How our intimate relationships fared during the pandemic
A year of lockdowns has brought first dates outdoors and created plenty of stress for couples indoors.
‘I will tell you one thing,” said my partner on 26 March 2020. “The world is going to need marriage counsellors after this.” I was ever so slightly offended that somehow our relationship had prompted this thought (I’m all for therapy, but after just three days?). However, it also got me thinking. How would the pandemic affect relationships? Would we see a rise in break-ups? How would people date if they could not physically meet?
A year after the first lockdown began, now seems a good moment to ask, what is happening to love in the time of Covid?
Locked down and looking for love
Although you can lock people in their homes, you cannot stop them dating (at least online). The 29th March 2020 was the busiest day for swipes in Tinder’s history. But how can singles actually meet? Well, unless they fall for a key worker or meet through work, their options have been: move in or create a support bubble with someone they’ve never met, or go for some distanced outdoor exercise.
Single friends have found this incredibly annoying (to quote my best friend, it is hard to look alluring while trudging through torrential rain,). It is not all bad. At least if a walk in the park date is terrible, you have not wasted your money as well as your time. Given the annual average spend on dates is £1,349 per person, that is a substantial saving.
Corona-dates can also prove much more insightful. It is now easier to skip small talk and dive into deeper subjects such as financial instability, loneliness or fear of death. Which are normally a no go on a first date and if someone ignores a request to socially distance, that might say something about how they respect other people’s needs more generally.
What about when lockdown ends one might ask? It has been reported that most singletons were anxious about face-to-face dates after the first lockdown, let alone getting physical. Given that half the population is worried about catching coronavirus and 38% of people with symptoms do not isolate for the recommended time (according to the UCL Covid-19 Social Study), that anxiety may continue.
But perhaps it is good to delay physical intimacy. Sexual connection can mask all sorts of relationship incompatibilities and you never know, the pandemic could also provide new opportunities for finding love. Good relationships can and do come out of difficult situations.
Research by Relate and eHarmony found that over a third of people who had just moved in with their partner thought that two months in lockdown felt like two years of commitment. For a quarter of these “accelerated relationships”, this acceleration led to better intimate relationship. Though of course, that means for three-quarters it did not. While I do not doubt that living with the ever-present threat of a global deadly virus and being imprisoned together can fast-track a relationship, it is of course risky to make major decisions or commitments until time, or at least a lot of it passes.
That is because the early throes of love or lust are similar to taking drugs. Literally. When researchers compared the brains of people who had either taken cocaine or opioids or recently “fallen in love”, they found many of the same areas were activated. Our brains basically tell us to repeat whatever we did to get that high and that does not always lead to the best decisions.
We do not know whether spending every day locked inside your home with someone makes the “drugs” wear off faster. What we do know is that this drug-like high is not the sort of love that makes long-term relationships work, the calmer love that may (or may not) be there when the drugs wear off is. My advice? Hold off on major decisions. Even if two months of lockdown felt like two years, it was not and give it at lease another 6 to12 months.
Long term relationships
According to one US study, the longer the lockdown, the more couples tend to argue. What are they arguing about? Children, finances and lockdown rules. Then again, when psychologists questioned couples across the US long before Covid, they found most disagreements were about money and children. It may also be reassuring to know that satisfied couples continued to be satisfied, at least according to research by the University of Texas. Of the hundreds of couples followed from December to April, those that were able to work together as a team (including sharing chores), were even more satisfied than they were before the pandemic.
Dear Google, ‘Should we break up?’
Google searches related to “break up” more than doubled during the first lockdown, while lawyers warned of a surge in divorces. But what actually happened? Between April and June, there was an 18% drop in divorce petitions compared with the year before. Then, when we were allowed out of our homes and into the courts, numbers were still 10% lower than 2019. Perhaps Covid has made unhappy couples (or at least couples who thought they were unhappy) more thankful, appreciative and committed. On the other hand, some may be unable to afford to leave or perhaps many just cannot face divorcing right now.
For many, trying to home-school and work leaves little appetite for the potential stress of starting a divorce, especially when the chance for respite with family/friends is slim. And a private conversation with your solicitor is hard if you’re still living together. I’ve had Zoom meetings with clients on a park bench, or in the car, to avoid being overheard.
If Covid does indeed follow the pattern of other disasters, we are likely to see a spike in divorces (as well as marriages and births) when matters settle. For some, it may be a reflection of pre-existing problems in the relationship, problems that were easier to avoid with the full spectrum of life’s distractions. Some may walk away because that is their favoured strategy in the face of a crisis, irrespective of how good the relationship is. Others may react by clinging on ever tighter to a sinking ship. However, there are some surprising positives coming out of this global pandemic. Covid has caused delays to court hearings and there is now a backlog and so people who were determined to go to court have been forced to consider more amicable ways to separate their finances. My hope is that this will be a long-term change towards kinder and more cost effective divorces.
The stress effect
The bigger picture can have a huge impact on the detail of our lives. If our mental wellbeing is suffering as much as the statistics suggest (we are now as unhappy as we were during the first lockdown), it will affect everything, from how we think about ourselves to the way we feel about our partners, friends and family, from how we look for love to how we go about keeping it.
And that impact is likely to stick around. The psychological effects of the SARS epidemic are thought to have lasted for years. Thankfully, there is some hope. Thanks to Covid, we might become kinder as a country, or at least, that is what 61% of people questioned by the ONS hope will be the case. So perhaps we will be more compassionate than we would otherwise have been when, long after the vaccines have been rolled out, many will still be grieving multiple losses.
In it together
Studies show that people often value relationships more and have better relationships as a result after difficult experiences, from depression to diabetes, HIV to heart disease. So it is unsurprising that research has found that couples now value their partner’s kindness, commitment and support more than they did before the pandemic and according to Bumble, 55% of singletons now want more meaningful relationships.
Whatever your relationship status, UCL research confirms what we have known for years, staying connected is one of the best ways to protect your mental health. And that is true of the tens of thousands of people involved in the study during Covid. The problem, of course, is that at a time when we need them most, connections can be hard to make or maintain. My hope is that as we reflect on what is important and what we have been deprived of during the pandemic, we will value relationships more, both as individuals and as a society. Love is not found, it is built and, to be built, it needs to be recognised, respected and prioritised.
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