Learning to know your partner in a crisis
Published on November 9, 2012 by The Contemporary Psychoanalysis Group in Contemporary Psychoanalysis in Action
Who would you choose to be with during a hurricane? How much can you learn about your romantic partner’s character and feelings by spending time together during a crisis?
I was lucky to return to my New York City office on Wednesday after the storm without too much trouble. Some of my patients were unable to come in due to the subway outage. Every patient who did make it in had a story about how he or she fared during the hurricane. A number of patients had dramatic stories about how their romantic relationship had changed irrevocably, some for better and some for worse.
Noah, a smart, attractive man in his mid-twenties has been involved with Aaron for a few months. They have great sexual “chemistry,” but he had been worried about Aaron’s capacity for love and commitment. They decided to hole up together at Aaron’s apartment during the storm. At first, they were having a great time—eating, drinking, and laughing.
As the day went on, they started a serious discussion about their future. A few hours before the hurricane hit, Aaron told Noah that, although he loved spending time with him, he was still hoping that one day he might meet, “Another Noah—someone just like you—but who is more my favorite body type.” Yikes! As painful as it was to hear this, Noah appreciated the honesty. As the storm hit, he couldn’t leave, so he cried while Aaron, oblivious to Noah’s anger and hurt, worked on his computer. In the morning, Noah ended the relationship and left. Aaron professed surprised and tried to dissuade him, but Noah had made up his mind.
Deborah had been going out with Tom for about 6 months. They enjoyed each other’s company and had been spending evenings together. They decided to weather the hurricane as a couple—they went grocery shopping, planned what to cook and obtained emergency items in case of a power failure. When Mayor Bloomberg announced that the subways were being suspended, both expressed a sudden feeling of euphoria about the extra time they would have together.
Deborah felt a little guilty about feeling so happy in the context of disaster. Immediately before the hurricane was predicted to make landfall, the pair went for a long walk, ate dinner and then cuddled up watching movies. The hurricane hit around 8:30 PM, power failed, lights went out, the movie stopped. Tom found a flashlight and they took a minute to orient themselves. Scared and worried, they went to bed and hugged each other. Once the worst had passed, they ventured outside to survey the damage and look at the moon. Back inside, they held each other all night. Deborah was grateful and happy she’d gone through this experience with Tom.
Esther had been with Justin for a year. She loved many things about him and had been suppressing her doubts about his ability to make decisions and stick to them. He had disappointed her before, but she kept giving him opportunities to prove himself. As the forecasts for Hurricane Sandy became more ominous, Justin told Esther that he wanted nothing more than to take care of her during the storm.
They decided to weather the storm at his apartment since hers was close to the evacuation zone. They planned for the possibility of a black out, bought food, candles and anticipated their time together. Esther got her apartment ready for the possible onslaught. In the early afternoon she called Justin to ask when to come over. He was evasive. She became more pointed—“I think I should come over NOW—don’t you?” Finally, Justin told her that there had been a “change of plans.” His family wanted his sister to stay with him and he wouldn’t be able to host Esther during the hurricane. Esther was stunned. She scrambled to get the supplies she needed and went back to her apartment to brace for the storm.
The hurricane hit around 8:30 pm—Esther, alone in her apartment, heard the wind howling and sirens blaring. Then she lost power. Terrified, she went to bed and eventually fell asleep. She woke to a close female friend yelling for her from the street. “I was never so happy to hear someone call my name.” Later that day Justin begged her forgiveness. Esther was confused, “I don’t even know if I’m angry at him—really I just feel sorry for him—he is such a coward.” Justin had been unreliable and lacking in courage before, but in the face of disaster his shortcomings were particularly distressing for Esther.
Many relationships were tested this week because of Sandy. A few in deeply tragic ways and others, like those described above, in more everyday ways. Crisis puts stress on a relationship and it can broaden and deepen the range of experience a couple has shared. Some couples met the challenge with bravery, courage and love. Others did not. Noah, Deborah and Esther, who gave me permission to tell their stories, were fortunate that Hurricane Sandy allowed each of them a view of the character and feelings of their romantic partners in a crisis that proved not to be life threatening.