James* and Sarah* had been dating for four months when James’s mum threw him out of the house. It was April 2020 and the urgency of the national lockdown meant he couldn’t find his own place. The solution seemed obvious.
On his way over to Sarah’s house, James, 25, wasn’t worried at all. Things had been going extremely well since the couple started dating in January. He had originally met Sarah, 24, through mutual work friends. James asked her out for a drink and they instantly hit it off. But once they moved in together for the rest of the lockdown, things began to change.
“I think I started to piss her off,” says James. “We just needed a moment away from each other’s company but we couldn’t.” During the remaining months of lockdown, it became obvious that things weren’t going as smoothly as James had expected. “I kept comparing our relationship to how happy I was with my first girlfriend. It wasn’t as easy this time round and it was making me think things weren’t right. Sometimes I would just go on walks to be away from her.” In September, Sarah told James she loved him but James felt like it was too soon.
He moved out for a few weeks to get some space, going home to visit his family. “I realised I didn’t really want to go back. That’s when I knew I needed to end it.”
James and Sarah are not the only ones. Since the start of the pandemic, thousands of people have found themselves in turbo relationships, forced by lockdown measures to speed up the conventional rhythms of commitment. And it hasn’t been easy: in a survey released in July last year by the relationship support organisation Relate, 38 per cent of 16- to 34-year-olds in relationships said they had struggled to support their partner emotionally during lockdown. More than a third of people newly living with a partner believed that two months of lockdown felt like the equivalent of two years of commitment.
For James and Sarah, this relationship crash-course simply sped up the process of realising their incompatibility, something that in normal circumstances might have taken them years rather than months. “I realised that actually I don’t really want a relationship,” James says. “And I think it took us living together really intensely for me to realise that.”
When she heard about the number of fledgling couples moving in together during lockdown, the Relate therapist Simone Bose wasn’t surprised. “It’s happening because people are feeling very lonely, and they’re very anxious and they need to feel close to somebody. It’s like when you’re an infant and you cling to your mother and your parents. It’s that kind of need that you have when you feel under a lot of cortisol stress, and you want to feel as safe as possible next to somebody.”
Catharine*, 27, and Kyle*, 30*, were just three months into their relationship when lockdown restrictions were announced. They had met on the dating app Hinge and were meeting up a couple of times a week before coronavirus hit, going on dates and slowly starting to meet each other’s friends. Then they had to make a big decision – as outlined by the deputy chief medical officer Jenny Harries when she urged non-cohabiting couples to “test the strength of their relationship” and move in together for lockdown.
Both Catharine and Kyle lived alone, so it made sense to isolate together rather than live apart in solitary confinement. “I would not usually make that much of a rash decision on something as big as moving in with someone, but it felt like the right thing to do, and to be honest we didn’t know how long we would have to isolate together,” says Catharine.
A few weeks of lockdown turned into a few months, and quickly it felt like their relationship had switched up several gears. “There was definitely an element of hyper-bonding,” Catharine says. “During the first lockdown, there was a period where we essentially spent four months completely in each other’s company every day, and we both were working from home. It does mean that there is this kind of closeness that I think I haven’t had in previous relationships.
“I found it easy to relax generally around him. I gave up on doing my make-up fairly quickly; we both got quite lazy with showering.” But for Catharine, the hardest part of coexisting with Kyle was not having her own space to process. “If I was just having a really bad day and needed to have a massive cry or something, It’s the sort of thing that I only want to do in my own space. And, you know, I wouldn’t want to be around people. I wanted to do that privately and not have to talk about it.”
For Catharine, the most important thing was checking in on each other’s emotional limits. “We were regularly having that conversation after one of Boris Johnson’s press briefings, asking each other, are we still cool with this set up?”
A year on, Catharine and Kyle couldn’t be more in love – although it took them a while to admit it. “We took absolutely ages to say that we loved each other. I thought it was quite odd; I had this moment when I realised I was three months into living with my partner and I’ve never said I love you.” It took returning to living separately after the first lockdown for them to pluck up the courage: “It was more of a spontaneous thing, but it seemed to kind of run its own timetable away from us living together.”
Despite the intimacy of their lockdown relationship dynamic, the couple don’t regret their decision to move out once restrictions were lifted: “I think it’s important that we both maintain our own space when we go back to normal life.”
Catharine and Kyle have managed to make it work, but should cohabiting in the early stages of a relationship be considered a red flag? “It definitely doesn’t have to be unhealthy. If anything it can be beneficial in many ways,” says the psychotherapist Talitha Fosh. “The most important part is learning how to communicate with each other. This can be difficult if you aren’t so familiar with each other’s needs. However, if you keep an open dialogue with each other, an intense environment with a partner can be a quick way to learn how you both work and can create a stronger partnership.”
Carolina, 25, and Erica, 23, met on Bumble in April during the first national lockdown. After matching, they went on Zoom dates and got to know each other before meeting up in a park just outside of Glasgow. “I took my flatmate’s dog as a conversation starter,” Carolina says. “It was a lovely sunny day. It had just been my birthday so she got me a bottle of my favourite red wine. I think we both knew it was going somewhere straight away.” Fast-forward six months and the couple decided to move in with Erica’s parents for the winter lockdown. Erica admits she was worried at first: “I had an appropriate amount of fear,” she jokes.
They have now been living together for more than six months. Reflecting on their shared time together, it hasn’t all been easy: “I think there’s been more little fights and getting on each other’s nerves here and there because we are around each other so much,” says Carolina. “Potentially also [it’s made harder by] not necessarily having an escape… Sometimes, if we’re having a conversation… it kind of becomes way deeper than maybe we wanted it to. I also learned that Erica folds her socks when she takes them out of the laundry.”
Overall, though, “It has been an overwhelmingly positive experience.” Approaching their one-year anniversary, Carolina feels upbeat.
“I think in normal times, if this had happened, people would have been, like, ‘Well, that’s so quick, why are you rushing into things?’ But it hasn’t felt rushed in any way. It’s just kind of like, well, this is the situation and this makes sense.”
But for fledgling lockdown relationships across the country, the real test will be in the coming months. “I think the big thing will be how our relationship will be in normal life, because we have been in such a bubble with each other. How will it be when we are socialising with other people?” says Carolina. She is not alone in wondering how things will change. “Coming out of lockdown will be the real test for new relationships,” says Bose. “We’ll probably learn a lot more then about how many people stay together.
“It takes longer than a lockdown to really know someone,” Bose continues. “I think it takes a year or two, and in lockdown you don’t really know that person in multiple contexts: what they’re like their friends; when they are working in the office; when they are being sociable. In real life, you are going to have to share that person and that might be difficult. Couples will maybe get a shock to their system after they realise that person isn’t the same, because they probably won’t be exactly the same.”
This month, thousands of couples will be celebrating their one-year anniversaries. But for every whirlwind romance that worked out this year, there are plenty that couldn’t take the intensity of pandemic. Still, James is glad he met Sarah. “I had a good time, and I learned that you can’t force things,” he says. “If it’s going to work out then it will, if it doesn’t feel easy, then it probably won’t. That’s an important lesson.”
*Some details have been changed