Caught in a Covid romance: how the pandemic has rewritten relationships

‘This experience and this time is teaching me that making your own rules is the key to life.’
‘This experience and this time is teaching me that making your own rules is the key to life.’ Illustration: Blake Dixon/The Guardian
‘This experience and this time is teaching me that making your own rules is the key to life.’ Illustration: Blake Dixon/The Guardian

The pandemic has been less than ideal for relationships old and new, leaving some couples locked down with each other – and others reconsidering things

Last modified on Tue 16 Feb 2021 12.25 EST

This Sunday Mbiye Kasonga and her boyfriend will spend their first Valentine’s Day together socially isolating in a Washington hotel room. Like many couples they are finding that love in the time of coronavirus makes for a strange romance.

The couple met late last February, just a week and a half before Washington DC’s first lockdown, when the city closed all non-essential businesses.

After matching on Hinge and three successful dates Kasonga and her boyfriend, who preferred not to be named, spent lockdown walking 30 minutes to each other’s apartments for dates. They cooked, talked and watched shows and movies. After a month of getting to know each other, they officially started their relationship.

Kasonga, who works for a research firm in DC, said the start of the pandemic had accelerated the timeline of their relationship. Kasonga’s roommate left town and her boyfriend was the only person she would see under the stay-at-home orders. She and her boyfriend spent the first months of the pandemic thinking up at-home date ideas like taco nights and a Zoom tie-dye class.

“Under normal circumstances, we wouldn’t have seen each other as frequently, we wouldn’t have talked as often,” she said. “I think a lot of times those things get drawn out by the minutiae of everyday life. You work, you want to see your friends, you’re splitting time between these things.”

The Covid-19 pandemic has raised the stakes for relationships new and old, and while Kasonga found joy in starting a new relationship during the pandemic, Covid-19 has offered a less-than-ideal setting for romance.

Couples who are long out of their honeymoon phases have been stuck inside with each other for months in homes that have turned into awkward co-working spaces and classrooms. Meanwhile, social distancing measures have forced socializing with people outside of one’s household to be a calculated, often stressful, event, making dating leagues harder than it was in the before times.

The stunt to romantic relationships has been the cherry on top of the massive devastation that Covid has left people across the US, with nearly 500,000 people dead from the virus and millions of Americans unemployed. It is a sad but unsurprising fact that rates of anxiety and depression have soared during the pandemic.

Covid-19 hasn’t completely killed romantic relationships, but it has surely made things a lot more complicated.

For Ashley Samone, a writer and creative based in Brooklyn, the pandemic saw the end to her relationship with her boyfriend of 11 years. While she questioned the future of her relationship before shutdowns began, the pandemic solidified her decision to focus on herself and her goals.

“The pandemic not only served as a magnifying glass but also a trampoline. It allowed me to see deeper who I was preventing myself from becoming by choosing to be wrapped up by someone else,” she said. While she once had dreams of getting married to her ex-boyfriend, she ultimately ended the relationship in May and moved across the country. The experience has taught her lessons about herself and what she would want out of future relationships.

“My perspective has kind of shifted where it’s like I don’t need things to be so permanent, I don’t need for things to be so black and white. I just want to know that I’m appreciated and that the energy that I’m putting into something is being reciprocated,” she said.

“This experience and this time is teaching me that making your own rules is the key to life.”

Psychologists and relationship experts say the pandemic has no doubt made people reconsider their relationships, especially as quarantine began to highlight longstanding issues.

Kerry Lusignan, a licensed mental health counselor and founder of Northampton Couples Therapy said her clinic had been getting up to a hundred calls a week from couples seeking help. Clients are often bringing up issues – mostly around safety and threat – that counselors are familiar with but which have been exacerbated by the pandemic.

“If one person tends to be more casual and laid-back and the other person tends to be more on guard and more contained, those kinds of dynamics are going to get amplified,” Lusignan said. “What you have is this perfect storm for people to be butting heads around issues of power, control and influence.”

