Thursday, Mar 30, 2023

Has Covid Changed Our Definition of ‘Intimacy’?

Has Covid Changed Our Definition of ‘Intimacy’?

Many were quick to share that discussing intimacy, once a sideissue relegated to the background, now occupied the central hour.

Representational image.

Reena was thrilled when she realized Covid lockdown would result in spending time with her husband. Ravi and she were married some time ago and had been unable to spend time with each other. Like all couples they had been overtaken by the demands to earn money, take care of the family and the lockdown would help them to be with each other 24 hours a day and give them enough privacy to discover what they had lost. She felt it was an opportunity, god-given and one that comes in a lifetime. Both of them worked in high-profile jobs. The isolation of Covid was a boon, a gift that could be used to be together and discover intimacy, the most missed and valued attribute of modern life.

They were with each other 24x7 and she felt the time they spent together being intimate both emotionally and sexually, had enhanced many folds. Yet, there was something missing, a vacuum that she could not identify. One day it came as a crushing blow when routinely going through his laptop for an old account she found that he was spending time watching pornography and spending time on adult websites when he had told her he was busy in office work and could not be with her. On another portal she found him chatting at pornographic sites.

He had never been like this, she knew. What had happened to him, most of all at a time when she needed him the most emotionally and physically? Her body had reacted to him like never before and Covid was the gift. She had even told him in so many words.

Confronted, Ravi broke down and shared that he had indeed turned to pornography after the lockdown. “So, all the moments you told me your attention was on me and I was the focus of your desire, you were fantasizing about other women,” she said, feeling devastated. Looking away he said, “Yes.”

Reena came for therapy soon after. She had felt betrayed that her world had turned upside down and what she thought would create a new beginning for both of them, had actually made her aware of a sad reality she didn’t want to believe. While speaking to me in therapy she shared that she had made a rough estimate of how many hours he must have spent watching pornography daily and it came to almost 21 hours in the last week.“For the first time I feel I don’t know him,” she said.

Ravi’s story was not unique either. Many psychologists who see couples in therapy share that the Covid pandemic brought an increase in the use of pornography by men. It was not aided by the fact that few clients felt comfortable discussing this issue. Sexual intimacy and its discussion have remained closeted for long. The use of pornography, its impact, and any discussion draw strong responses from mental health professionals and clients alike ranging from utter liberalism to conservative reactions of disgust. It is not one that has a reasonable, coherent or clinical perspective of what constitutes a pornography problem and how to approach it like depression, anxiety and traumatic reaction.

According to a Nielson study done a few years ago, a massive 70 per cent of all users of pornography, especially men keep it a secret and nearly 20 per cent out of them report developing compulsive behavior that impacts their lives negatively. As a result, many mental health professionals call the addiction to pornography the most challenging and emerging mental health problem. Those affected by its use and are feeling disturbed by it can be either a nine-year-old girl to a 90-year-old grandfather.

Covid gave mankind a choice to discover intimacy again or lose it. In Shakespeare’s words, it was to be or not to be. By giving men and women an opportunity to be in proximity with each other never before known so far in human history, it gave a choice to be intimate once again, break the barriers that inhibited spontaneity that the digital world had snatched from our experience.

Has pornography then taken an insidious and silent route during the pandemic and wandered into the deep recesses of our psyche and its impact felt on the most sacred citadel of human experience, otherwise known as intimacy. As I hear client after client in therapy, mostly women and sometimes with their partners, it seems that the pandemic has destroyed the hopes of many creating a labyrinth, a monster that none of us imagined would overwhelm us this way.

Intimacy as psychiatrist, Eric Berne, defined is one of the six major ways in which human beings structure time. For intimacy to take place between two adults, all psychic defenses drop and they relate dropping all masks. This is a moment they become vulnerable, letting each other know who they are as a person as a sexual being.

Why did men, like Ravi, turn to pornography instead of the intimacy that their partner so desperately needed? Wasn’t he aware of his partner’s longing and needs? In a session, he revealed why he turned to pornography. “It was the collective fear, the paranoia of the times that got into me and made me almost childlike wanting to withdraw from the world.” So, did he see it as an opportunity like his newly married wife did, a chance for discovery and exploring the body, the inner self. “Sadly, no,” he shook his head. Was he aware that his relationship would ever take such a turn?

