooing were being invented on the hoof by people who refused to accept virus-enforced singledom. Zoom cocktails, Netflix Party and park benches made it possible to meet new people without breaking the law.

Things took a bit longer because hook-ups were off the menu, but there was consensus around the idea that this was a good thing. People had to speak to each other – multiple times. Drunken snogging was not an option on Skype. Plus we were all immersed in a super-boring apocalypse, so were inevitably more empathic, more patient, more inclined to let other people into our hearts and heads. (I know it wasn’t all like this. Some people just carried on unscrupulously shagging, but they were less likely to tell readers all about it in a think piece).

Having stumbled into lockdown in the throes of a hastily-started, totally lamentable, mostly virtual love affair – which burned itself out in roughly the time it took Prof. Neil Ferguson to lose his job – a friend persuaded me to sign up to Hinge on the grounds that, “Everyone who’s actually good at meeting people in real life is on there now, it’s the only decent time to do it”. This turned out at least to be self-fulfilling. She later told herself when things weren’t looking so rosy: “Oh well, it must be OK because Anouchka’s doing it.” Thanks!

Meanwhile I chatted – and by that I mean listened – to people who were radically incapable of two-way conversation. I “met” a man who said he wanted to rip all my exes’ throats out with his bare nails (no park bench for that guy) and was accidentally shown a dick pic by a sweet older man who was trying to charm me with pictures of ducks on his phone. Wrong vowel, Mister!

Pretty soon it became clear that lockdown was no period of grace for prospective lovers. In fact it was pretty hard work. Things briefly rekindled then flopped with the Lamentable One, leaving me to conclude that love was a business best left alone, at least until reality was legalised. FFS, it dragged on though! And perhaps our collective ideas about love and lockdown started to morph into new myths about the future. When things switched back on again it would be different and better.

At the beginning we had perhaps imagined a future orgy of sweaty dancing, shared snacks and harmless sneezes, but as lockdown dragged on and on the after-party stopped looking so Gatsby

Enforced solitude had taught us a lesson. Some people had learned to appreciate the value of the relationships they already had. Some had vowed to commit to finding love in whatever window opened up before the next catastrophe. Some had decided that keeping their own company wasn’t such a bad option after all. I think I thought I’d be more accepting of people. (I still think this, but in a kind of platonic way that doesn’t necessarily apply to real situations.)

At the beginning we had perhaps imagined a future orgy of sweaty dancing, shared snacks and harmless sneezes, but as lockdown dragged on and on the after-party stopped looking so Gatsby. Life and love are hard, whatever way you spin it. Hell didn’t stop being other people just because you hadn’t seen them for a while. Perhaps staying in was better.

Now that we are allowed to meet and eat we are also invited to remember what it’s like to feel alone in company, to bite our tongues out of politeness or, in my case, to shoot our mouths off and regret it the next day. Proximity hasn’t piqued us in these ways for ages, but so far it seems the minor wounds of social existence haven’t lost their sting. Having said that, the excitement and novelty of multiway conversation can be almost orgasmic — and I do notice people being fantastically courteous, just as happy to listen as to speak. Also, chatting with new people about whatever pops into anyone’s head has never felt more delicious.

So what can we learn, love-wise, from these fourteen months of communal disruption? Perhaps, behind all the pop cultural clichés, there is a deeper and more difficult set of realisations around what another person is, and what we may all be hoping to do with  one another.

From seeming like a crazy, theatrical convention, avoiding people on pavements is now, for many, a reflex. The idea has dawned on us, consciously, that other people are risky, and we are risky to them. We might carry things inside us, without knowing, that will be their undoing. They might make our children sick. We might blithely enjoy ourselves with one another while harming invisible people elsewhere.

But wasn’t this always the case?

Perhaps, as opposed to the bacchanalian re-entry that sold itself to us before we got wise, we might now find ourselves steeped in a new caution. I was struck, in the week before lockdown when everyone was panic shopping, by the bizarre contemporary dance previously known as buying loo paper. When the trolley rolled out of the stockroom into the supermarket aisle people tried to stay as close to it as they could, while also keeping two metres apart. The ones who had already got the loo paper then had to move away from the epicentre, causing complex, expanding ripples in the converging crowd. It seemed a beautifully choreographed performance of self interest and altruism— at least in my Sainsbury’s, where everyone is nice.

What if love could be more like that? Of course we have to be frank about the fact that we are trying to get something — attention, affirmation, affection — but perhaps we can do it more carefully, generously, aware of the fact that our presence may cause disruption in another person’s life, and vice versa. Rather than the model of hunter and prey, from those far-distant days when books like The Game weren’t seen as a bit rapey, we could have something more improvisationally pas-de-deux (or trois or quatre if that’s what you’re
into). Something where all sides move to accommodate each other rather than attempting to mug each other for a stash of satisfaction.

Throughout lockdown I kept my daughter’s framed copy of Desiderata on the living room mantelpiece. Everything it says is pretty helpful (I don’t even mind the atheist-friendly God part) but perhaps especially, “[D]o not feign affection. Neither be cynical about love: for in the face of all aridity and disenchantment it is as perennial as the grass.” I figured, if everything else it says sounds about right, ergo love will happen again in the future. And perhaps it will be even possible to invent a new type of sentimental dance to make it a little kinder.

Anouchka Grose is a psychoanalyst and writer based in London. Her books include “No More Silly Love Songs: a realist’s guide to romance” (Portobello 2010) and “A Guide to Eco-Anxiety: how to protect the planet and your mental health” (Watkins 2020)

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