/ 27 May 2020

What relationship therapy can teach us about our connection to the world

India remains under an unprecedented lockdown due to Covid-19. (Yawar Nazir/Getty Images)
Crises, the kind that threaten our physical and psychological well-being, force us to stop. This unsolicited detour allows for a moment to pause. Psychologists speak of this time as reflection. (Yawar Nazir/Getty Images)


In finding solutions to complex issues, the wisdom is to consult widely. In academia, in particular, the idea of inviting transdisciplinary insights is seen as key, as diversity of thought is recognised as the only sensible way to proceed. As the debate rages about how to manage the socioeconomic fall-out of Covid-19, it may be an opportune time to add the experience of relationship therapy. 

Covid-19 has entered what we safely assumed was our protected space, a compact that implied “together forever” and promptly exposed our fault lines. It’s not that different from the compact in committed relationships, or the process that unfolds in the aftermath of a significant relationship breakup. Now, although many relationships cannot be salvaged, the burgeoning field of relationship therapy can attest that many more relationships benefit from the professional insights and interventions of a guided process. The process is, of course, relationship specific but all share the common experience of redefining relationship norms. The concept of a “new normal” is common parlance in the therapy space. 

Therapy in general and relationship therapy, in particular, remain hugely stigmatised. The unfortunate consequence for all forms of therapy is that the majority who do take the risk of entering therapy do so when they recognise that they have hit what’s commonly described as “rock bottom”. 

Globally, a sizable number do not get the help that is available. For couples that do, they have the opportunity to have their pain acknowledged while also deconstructing the emergent fault-lines. Skilled professionals will find patterns of behaviours, largely unintended, that have cumulatively resulted in the erosion of a loving relationship. 

In most cases the couple will acknowledge that they were aware of the patterns early into the relationship but didn’t have the tools to address those. Now this is not to suggest that the process is quick and painless. Rather it requires each one to have the courage to accept their contribution to the current state. 

This is a huge step as most come into the process expecting confirmation that they have been wronged. In some cases individual therapy is recommended, for without it, healthy relationships remain challenging.

So it is with the Covid-19 pandemic — we had a sudden break in our relationship with the world as we knew it. Most seem to express surprise by how suddenly it happened, going to bed and waking up to a fractured world. No sooner had the news made headlines, than parties were assigning blame to the “other”. Then came the strident voices that reminded us they had prophetically declared that a disaster, more specifically a virus outbreak was coming, eerily stipulating timelines. Bill Gates, among other prominent leaders, suggested that we were forewarned. Then came the post-mortem, with some gaining insights into the plight of the poor, mostly black people disproportionately affected by inequality, poverty and the resultant comorbidities that fuel susceptibility to a virulent virus , the partiality of our free economy, the arbitrariness of value assigned to professional status and the wanton use of finite natural resources. 

One could argue that we have hit rock bottom — a space of opportunity, as the only reasonable move is up. Relationship therapy teaches that to heal, the following is necessary:

  • Acknowledging there is a problem;
  • Accepting a culture of understanding; 
  • Understanding the futility of blame;
  • Commitment by all parties concerned to make the investment in the recovery;
  • Courageously looking at the various fault-lines;
  • Understanding that the well-being of the whole is dependent on the well-being of the sum of its parts;
  • That there is no shame in receiving help from professionals;
  • That a new norm is simply an informed norm; and
  • That although new norms are the desired outcome, it inherently involves loss, and loss invokes necessary grief.

Crises, the kind that threaten our physical and psychological well-being, force us to stop. This unsolicited detour allows for a moment to pause. Psychologists speak of this time as reflection. This is when we get to choose. Yes, despite feeling out of control as the crises unfold, we still get to choose, we remain agentic. We are at liberty to choose to do nothing, what is popularly referred to in social discourse as “letting a good crisis go to waste”. 

Or we can choose the road less travelled, to consciously commit to facing some hard, inconvenient truths. 

One inconvenient truth most feared is that sometimes separation or loss and the required process of grief is the healthier option for both, and from that both parties can emerge more integrated and able to have a different, healthier kind of relationship. 

In the case of our relationship to the world, reflection will require us to consider if our usual way of relating to it is what is good for all parties and if not, to process the loss of these valued ideals and move towards a healthier relationship which need not compromise ourselves or the world we live in (to include those who share it with us).

For this we need political will, an engaged and committed citizenry as well as an understanding that, as the late Nelson Mandela cautioned, our well-being is dependent on the well-being of everyone else.