How the Pandemic Has Changed Us

From the Science of Psychotherapy, January 2021

By Stan Tatkin, PsyD, MFT

Most people will probably agree that 2020 has been an exceedingly difficult year: the world moving away from liberal democracy; a global pandemic that  may continue well into 2022; global economic markets in crisis; nation-state superpowers  waxing and waning; increasing threat of global  warming; fear of cyberwars coming to fruition;  the rise of what is now being called Big Social Data and social-media manipulation of the “truth”; the perfecting of deepfake technology; and the extinction of humankind through self-learning A.I. Yeah, what a year. 

One could also argue that this is an extraordinary time to be alive. The challenges we face  are like none other. Human beings have always  predicted the end of the world as we know it.  Yet each time over the millennia we seem to  make it — either through human ingenuity,  human resilience, or just dumb luck. I personally hope it’s the former. 

Our field is also going through massive  changes as of late — a lot of it due to the restrictions caused by COVID-19. The popularization of telehealth, in its growing forms, has  changed the way many of us are treating our  patients. So too are the demands on our new  reliance on Zoom conferences, trainings, and even retreats.  

 The pandemic has changed us. The way we  work and how we interact with each other will  likely have long lasting effects but not all for  the wrong reason. 

Pandemic as Therapeutic Opportunity 

I have found the existential threat of COVID  to be a watershed moment for couple therapists  to help drive home the point I’ve been trying to  make: there’s always been danger in the world,  there’s always been an impending pandemic,  disaster, or some other unpredictable, unkind,  unfortunate act of nature. Therefore, primary  attachment partners should consider what is  and isn’t important and make sure the war is  never in their foxhole.  

Partners should adjust their orientation  to two-person culture of we and away from a  one-person culture of me, mine, I — that we are  dependent animals who form dyads of interde 

pendency and therefore must remain fair, just,  sensitive, collaborative, and cooperative in order  to survive and thrive. One-person systems (in secure) can never last or be happy because they  are too unfair, too unjust, and too insensitive  

too much of the time. These insecure-function ing relationships accrue too much unfairness,  resentment, and threat. Therefore, they cannot  last due to a predictable erosion of safety, security, and satisfaction. Only secure-functioning systems can last, and that’s much easier said  than done. Why? 

Because the nature-state of the human primate is, at its default, aggressive, self-centered, selfish, impulsive, fickle, moody, exploitive, opportunistic, overly influenceable by  group-think, easily disappointed, and xenophobic (racist). We are by nature energy-conserving, automatic, memory-driven, unenlightened, and happy with the status quo. Only an enriched environment and our drive toward complexity, along with our personal suffering, lead us to become something greater than our  default. Even then, we’re pretty sketchy when  it comes to embracing character and guiding  principles to rein in our primitive nature.  

Secure functioning means that two adult individuals come together as full-functioning autonomous agents, sharing power and authority  to create an interdependent relationship, fully  conditional, based on shared purpose, shared  vision, and shared principles that govern one  another. In other words, a co-constructed, shared mythology as to what the relationship  means, what it stands for, and who and what it serves.  

Couple therapy cannot be successful without  both partners knowing their shared purpose,  shared vision, and shared principles of governance.  Those principles contain the couple’s definition  of the right things to do when the right things are most difficult. Without shared principles  and agreements, partners cannot govern, can not enforce, and cannot manage their differences without creating unbridled threat to each  other’s ongoing felt sense of safety and security.  

I can’t speak for those in other countries,  but here in the U.S., adjusting to COVID must  be contextualized along with our current socio-political climate. There is a tremendous  sense of outrage among the masses in the U.S.  How is this outrage affecting our clients and  ourselves as clinicians? 

Outrage as Addictive 

The science of outrage has become a recent obsession of mine. Turns out that out rage serves a societal and personal function. In society, outrage can mobilize people to make  change through activism (Davidson, Padula,  Daly, & Jackson, 2020). Substantial outrage exists in our country at present on several fronts  in the political culture wars.  

My personal outrage is aimed at our present  administration, our Republican Senate, right wing media, anti-maskers, COVID deniers, and conspiracy nutjobs. I realize the judginess in  that statement, but there it is, at least for me.  Social media and current politics leverage out rage to stir interest and provoke engagement.  That’s very good for ad-buyers, marketeers,  and politicians looking to whip up trouble (Pur year, 2020; Stein, Schroeder, Hobson, Gino, &  Norton, 2020). It’s very bad for personal health and wellbeing, not to mention our lust for punishment.  

The wish to punish others is part of our most  primitive human default mode. Punishment, an outcome of outrage, rewards us with dopamine  of the groovy D1 kind (Wiegman, 2020). The  only limit to our lustful urge to punish others is the fear of being found out and excoriated  by our peers. Without that risk, the impulse to punish those who we believe to be outrageous  in their beliefs, actions, or reactions remains  unrestrained and deliciously addictive. Just check your Twitter feed for evidence.  

My outrage and wish to punish could easily be sprayed out to my wayward, unrepentant,  and badly behaved clients. My countertransference in taking umbrage to my client acting out,  resistance to “getting it,” and attempts to get  away with unfairness and insensitivity is, well,  outrageous in itself. It can lead me to forget that I am a therapist. This is what people do. It is human nature to be selfish, unfair, deceptive, entitled, and stubborn. That’s the whole idea  I preach – people are annoying, disappointing, and general pains in the ass. That’s all of us.  We have to be better than that to survive and  thrive together. Better is harder, and nobody  wants harder.  

During this difficult time, which is likely to  continue for an indefinite period, it behooves us  who work in the mental health field to become educated not just in psychiatry, medicine, and  psychology but in the human condition – our  biological anthropological heritage – which is  not exactly based in relational ethics or moral interpersonal responsibility. This must be  taught either in childhood, in the school system  or, failing that, in the therapeutic milieu.  

Science in general and psychology specifically tend to stay out of the morality business.  But now is a good time, it seems, for us to view social justice and relational ethics as beginning at home – between partners in a couple. In my view, the couple is a mini-civilization or society. Principles of fairness, justice, and sensitivity in tandem with collaboration and cooperation begin and end with individuals, partners in  a couple, and the parental leaders of the family.  

Principles of governance are not simply  rules or laws. They are personally held beliefs  as to what is right. They are personal guides  for doing the right thing when the right thing  is the hardest thing to do (Sapolsky, 2017). If we as clinicians can hold a therapeutic narrative of secure function, a system that demands  relational ethics, and expect it from our clients,  perhaps we can begin to help our clients grow  up, be better, and believe in something more  than just the Self. 


Davidson, P. M., Padula, W. V., Daly, J.,  & Jackson, D. (2020). Moral outrage in  COVID19-Understandable but not a strategy.  Journal of clinical nursing, 29(19-20), 3600– 

3602. Puryear, C. (2020). The Threat of Virality: Digital Outrage Combats the Spread of Opposing Ideas.  University of South Florida,  

Sapolsky, R. M. (2017). Behave: The biology of humans at our best and worst. Penguin. 

Stein, D. H., Schroeder, J., Hobson, N., Gino, F.,  & Norton, M. I. (2020). When Alterations are  Violations: Moral Outrage and Punishment  in Response to (Even Minor) Alterations to  Rituals. doi: 10.31234/ 

Wiegman, I. (2020). The Reactive Roots of  Retribution: Normative Implications of the  Neuroscience of Punishment. In Holtzman  S. & Hildt, E. Eds, Does Neuroscience Have Normative Implications? (pp. 111-136). Springer.


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