So Much Love to Give
The COVID-19 pandemic is incubating new forms of intimacy.
by Tim Leberecht
As we are confined to our four walls, we witness pent-up frustration, aggression, and even violence. Reports indicate that domestic abuse has increased since the lockdown worldwide.
But there is also a lot of pent-up love. In fact, so much love has accumulated that it will be bursting at the seams soon.
It almost seems as if all this love has been waiting patiently for the right moment to break through. There’s nothing holding us back anymore from being raw and real. “What we are mourning now are the illusions that had protected and bubble-wrapped us from reality,” the writer Maya Shanbhag Lang put it.
Usually, no one wants to talk about sex, death, and money in therapy — these topics are the big three taboos. That, Charlotte Fox Weber, head of psychotherapy at The School of Life, says, has changed during the pandemic. Sex, death, and money are front and center in most of her sessions now.
Intimacy as an online experience, not a human encounter
There’s an emotional rawness to this moment, too. Last Friday, during the premiere of the six-episode, genre-defying new video-streaming series “This Human Moment,” co-created by the consultancy SYPartners, Arianna Huffington, and Deepka Chopra, among others, 1,000 people from all over the world joined a meditative journey, a groundswell of sorts, the chat equivalent of a gospel.
And in the virtual Living Room Sessions by the House of Beautiful Business that I co-host, we experienced similar moments of shared humanity, an outpouring of love, during, for instance, a collective writing exercise that we underwent silently, each on our own, with 150 participants, or a journaling exercise with 100 participants. In both cases, music was a main character, and though we were writing, the omission of spoken word seemed to create a stronger bond that any rhetoric would have ever been able to. It reminded me of the silent dinners I had taken part in or hosted, only that the effect of the silence seemed magnified online.
These experiences showed me that even on Zoom, where we’re disembodied bodies and suffering from the absence of gaze (we’re either staring at ourselves or staring at others who are staring at their screen but never directly at us), it is possible to experience intimacy. Yes, in some moments, the intimacy on Zoom felt even more intense, more precious than in the real world. This is perhaps one of the uplifting insights from this time in lockdown: that intimacy — which is what we’re all craving, at the end of the day — can be found in a sense of community, a moment of connection rather than actual human touch or a physical encounter with another person.
A virtual dinner like a “Songtable” game with strangers, where each guest shares their most important coming-of-age song, can be more intimate than a dinner with half a dozen close friends. Intimacy — it is curious — you can have with people very close to you, or strangers, but rarely in the grey zone in between.
More human touch — or less?
While this kind of intimate experience may foster a sense of belonging, some, however, may revolt against the forced intimacy imposed on those of us living together with their romantic partners. It feels good to have a place where you belong, but belonging is definitely not what we want all the time. Most relationships were not entered into under the premise of being together 24/7, and many of them might not tolerate this kind of abundant mutual attention.
Our sex lives — already, if studies are to believe, an overall sad affair — are suffering from COVID-19 as well. Constant proximity does not stoke desire. And alternatives are no longer available: affairs, prostitution, and escort services are virtually impossible these days. This may leave us no other choice but to dwell in sexual fantasies without fulfilling them, to think of past boyfriends or girlfriends, mourn lost opportunities, or fire up our imagination, as Fox Weber suggests.
“I’ve always liked this expression: The eye cannot see its own eyelashes. I think that that’s where we are as couples. There’s a lot of side-by-side behavior and not nose-to-nose right now. We’re not really seeing each other. Durign this crisis, we have no space away from home and no privacy either — the worst of both worlds. There’s very little room for desire. Usually desire has an element of surprise, and that’s very hard at the moment. A lot of us get charm hits from being out in the world flirting with people encountering people. Feeling like we’re delightful when we talk to the brewery staff, for instance. Even when we talk to the dry cleaner. We have these daily exchanges that can mean a lot in our sense of self and our own sense of being appealing. It’s incredibly difficult to do that at the moment, unless you really, really search for it virtually.”
On the one hand, the result of this crisis may be myriad corona babies or entire populations binge-watching porn (Pornhub famously handed out free premium subscriptions in Italy at the height of the crisis), or eventually retreat into excessive promiscuity as soon as the lockdown is lifted. We are animals, after all, not just social animals.
Or, perhaps, on the contrary, as the social recession begets us, we will realize, after weeks of social distancing, that we may not need human touch so desperately after all, that physical connection is overrated, or too complicated, to begin with.
Technology used to shrink distance, now it must make it more beautiful.
This crisis has arguably increased our adoption of digital technology. Apparently, dating apps have been booming since the beginning of the outbreak, as a way to connect with others, maybe even a bit more adventurously than we would in the real world. Philip Jonzon Jarl, the co-founder and CEO of the new dating app Relate, which matches users based on shared values, observes that some values have become less important, for example, independence (which had hitherto ranked top of the list).
Virtual dates have the benefit of being a more efficient way to assess a possible match. And if the date is not great, there’s always low bandwidth to blame.
But virtual dates have one big flaw: no one is watching. The public is noticeably absent from virtual dates. That seems odd since you may think that dates are private affairs, but they’re often not, as Fox Weber points out. When we go out on a date, we want to see the world together with another person, and we also want to be seen with our date. This raises the prospect of another killer-app: a Twitch (watching video gamers play games) for dates, an app that allows you to watch the dates of others.
Another next-frontier technology is so-called Emotional AI (or Affective Computing), an AI that seeks to measure, analyze, simulate, and react to human emotions based on facial expressions. Rana el-Kaliouby, CEO of Affectiva, one of the pioneering Emotional AI firms (and also the author of the book Girl Decoded that was just released) firmly believes that her technology can help us better understand and refine our emotions: “We’re all craving human connection and at the center of it are the nonverbal cues and signals that we exchange. Most technology, however, does not consider the real way humans connect, which is that only 10 percent of how we connect is about the actual words we use. 90 percent is nonverbal but when you’re online that’s not accounted for.”
Emotional AI is not without controversy. Some say it’s simply not working and a cheeky shortcut reducing our emotions to data sets. Others worry about the potential for abuse through emotional engineering or manipulation. And there is of course the bigger philosophical question of whether knowing too much — having too much information — eliminates the idea of romantic love in the first place.
The final verdict in the perennial battle between the romantics and realists, between those who believe in the mystery of love and those who trust the data, has not been issued yet. Yet as we live in no-distance or more-distance relationships, our number one task is to make distance beautiful, and it is hard to imagine doing us so without the help of technology.
We are only slowly beginning to understand the romantic, erotic, and social consequences of this lockdown period. As far as our love lives and new forms of intimacy are concerned, we are indeed in a moment of incubation.