Levy Lecture: Relationships and Intimacy During COVID-19

Jeffrey Albaugh returned to the Levy Lecture Series on March 22 to discuss issues around relationships and intimacy in the face of illness or the threat of illness.

Jeffrey Albaugh (photo from Northsore University Health System)

Albaugh, a certified sexuality counselor with a Ph.D., is a board-certified advanced practice urology clinical nurse specialist, researcher, and director of sexual health at NorthShore University Health System. He is widely known as an empathetic and competent public speaker, particularly on sensitive, personal and, for some, embarrassing topics.

The past two years have been a traumatic collective experience for all of us, Albaugh said, referring to studies that have documented an increase in fear, worry and stress. The enforced isolation disrupted routines and increased both anxiety and boredom. Many people have been separated from loved ones or had to endure loved ones being treated or dying alone in hospitals. Uncertainty and depression soared in the first year of the pandemic, Albaugh said, especially until the vaccine became more readily available.

For those who lived with others, such as a spouse or significant other, the challenges stemmed from the exact opposite situation: too much togetherness, especially for couples adjusting to working from home. Shared spaces suddenly seemed too small, normal noises became distracting obstacles to productivity. Albaugh said there was an increase in people contacting him who needed to discuss relationship issues.

Focusing on the senior audience listening to him remotely, Albaugh listed some of the characteristics that have made people more vulnerable during the pandemic: social isolation and loneliness, lower levels of education and income, and what he called it “psychological inflexibility,” or the inability to “just roll with the punches.”

Not surprisingly, these factors contributed to an increase in sexual dysfunction. Stress, anxiety and depression will do this.

Fortunately, the news is not all gloomy. Albaugh suggested options for dealing with the physical symptoms of sexual dysfunction brought on by age or disease. He also stressed the importance of developing good communication skills. Communication issues are the No. 1 reason couples come to see him, Albaugh said.

Albaugh described intimacy as “communication on a deeper level, where both people feel fully seen, heard, and valued by the other person and not judged.”

Intimacy can be physical – which doesn’t automatically mean sexual – and include touching, cuddling and holding hands. Intimacy can also be intellectual, spiritual or emotional. The defining characteristic is that feeling of deep connection between two people.

With this deep connection comes vulnerability. Allowing yourself to be vulnerable in the face of another is a risk that can lead to frightening emotions, but without vulnerability there is no love and no intimacy. According to Albaugh, even people who choose not to be physically intimate need connections with people where they “feel seen, heard, and valued by other people, not judged.”

Intimacy is communication. As humans, we are wired to connect with others. Referencing Abraham Maslow’s famous research “Hierarchy of Needs,” Albaugh reminded the audience that a sense of love and belonging is fundamental for human beings to reach their full potential.

Despite the challenges presented by the pandemic or illness in general, Albaugh offered suggestions on how to renew intimacy and connection in any relationship. First on his list: Drop those screens! Being fully present for another person is the greatest gift you can give, unmatched by the screen of a phone, tablet, computer or TV.

Other suggestions from Albaugh – each backed by science and research – include: the importance of friendship in establishing a solid foundation in a relationship, learning to manage the inevitable conflict that arises between two people, and finding and create a shared meaning even among the most difficult. of circumstances. He also explained how the practice of meditation and gratitude can have a positive effect on mental health.

With or without the pandemic, the relationships we have with others come down to communication, mindfulness and vulnerability, Albaugh said.

To watch a video of his presentation, click this link to the Levy Senior Center Foundation YouTube channel.

Angela C. Hale