Intimacy is experienced by being fully in the moment. The feel of your partner’s skin against your skin, the joy of holding hands for a couple that melts into a feeling of union where your focus is on the other and the sensory processes it involves.

What Covid has painfully brought to the fore that many of us and especially men have forgotten to feel, the sensory beings that we were. We have replaced it with artificial constructs that has taken over the feeling of intimacy that our ancestors felt far deeper than us.The pandemic gave us a chance to regain it and we lost that chance to regain that space with us.

In one of the sessions, Ravi shared he was surprised that Reena had felt like questioning him and saying she felt an emptiness. On his own, he had felt watching pornography had made him a more involved lover. Reena had violently disagreed.

“What I had increasingly felt was conditions necessary for healthy sexuality; consent, equality, trust, safety were increasingly missing from his behavior. Reena told a stunned Ravi. “I had begun to feel as an object, as a commodity and often ended up feeling empty and humiliated. Ravi shared about his feelings of deep inferiority that he carried inside and tried to make it up by identifying with the characters he saw making love that was completely away from reality. “During Covid, your need for intimacy had gone up so much. I had felt threatened and felt I could meet that need only through pornography.”

Ravi’s predicament is not just his. As I listened in therapy, many men in this turbulent period felt an increasing need from their partner; the need for togetherness, a need for intimacy and felt lost and directionless as to how to meet this most intimate of all needs something that the period before Covid hadn’t asked of them.

I had thought that the above case was one of its kind but was to discover that many an intimate partner, primarily women were in obvious distress over their partners use of pornography during this period. Engagements had been broken, long-term relationships had been destroyed with trust shattered and talks of divorce and compatibility reaching the therapists’ clinic. The number of couples who asked for it took me by surprise so I asked other colleagues. Many were quick to share that discussing intimacy, once a side-issue relegated to the background, now occupied the central hour.

Why we, the mental health professionals, didn’t see it coming earlier? Why we didn’t see pornography as becoming the critical, essential part of human sexual response that would one day alter it and do so totally during Covid for so many? Is it that confronted with a need for intimacy from their partners and a physical longing that Covid seemed to promise, many men faltered and reached out to an image, a toy rather than a partner of flesh and blood full of aspirations and dreams? Maybe the future holds the answer to this when the effects of Covid seem to get erased a little.

The reactions of Reena and many other women were almost identical to what I found in women who had to deal with issues of infidelity. As Reena put it, “I felt betrayed and devastated with knowing my husband’s relationship with pornography and the women in them.” It didn’t help when Ravi told her that his object of fantasy was on celluloid and consisted of pixels on a screen and nowhere a real person. Why she felt betrayed was because he had channeled his sexual attention and energy away from her, onto something else and lied to her about it. She felt as abandoned, insulted and betrayed as if had he been with another woman. Would she have felt the same had it been without Covid, I had asked “Maybe not so much,” she had answered. “Covid was life-threatening, we turned to each other for everything and it gave rise to emotions that I didn’t know existed in me. In the same way, I turned totally towards him focusing and centering on him, I felt he would do the same and reciprocate.”

As I shared her reactions with some other women in therapy, their silent nods told me Reena was not alone in her beliefs.

Soon after the vaccination process began and things started to come back to normal, I had asked him how much he was aware of Reena’s longings and why quitting pornography was so difficult. “The period of Covid hit me too hard and was depressing. The isolation, the withdrawal from everyone was something that shook me to the core. While she turned to me, I didn’t know how to turn to her. Though I faced the demands on my body, my mind, and my soul by withdrawing into fantasy, she didn’t. I know I failed her and turned to pornography as it gave me a high, an adrenalin rush that made me navigate the epidemic and survive.”

“And how would you assess yourself?”

“It has destroyed a part of me and a part of her that will never heal,” he replied.

“Is it true what they say that men are from Mars and women are from Venus?” he posed a final question before leaving. “Can I make her understand that in flesh and blood, she is mine and will remain so?”

Then as if reflecting on himself, he said, “I have understood what I did is reflects that. I had forgotten what it meant to be intimate. There came a moment when I could have retrieved it and put it back in our relationship. I wonder if I will get such a chance again.”


(The author is a clinical psychologist and professor, Amity University. Views expressed are personal.)