The pandemic has unsurprisingly made people more stressed than ever. Along with the inability to see friends and family due to health restrictions, many are also under financial distress. The Census Bureau estimates that about 11% of households are experiencing some type of food insecurity while about 35% are having trouble paying for usual household goods.

Relationship experts say people often do not recognize the impact stress can have on a relationship and a couple’s ability to be good partners to each other.

“When people get divorced and you ask them what happened, you don’t hear them say well, both of us were under a tremendous amount of stress at work at the time and that led us to neglect our relationship, and we fought a lot because of the work stress,” said Richard Slatcher, a professor of psychology at the University of Georgia. “You don’t ever hear that, but that [stress] can often be a driving force in a relationship’s decline.”

Slatcher, who is a part of a group of researchers that have been conducting a study on people’s love lives during the pandemic, noted that some couples actually saw an improvement in their relationships, particularly in the beginning of the pandemic, because they were spending more time with each other.

A study published in scientific journal Psychological Science also found that couples in the beginning of the pandemic reported no major changes in the outlook of their relationships, while some saw a slight increase in satisfaction.

Hannah Williamson, professor of human development and family sciences at the University of Texas at Austin who conducted the study, said that couples may have been more understanding of each other at the outset of the pandemic since the stress of Covid-19 was so widely understood and felt.

“People were less blaming of their partners for negative behaviors, maybe being cold or not being an attentive listener. People are saying, ‘This is a really hard time, so it’s probably because of that,’” Williamson said.

While it is unclear what the pandemic has done to divorce rates, initial data shows that Covid has not caused widespread wreckage, so far. In fact, the few states that have released their divorce statistics have shown declines in divorces.

Williamson said this data is not surprising, but this does not mean couples have survived the pandemic scot-free. The initial positive impacts the pandemic had on relationships may have worn off as people adjusted to a new normal. Additionally, people may have been hesitant to break up with their partners for fear of being lonely during the pandemic.

“Certainly some relationships are so bad that being alone is preferable, but that calculus changes when the alone is literally in an apartment living alone, not seeing anyone,” Williamson said. “Leaving a relationship is a lot easier when you know that you can then fill that time with spending it with friends and other things like that.”

Experiencing loneliness has not only driven people to stay in their so-so relationships and even reconnect with their exes, but has also pushed people to try dating during the pandemic.

Even while common date spots like restaurants, bars and performance venues have shuttered across the country, people are still trying to meet new potential partners, which has been made all the easier with dating apps. Match Group, the parent company of Tinder, Hinge and OKCupid, reported an uptick in users in 2020 while its competitor Bumble said that it had more than 12 million active users around the world in September 2020.

But while people are exploring their options on dating apps, few are finding success in-person. Amelia Aldao, a clinical psychologist in New York City, said that many of her clients are struggling with finding things to do in person, especially in the winter months.

“People swipe in the app, they match, they text, but then it’s hard to take that next step of ‘OK, let’s do something’ because the number of things to do is actually quite limited,” she said.

Kasonga said she feels fortunate that she met her boyfriend right before lockdown began and was able to get to know him in-person. Friends who have been trying to date have found it difficult to make connections with stifled in-person interactions.

“You have to have a lot of trust in the person early on, which I think can be difficult to build just from online dating,” she said. “People talk about doing dates or FaceTime dates with people and not being able to get a full sense of who they are as a person, whether that be because of physical barriers – they’re wearing a mask and you can’t see their smile – or digital barriers, where it’s very hard to FaceTime someone you don’t really know.”

Even as couples work through issues driven by the pandemic, and people have difficulty finding love, Aldao said a bright spot she sees in the pandemic is its ability to give people perspective when thinking about which relationships matter most to them.

“A question I’ve been asking my clients is, ‘When things go back to normal and you date or you make new friends, ask yourself: is this the kind of person that I want to have around in my life if we have another lockdown?” she said.

“The more that we can try to anchor ourselves in this idea of being very purposeful about our relationships … it’s like emerging out of this with a sense of purpose.”