The pandemic has turned many aspects of our lives upside-down, and romantic relationships have been no exception.
If the old lawyers’ adage is true, then January is the bitter month for divorce, after which the flower and confection-laden month of February swoops in to sweeten the darker days - for some at least. And so went the familiar pattern for many people.
But then, the pandemic turned all of it on its head.
Covid-19 blurred the passage of time and shook our conception of space. Every month seemingly turned into January, just as every month could just as easily become February.
Social distancing guidelines, lockdowns, and masks have strained, if not disappeared, all kinds of relationships. Everything from smiling and nodding to strangers in greeting to chatting with your local barista, lighthearted banter with colleagues to long and heartfelt conversations with close friends have all but vanished or been confined to flat, two-dimensional video chats.
And romantic relationships are no exception. Emphasising differences, similarities, and a feeling of disconnect, the virus brought about even more questions for couples and singles. Should you stay together? Separate? How are you even supposed to meet someone new?
The bell curve and the wrecking ball
After the initial shock of the pandemic wore off, headlines about a surge in divorce rates in some Chinese cities made headlines. Couples - and primarily women - were reported to have flocked to civil registries after pandemic-induced strains on marriage.
And it’s not just China. The divorce rate in Italy reportedly rose by 60 percent in 2020, due to “forced coexistence." Although official numbers have yet to be released in many countries, anecdotal evidence from writers and divorce lawyers around the world also points to a greater than normal breakup and divorce rate.
“If we imagine relationships like a bell curve,” explains Istanbul-based psychiatrist of intimate relationships, Dr Medaim Yanik, “important events that affect the whole of society, like earthquakes and pandemics, disrupt normal relationship distributions. The middle is essentially eliminated and either the amount of solidarity [between couples] increases or the amount of conflict increases.”
Some of the stated reasons behind breakups and divorces included relationship difficulties brought about by economic crises, difficulty of hiding aspects of “double lives”, domestic violence, general realisation of differences in life outlook, and disagreements that came into sharp relief under enforced stay at home orders and lockdowns.
The pandemic also triggered depression, anxiety disorders, panic attacks, and other mental health issues which could have put a strain on existing relationships, according to some mental health professionals. Yanik added that the number of those seeking psychological help is the highest in recent memory due to the pandemic, not just for his clinic in Turkey, but around the world.
“But it’s important to note that we generally don’t measure and see [relationships] that are heading in a more positive direction,” he tells TRT World, underlining that couples facing problems tend to seek help from professionals, not ones whose relationships are improving.
Indeed, there is considerably less coverage of pandemic-induced positive trends. Academic studies on the effects of major external stressors on romantic relationships tend to show mixed results.
But a study conducted in the early months of the pandemic showed that 59 percent of Americans who were currently married, living with a partner or otherwise in a romantic relationship, were extremely satisfied with their relationship, and nearly three-quarters stated their relationship had not been affected by the pandemic. Among those who stated that the pandemic had influenced their relationship, most reported a positive effect.
“It isn’t surprising that so many people are satisfied in their relationship. Our relationships are a key source of stability, and when the world feels uncertain, having your partner there to be your rock is assuring,” said Dr. Gary Lewandowski, professor of psychology at Monmouth University.
Another study, which covered the period until early August, found that about a quarter of adults saw their relationships improve, while a mere one in 10 found that their relationship worsened under lockdown.
So relationships are both improving and facing more difficulties. Why is this the case?
Love and the immune system
According to New York-based psychologist Aslihan Ergun, a lot of it depends on how couples have dealt with past crises.
“Just as our bodies have immune systems, so too do relationships,” she tells TRT World. “If the immune system is strong, [the pandemic] is not the first issue you encounter. You have already come across challenges, determined how to solve them, and acquired skills related to this too.”
Ergun, who specialises in couples, relationship, and parenting therapy explains that couples suddenly found themselves navigating new challenges, whether they were in the earlier dating or flirting stages of their relationships or married or in long-term relationships.
The key to understanding whether the relationship would turn for the better or worse, is how couples have dealt with and continue to deal with challenges until that time.
“If couples believe in the [relationship] justice that they have built up to that time, they can adapt more easily. But for those who believe there is no justice in their relationship [with workload, challenges] it really turned into a problem.”
In this sense, she says, the pandemic served as a kind of litmus test, and many couples’ whose relationship was already in a good place found that it strengthened their bonds.
“We are truly social beings. We live together, and being in relationships - ones which we feel safe and secure can have good effects, not only for you, but also [your actual] immune system, no matter what period of life you’re in.”
Indeed, there have been many studies on the effects of relationships on your immune system: even though everyone’s immune system is unique, the immune systems of cohabiting couples start to resemble one another’s; feeling loved tends to boost your immune system; falling in love and getting married is associated with a reduction in feelings of isolation and depression, and increases life expectancy.
Conversely, other studies have shown how social isolation can lead to inflammation in the body (signalling an immune response), and a weaker immune system compared to those who are not lonely.
So what does that say for singles in the pandemic?
The loneliness pandemic
“Many of us were living rushed lives outside, and the pandemic forced us to face our loneliness, which can be quite destructive,” Ergun says.
For some, this meant an increase in reaching out to former romantic partners, “to [fight off] boredom, loneliness, or a growing awareness of their own mortality; [or] from a place of genuine care,” according to one article. One study found that one in five people had reached out to an ex during pandemic quarantine.
Many others have attempted to find someone new. Ergun explains that many of her single clients, in both the US and Turkey, have increasingly turned to dating and matrimonial apps as the pandemic limited opportunities for socialisation and finding romantic partners.
The pandemic brought with it some advantages, she says. “You may find yourself going into deeper topics with new people more easily. You’re talking about [topics like] illness and family, rather than daily matters. These can help draw people closer together.”
Dating app statistics and individual reports support Ergun’s observations.
As a representative from one app put it: “As a city goes into lockdown, engagement on OKCupid goes up.”
The ways such apps are being used is also changing: according to one app, people are ghosting less and dating more during the pandemic. People are video chatting instead of going on physical dates, and some have heralded the end of the hookup era.
The pandemic has also reportedly led to creative methods of rejecting potential partners online, as people cite potentially having Covid-19 or finding someone who is vaccinated as reasons to turn people away.
And as for people who are still single and feeling lonely, it can have some negative mental and physical health consequences. Ergun suggests cultivating close relationships with others, and seeking help if necessary.
“Close relationships are not just about couples. We have our mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, and even if our relationships with them are not strong, we have our friends. We all need closeness,” she says, “even if we can’t see each other physically.”
“We can [also] try to reflect on our loneliness and understand what it tells us about ourselves in a safe and secure way. This is not easy, of course. In these cases, it’s important to get support — therapy or otherwise.”