Originally published on medium.com
“This is your worst relationship nightmare, come true,” said my therapist, during the first (of many) virtual sessions we’d had since the beginning of the pandemic.
Since day one, my partner and I have built a relationship that prides itself on trying new things, having new experiences — not being lazy when it comes to our quality time. For the first six months we were together, we made it a point to never visit the same bar or restaurant twice. We take turns planning dates. We’re detectives, constantly on the hunt for some new way to bring fun and joy into our relationship.
On a personal level, this wasn’t just about excitement and adventure, though. This was a heart-shaped cross I bore: learn from your past relationship mistakes, or you’ll be doomed to repeat them. Routines — how we live, what we do, how we love — are easy to slip into. Based on my track record, I’d made a commitment to avoid routines at all cost, a firm resolve to not become a — shudder — Netflix & Chill couple. And my therapist knew this.
Then a global pandemic hit. We were forced into lockdown. One by one, I began deleting all the upcoming events on my calendar (bye bye, “Book of Mormon” and Magic Castle; so long Mexico and Iceland!). All the dominoes of fun and excitement came tumbling down.
How can a relationship that is built on variety and novelty survive this type of reckoning? The “Remember when my biggest worry in life was becoming a Netflix & Chill couple?” texts went from ending with a crying laughing emoji…to just a crying emoji. This relationship — this beautiful, living, unconventional structure — was something we had built from the ground up. And it was on fire.
The problem was, THE ENTIRE WORLD WAS ON FIRE, and there was little anyone could do about it. Or was there? Someone much wiser than me must have the answer, right?
Viktor Frankl once said, “When we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves.” I couldn’t change the external world, but I could reframe the way I — and my relationship — exist in it. Positive Psychology tells us that a key to well-being is using the strengths we already have at our disposal. In reflecting, I realized a core strength of our relationship had been creativity. It was receiving a text that said, “Be at my place at 7:00. Wear something warm.” It was going to some unique event, then saying, “Thank you so much for finding this for us.” It was giving each other greeting cards for no reason other than to say I love you.
With a non-existent social calendar staring us in the face, I realized the same creativity that had been the cornerstone of building our partnership was the one strength we could rely on to maintain it. Just because we couldn’t go into the world for dates, didn’t mean we couldn’t date.
So, we did as we had done in “the before”: we took turns planning our time together in the most creative ways we could, like:
I planned a tiki night: a talented bartender friend (who was out of work due to Covid closures) delivered mai tai ingredients and mixing instructions curbside; I foraged the neighborhood for flowers and made a tropical centerpiece; we dressed up in our best tiki attire, ate pupus, and watched Blue Hawaii.
We made each other special anagrams and crossword puzzles (with a prize at the end, of course).
I scoured the web for ways to bring outside world entertainment into my home. We streamed live comedy shows, live magic shows, even a live candlelight classical concert (which, incidentally, was the last live performance we went to before Covid hit). For the latter, he wore a suit and alternated between being “our” waiter and being my date, while presenting each dinner course.
Like every other person during quarantine, I baked sourdough. Instead of making artisanal boule after boule, I’d ask him for special requests. “Rosemary olive sourdough focaccia? Sure!”
He invited me over for “wine and pizza” one Sunday night, and opened the door, wearing a bathrobe and face covering (no wine or pizza in sight). “Oh. You must be Rena with the 6:00 massage appointment?” He led me into the bedroom, which he’d set up as a “spa.” Not breaking character, he asked me to undress, get below the sheet, and told me he’d be back in a few minutes. (He even asked if I’d like some water — bless!) I got an amazing massage and…I’ll leave it up to you to insert whatever “happy ending” joke you’d like at this point.
Frequently, we’d order in dinner and pick a movie to correspond to the meal, or vice versa. If we were feeling a little “extra,” we’d throw on a Spotify playlist tying into the evening’s theme. (Which is how I discovered there’s a “Pizza” playlist on there, and it’s awesomely terrible.)
None of these dates took much money; what they took was an intention to make things special. When you treat your quality time with your partner as a craft — one to hone, add flair to, make uniquely your own — you tap into an entirely new love language: creativity.
When you set creativity as your intention, you create a small difference that becomes a world of difference. It’s the difference between letting Netflix be the center of your quality time, versus finding ways to incorporate Netflix into your quality time. It’s the difference between opening up a box of crackers and offering some to your partner as a “snack” before dinner, versus arranging some of them on a plate, throwing on some cheese, and calling it an “aperitivo.” It’s the difference between “what should we order tonight?” versus planning it out a day in advance and pairing a movie with it. It’s the difference between “hanging out” and “dating.” It’s the difference between living the love in “love life” — L-I-F-E, life! — that makes you feel like an artist, versus filling in someone else’s paint-by-number.*
For me, it was the difference between my “worst relationship nightmare, come true,” versus a chance to re-define what romance can be, at any point in a relationship. It became a glimpse into the future, one that exists on a hammock swing on the porch, devoid of the entertainment dedicated to a younger generation. It became a chance to see what love can be, as it spans into the cosmos of a world we have not yet envisioned. It became a sense of hope — hope of how resilient our capacity is to love, be loved, make love. It became a crisp, blank canvas on which we are beckoned to create Our masterpiece.
*I throw no shade on actual paint-by-numbers as a creative outlet. They played a significant therapeutic role in my early days of quarantine!