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The Power of Intimacy in a Pandemic

Howard Hughes spent the last two decades of his life hiding from human contact. Notorious for taking extreme measures to avoid germs, he even wrote a manual for his staff on the “healthy” way to open canned goods. A psychological autopsy published by the APA in 2005 pinpointed the origin of his fear as Hughes’ childhood of isolation managed by a highly protective mother. The major health threat at the time was the polio epidemic, which caused public swimming pools, playgrounds, and movie theaters to close periodically in an effort to stop the spread.

Imagine being a child going through that.

I thought of Howard Hughes when someone—who was wearing an authentic-looking N95 mask—tried to hug me yesterday and I backed off. I thought of Hughes again when a neighbor without a mask showed up on my doorstep and tried to give me a magazine. I thought about him again when my dearly beloved tried to kiss me goodnight.

Can anyone be trusted?

My friends are in rural, suburban, and urban settings, with different levels of threat around them. Their stories about a desire for, yet fear of, intimacy with anyone have had widely different levels of intensity. Some have acknowledged concern, yet taken careful steps to have contact with people. Others come across to me as starving emotionally and trying to copy with a lingering sense of dread that separates them from everyone.

For the first four months of the pandemic, I didn’t really understand why some of my friends were so paranoid, except in cases where one partner worked in healthcare, at a hardware store, or at a grocery store. In my home, we were fine—enjoying each other on all levels.

We were having meals and watching movies together, and taking advantage of the fact that we were both at home during the day. “This isn’t bad . . . in fact, this is kinda good,” I concluded.

And then he “had to” fly somewhere for business. I put “had to” in quotes because as far as I’m concerned, there was no imperative to travel—to board a plane, use an airport restroom, stay in a hotel, get into elevators, have dinner anywhere but home. After that, I found myself feeling empathyfor germaphobes. In other words, I understood the pervasive fear that some of my friends had expressed to me. It became real, personal.

When we feel threatened, we become very self-focused. The brain starts to do checks on our body parts, silently asking, “Am I okay?” That me-centered exercise can degrade the healthy connection we have with a partner or anyone else we normally feel very close to. Like Howard Hughes, we retreat.

Now for some good news. That very person you are pulling away from most likely feels your fear—physically feels it—and can help you feel safe again.

When Trevor Crow Mullineaux, LMFT, and I wrote Forging Health Connections, we interviewed Dr. James A. Coan, who has done pioneering research in the neurological definition of “self” as well as the way the brain processes connections with other people. Dr. Coan is a psychology professor at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, where he serves as director of the Virginia Affective Neuroscience Laboratory. When we spoke with him, he talked about brain imaging studies documenting how certain regions of the brain are “threat responsive.” The way those regions of the brain activate when self is under threat correlate tightly with the way they activate when a close friend is under threat. He said,

A big thing that happens when we form a relationship with another person is that they become encoded as part of ourselves. That’s part of how the brain handles familiarity and closeness.

If we are afraid, we need to begin restoring a healthy connection by admitting it to our loved one, who no doubt already senses that something is wrong. To strengthen the connection that’s been degraded, we have to be honest about the degree to which we’re afraid, no matter how loony we think we sound.

Yes, you and your partner want to agree on safety protocols, but you also need to recognize that your partner “gets” your fear on a visceral level and has the ability to make you feel safer. Admitting you feel threatened is an invitation to let your loved one reduce your anxiety, and it’s as practical as passing the hand sanitizer.

Coan has done memorable experiments demonstrating how people co-regulate, specifically, how connections make tasks feel easier and dramatically reduce fear levels. In one experiment, Coan administered small electric shocks to sixteen married women whenever they saw an “X” flash before them. The women’s brains lit up to indicate a strong fear response when they felt the shock and were alone. It fell substantially when holding the hands of their husbands.

Lots of circumstances can damage a relationship: infidelity, disagreement over household finances, disparate parenting styles, opposing political views. We can add coronavirus to that list, but we have a way to “vaccinate” ourselves emotionally and psychologically. Even though this powerful, invisible thing does cause fear, we have an even more powerful, invisible thing that counters it: a healthy connection with the ones we love.

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