How Covid-19 changed the rules of relationships

The pandemic has acted as a gargantuan stress-test, accelerating new couples and putting extra strain on those already struggling. 

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As Winston Churchill once quipped: “My wife and I tried to breakfast together, but we had to stop or our marriage would have been wrecked.” Solitary breakfasts are a luxury that feels almost fantastical ten months into the pandemic, with cohabiting couples forced to spend not only mealtimes but every waking hour in each other’s company. Unsurprisingly, marriages and partnerships are being wrecked.

UK law firms are reporting a rise in divorce enquiries compared to last year, in one case by as much as 122 per cent. Similar trends can be seen across the world: in the US, China, Sweden. Regardless of a country’s individual pandemic strategy, marriages have been yet another casualty of the virus.

It is easy to imagine how the stresses of the pandemic – health concerns, financial instability, grief – have negatively affected our relationships. What’s more interesting is that this trend is counterbalanced by an apparent rise in engagements. While official data is hard to find for informal plans to marry, rising engagement ring sales suggest an increase in couples intending to commit to one another for life.

When it comes to relationships, Covid has acted as a gargantuan stress-test. For relationships already struggling, the disruption the virus has wrought on every area of life has proved too much. Strains have been exposed; just-about-manageable incompatibilities have been exacerbated.

[see also: Why lockdown’s toll on relationships could be a public health issue]

But the catalysing force of the pandemic works both ways. And for many newly formed relationships, Covid’s impact has been one of acceleration. The fledgling couples who heeded the advice of the deputy chief medical officer, Jenny Harries, last March and moved in together during lockdown will have experienced perhaps the strangest and most difficult period of their lives together. If they have made it this far, it is no wonder they feel confident about spending the rest of their lives together.

Before the pandemic, a common metric for considering the long-term viability of a relationship was the so-called airport test: if I were delayed overnight at an airport with this person, how would I feel? Today’s “lockdown test” puts such frivolities into perspective: if I were locked at home with this person for 23 hours a day for months on end, would our relationship (or, indeed, our sanity) survive?

This shift in perspective has profound implications not just for pandemic engagements, but for our attitudes to relationships. Despite necessitating social distancing, Covid has not killed romance. The number of people using dating apps has surged: in the US alone, the top 20 such apps gained 1.5 million daily active users in 2020, an increase of 18.4 per cent compared with the previous year. But Covid has changed the terms of dating.

Long-standing edicts from relationship gurus – meet in real life as soon as possible, don’t rush moving in together, make sure you socialise with other people – have been made impossible by the cycle of lockdowns and social distancing guidance. Dating in a time of Covid is a story of cliff-edges and sharply defined distinctions: single and alone, support bubble, or cohabiting and spending more time together than you thought imaginable.

Like a game of musical statues, many people have found themselves frozen in whatever relationship state they were in when the music stopped and the pandemic hit. For those who were single, the barrier to entry for new relationships is so high (not just a negative Covid test but knowing your partner well enough that you can be confident in their attitude to risk and trust them with your health) that the entire process has been concertinaed. If you like and trust one another enough to form a support bubble (if one of you lives alone) or move in together, you have already made an emotional commitment.

It follows, therefore, that dating priorities have changed. Match.com’s latest survey of 5,000 single Americans, released in October, found that 53 per cent of users reported they were more serious about finding a relationship than they had been at the start of the pandemic, with 52 per cent re-evaluating what they were looking for in a partner. Habits have changed as well as attitudes: the same poll also found 63 per cent of users were spending more time getting to know potential partners, while 69 per cent reported being more honest. Communication – always a buzzword for relationship counsellors – is now more fundamental than ever to finding a partner.

[see also: Can robots make good therapists?]

Relationships might be harder to forge in the Covid age, but those that do form could be likelier to last. Most couples will encounter issues with money, medical crises, mental health struggles and family tensions over the course of their relationship. But whereas once these challenges would have emerged as surprises, Covid is forcing couples to confront them from the start.

It’s also making people think more pragmatically and long-term about what matters to them. Normal priorities when starting a new relationship – physical compatibility, social status, adventurousness – have been superseded by more mundane but arguably more important questions: do we have the same attitudes to cleaning and tidying? Can we have fun together when there’s no one else around and nothing to do? Does this person make me feel safe at a time when it feels the world is falling apart?

While wild romance is exciting, research shows that this kind of day-to-day compatibility matters more for long-term satisfaction in a relationship. As Dr Iannis tells his impassioned daughter in Louis de Bernières’ novel Captain Corelli’s Mandolin, “Love itself is what is left over when being in love has burned away.”

Rachel Cunliffe is deputy online editor of the New Statesman

This article appears in the 22 January 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Biden's Burden

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