Love No LimitCan a Relationship Survive a Pandemic?

a colorful collage of illustrations of Black people being in close quarters during the quarantine

Illustration by Nicole Medina

We are a nation and world in crisis—anxious, grieving, exhausted, and terrified both by what we know and what we don’t know about the pandemic that has essentially shut our lives down. Many of us are fortunate: We’re privileged enough to shelter in place in environments that aren’t dangerous. Our jobs aren’t considered essential, and we have the luxury of working from home. We have unlimited access to wi-fi and streaming services, and we have too much food to eat. We are, strangely but not, adjusting to a new normal. But we can’t deny that this pandemic is heavily impacting our relationships in ways that most of us are unequipped to handle. Whether we are challenged by the demands at work, or the responsibilities of parenting 24 hours a day, many of us feel as if we’re drowning and failing at being the best humans that we can be.

Our romantic relationships are likely being tested in ways we’ve never experienced before as we stay home with our significant others, and some experts are wondering whether many long-term, romantic partnerships will survive the coronavirus pandemic. As a soldier of love, I always believe that love will survive and endure, that this pandemic will give us the space and opportunity to dig deep into the love, compassion, and care we have for our lovers and ourselves. But the reality is the stress of trying to navigate a worldwide crisis is testing many love relationships that were already strained before this pandemic hit.

For instance, as China—the first country to demand self-quarantine and shelter in place for its citizens—reopens and moves back toward regular daily life, many married couples there are filing for divorce. Spending every waking moment with another human—when our patience and ability to be gracious is running thin—is making many of us question why we chose to be in a relationship with our partners, or in a relationship at all. And while it’s true that some couples discover things about each other that might be irreconcilable or nonnegotiable, most of us can avoid major conflicts with our partners and save our relationships by working to become better lovers—first to ourselves and then to the people we have chosen to love and build our lives with.

Here are three tips for loving in the time of coronavirus:

Practice Self-Care and Self-Love—First

In her 1988 book, A Burst of Light and Other Essays, Audre Lorde wrote, “Caring for [yourself] is not self-indulgence; it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.” In Lorde’s view, self-care is a radical political act that’s essential to our survival. It’s challenging right now to practice self-care, especially since, thanks to capitalism, the idea of it has taken on a new (and expensive) meaning. Self-care isn’t just about spa days and boozy brunches (though we all deserve spa days and brunches with friends when this is all over). In this moment, self-care might look more like staying rooted in self (or being self-aware) and setting and maintaining boundaries. Staying rooted in yourself will make you more aware of your own moods and behaviors—and more importantly, why you’re experiencing those emotions. When we embrace all the emotions we’re feeling—anger, grief, gratitude—and work to name them, we can ease a great deal of the anxiety we’re enduring right now.

As an added bonus, the more rooted we are in how we feel, the better we can communicate those feelings to our partners, who probably have no idea how to read our emotional needs right now. Once we’re more rooted in what and how we feel, we can better assess our needs and clearly explain what we can and can’t do for—or accept from—our lovers. Those boundaries might include telling your spouse that you’re not accessible 24 hours a day—even if you’re quarantining together. Or it might mean telling your partner you can’t carry the same load, physically or emotionally, that you were before the pandemic because all this uncertainty and fear is exhausting you. When you’re practicing more self-awareness, you’ll be able to better negotiate your needs and boundaries, which will improve communication in your relationship.

Embrace Change

There’s no better time than now to revisit the works of Afrofuturist visionary griot Octavia E. Butler, who wrote many novels that seem prophetic in this moment. As I’ve been navigating this pandemic, I’ve been repeating this quote from her 1993 novel, Parable of the Sower, to soothe my anxiety:

is the one unavoidable,
ongoing reality of the universe.
To us,
that makes it the most powerful reality,
and just another word for

The only thing constant is change, and when we choose to embrace change instead of fighting it, we make our lives easier. Things are changing by the minute as this pandemic sweeps through the cities and communities we love, and while we shouldn’t beat ourselves up for stressing and panicking, we somehow have to work to become more fluid and allow more room for error and space for grace, especially for ourselves, but also for the people we love. We are searching for calmness, sameness, and consistency, though it’s nowhere to be found. That’s okay.

When we’re bombarded with and frustrated by change, the key is to see it as both unavoidable and an opportunity to embrace or create something new in our lives. Also, when we observe changes in ourselves or in our lovers that we deem negative, we can note the possible reason for those changes (hello, crisis!), and not move to immediately address or correct them. And if we do choose to address or correct the changes we see, we should do so with compassion and remember that there are no winners in being critical of ourselves or those we love right now.

We are searching for calmness, sameness, and consistency, though it’s nowhere to be found. That’s okay.

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Prioritize Pleasure

We are human, so we need and deserve pleasure—even in these heavy, heartbreaking times. In her 2019 book, Pleasure Activism: The Politics of Feeling Good, writer, thinker, and strategist   adrienne maree brown asserts that she has “seen how denying our full, complex selves…our aliveness and our needs as living, sensual beings” leads us to “be at odds with ourselves, our loved ones, our coworkers, and our neighbors on this planet.” It might seem impossible to prioritize pleasure in this moment, but try to find delight in things that make you feel beautiful and allow those gifts to move you toward intimacy and pleasure. 

Maybe pleasure comes through stretching and bending your body during a yoga practice or taking a few extra moments to moisturize (and touch!) your body after a shower. Whatever it is, do it. Do it for you first, and that will likely lead you back to the love and lust you have for your partner (or even for yourself). Orgasms can relieve stress and boost our mood by releasing endorphins, helping with our libidos, and even helping us rest. This is a perfect moment to explore desire, fantasy, and more with your lover—as there is always something to teach and learn about pleasure—and what gets us off—in our romantic connections.

What about you? I’d love to hear what you’re doing to stay connected with your lover during quarantine! Tweet me at @jonubian. And if you want to ask me questions about love, relationships, and/or sex, email us at Maybe I’ll answer your questions in a future column!


Josie Pickens
by Josie Pickens
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Josie Pickens is a womanist professor, cultural critic, and radio host whose many works explore the intersections of race, gender, and sexuality. Much of her writing seeks to curate expansive conversations about love, pleasure and healthy relationships. Follow Jo on Twitter: @jonubian.