Love in the Time of COVID-19

When I read about the petition to make Anthony Fauci the sexiest man alive, one word immediately came to mind. Transference. Not to detract in any way from Dr. Fauci’s attractiveness, this love for him seemed to me a manifestation of a concept initially described by psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud. It occurs when intense feelings from another relationship, typically from early development, are transferred onto an adult relationship. Freud observed the phenomenon in his relationships with his patients, but transference finds its way into all kinds of relationships. My friend’s expressed wish to marry Andrew Cuomo (while recognizing that she probably will join a long line of others with the same desire) shows the same idea.

Another psychoanalyst, Erik Erikson, described how the primary love relationship, that between a parent and an infant, has its roots in basic trust. That trust is necessary for us to feel safe. Our first caregivers give us a feeling of safety when the world is new and incomprehensible.

Faced with the coronavirus pandemic, we now share a profound-perhaps even childlike-sense of vulnerability. We trust Dr. Fauci. He makes us feel safe. And so, we fall in love with him.

The above two stories suggest a kind of adult sexual love. But these feelings likely have earlier developmental roots. They transcend gender and sexual orientation. The contentious and complicated 2020 democratic primary process offers an example. Pete Buttigieg, a young, gay mayor from South Bend, Indiana rose rapidly to national prominence in large part because people of all ages, genders, and sexual orientations fell in love with him. Lack of trust in current leadership had left many feeling unsafe long before coronavirus showed up on the scene. Mayor Pete’s calm demeanor and focus on creating a sense belonging made people feel safe. One large demographic of Buttigieg supporters- middle-aged straight, married women- surprised their young adult children with a sudden, intense passion for politics.

We can learn an important lesson from our love for Dr. Fauci. We need a sense of safety in order to function. Our connection to others regulates our physiology and helps us to think clearly. When we feel safe, our our capacity for empathy comes on line.

Safety and trust go hand-in-hand with a sense of belonging. The fact that those who stay home and spend their time watching funny YouTube videos are protecting the front line healthcare workers offers a striking demonstration of belonging. The virus itself shows us how interconnected we are.

In our earliest relationships, as described in my forthcoming book The Power of Discord co-authored with developmental psychologist Ed Tronick, we develop trust and a sense of belonging through countless moment-to-moment messy interactions. Now, when the world feels so fundamentally frightening, preserving a sense of safety is paramount.

Everyone will find their own unique way to navigate the fear and uncertainty. Some by necessity put themselves and their families at risk simply by going to work. For those who stay home, some stick to rigid schedules while others meander through the day. Some feel better being productive while others surrender to cocktails at 3pm. It’s all OK. But whatever path we take, we must find a way to connect. In moment-to-moment interactions in relationships with people we love, we can preserve the sense of calm that we need to not only survive, but to move forward to whatever comes next. .

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