Jeffrey Albaugh returned to the Levy Lecture Series on March 22 to discuss issues pertaining to relationships and intimacy while facing illness or the threat of illness.
Albaugh, a certified sexuality counselor with a Ph.D., is a Board-Certified Advanced Practice Urology Clinical Nurse Specialist, researcher and the Director of Sexual Health at NorthShore University Health System. He is widely known as an empathetic and knowledgeable public speaker, especially about topics that are sensitive, personal, and for some, embarrassing.
The past two years have been a collective traumatic experience for each of us, Albaugh said, referencing studies that documented increases in fear, worry and stress. Forced isolation disrupted routines and increased both anxiety and boredom. Many people were separated from loved ones or had to endure loved ones being treated or dying in hospitals alone. Uncertainty and depression skyrocketed during the first year of the pandemic, Albaugh said, especially before the vaccine became available.
For those who lived with others, such as a spouse or significant other, challenges came from the exact opposite predicament: too much togetherness, especially for couples adapting to working from home. Shared spaces suddenly seemed too small, normal noises became annoying barriers to productivity. Albaugh said there was a surge in the number of 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 made people more vulnerable during the pandemic: social isolation and loneliness, lower education and income levels, and what he termed “psychological inflexibility,” or an inability to “just roll with the punches.”
Not surprisingly, these factors contributed to an increase in sexual dysfunction. Stress, anxiety and depression will do that.
Fortunately, the news is not all bleak. Albaugh suggested options for coping with physical symptoms of sexual dysfunction brought about by age or illness. He also emphasized the importance of developing good communication skills. Communication issues are the No. 1 reason couples come to him for counseling, 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 does not automatically mean sexual – and include touching, cuddling and hand holding. Intimacy can also be intellectual, spiritual or emotional. The defining characteristic is that feeling of deep connection between two people.
With that deep connection comes vulnerability. Allowing oneself to be vulnerable in front of another is a risk that may result in scary emotions, but without vulnerability, there is no love and 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, and not judged.”
Intimacy is communication. As human beings, we are hard-wired to connect with others. Referencing the famed “Hierarchy of Needs” research by Abraham Maslow, Albaugh reminded the audience that feeling love and belonging is fundamental to human beings reaching their full potential.
Despite the challenges presented by the pandemic or illness in general, Albaugh offered suggestions about how to renew intimacy and connection in any relationship. First on his list: Put down those screens! Being fully present for another person is the greatest gift one can give, one devoid of competition from the screen of a phone, tablet, computer or television.
Other Albaugh suggestions – each backed by science and research – include the importance of friendship for establishing a solid foundation in a relationship, learning how to manage the inevitable conflict that arises between two people, and finding and creating shared meaning even among the most challenging of circumstances. He also talked about how practicing meditation and gratitude can have a positive effect on one’s mental health.
With or without the pandemic, the relationships we have with others comes down to communication, being fully present, and vulnerability, Albaugh said.
To watch a video of his presentation, click this link to the Levy Senior Center Foundation’s YouTube channel.