Seven People On How Their Relationship Priorities Have Shifted In A Pandemic

Art by Sam Liacos.

Words by Rae Witte. Art by Sam Liacos.

It’s natural for growth or change to happen in situations under large amounts of strain. As COVID-19 affects people worldwide, we continually hear about the “new normal” that’s waiting for us on the other side. 

Following China lifting their lockdown, lawyers reported a significant uptick in the number of couples filing for divorce. While plenty of relationships can and will come out of this intact or thriving even, others will be over or brand new ones may be created. The common thread within each relationship is inevitable change whether it’s intentional or not, long periods of isolation as a single person or in a relationship, with or without the object of your affection will lead to something different.  

We spoke to seven people about how their priorities in dating or within their relationship have shifted.

After their lifestyle has been put in slow motion, they think it may be time to move to a slower city for their happiness…

We’ve been living together for a few years now, but moving to a new place right before shelter-in-place was perfect. Since I’m from L.A., I’ve talked about needing a little bit of a slower life. NYC can be exhausting. About a week into quarantine, I found not only did I have the time to cook and exercise, I had the goddam energy to do so! 

While we’re not ready to leave New York City yet, we both noted how nice it is to live a slower life, how much we do need separation from such large crowds. It essentially sped up our “when are we leaving the city?” chat. We always knew it was going to happen, but now it might be as soon as our next lease is up! 

In terms of communication, we’ve had to learn how the other likes to communicate much more. While I always knew I had a tendency to hold things silently, now I’ve learned Zach can feel that and it brings tension to the environment. Whereas Zach is a loud, outgoing person at home and brings a really distracting energy. I’ve had to ask him to “reel it in,” because we’re working and it’s super distracting. 

All in all, we’ve had to become way more clear in our communication. Not just asking him to stop being loud in the middle of the day, but specifically saying, “Hey, I need you to stop because I have a lot going on and I find it really distracting. I’d love to have a good time with you when I’m off the clock, but right now I’m on and I’m having an issue getting work done.” That way, he doesn’t think I’m asking him to stop because he’s annoying, and knows exactly how it’s interfering. –Hannah S.

The career-focused single who decided she needs to make time and space for love…

I moved to L.A. two years ago and don’t have any family or friends here at all, so in a way I feel like I’ve been in isolation. The pandemic hit when I was about to go on a birthday trip and visit my father, and not being able to do that changed my whole perspective about everything.  

It made me yearn for physical touch. I deprived myself of so much in the name of chasing my dreams. I deprived myself of so much family time calling it “hustling” and “making sacrifices,” you know? Putting a career and dream first! I’ve spent the last two Christmas, birthdays, and Thanksgivings alone. I used to think it was worth it, and now, I don’t anymore.  

That translates into my dating life, because now I’m thinking more about having a family than a career. Having all this idle time I started FaceTiming a colleague that is stuck in the a Dominican Republic. We were supposed to work on a documentary together there right before this all hit. I’ve never had time to get to know someone this way before. I’m talking about seven hour video calls!

The new dream is being where I’m celebrated and to enjoy the now, not just sacrifice for a future that may never come.

Sarah P.

I guess I don’t want to be alone forever. No job, career, accolade can ever replace being loved or cared for by someone. Of course I’m still going to follow my dreams, but I’m not going to sacrifice human connection or love for it. The new dream is being where I’m celebrated and to enjoy the now, not just sacrifice for a future that may never come. Sarah P.

Quarantining with a long distance, casual partner has made him realize he needs to heal more from his past and be more honest with himself...

I have been casually seeing someone for a while, long-ish distance. She lives 90 minutes away. We met on Tinder. There’s basically nobody to date in my tiny southern town. We spend a day or two together, here and there. Usually go a week or two or three without seeing each other. We’ve been quarantining together in my house. And, frankly, it hasn’t been great. This “relationship” wasn’t meant to be like this.

I feel like quarantine in general is giving everybody growing pains. It’s a lot of living in a short amount of time, and we’re not at all used to it, adjusting to very different lives and levels of risk. Part of the weirdness of this situation is that we’ll be in the grocery store surrounded by people in masks and gloves, walking past a newspaper stand with a blaring headline about deaths being on the rise in our area, and I’m looking around like, “I’m riding out the end of the world with…HER?” It’s not how I would have made a conscious choice, but it just happened that way and now we’re navigating it on the fly.

We’ve never learned how to confront each other… because we never had to. And now, suddenly, we’re processing all this fear and grief and worry, together.

We never developed the skills to communicate properly with each other. We only know how to communicate about having a good time, going out, getting blasted, [and] having fun sex. We’ve never learned how to confront each other, even about little things, because we never had to. And now, suddenly, we’re processing all this fear and grief and worry, together, and I don’t even know how many brothers and sisters she has or where her mother lives. And I’m afraid to ask!

I think we’re both trying to figure out our space needs and communicating them without trying to hurt each other. More than anything, I’ve learned I need to learn to be honest with myself and with potential partners about what I want. I’ve been hurt pretty bad over the past few years, and I’m just not interested in a deep relationship at the moment. I lack the trust in myself and others to move forward with that. But, of course, by deciding to quarantine together we’re placing an enormous amount of trust in each other and it’s freaking me out a little. 

But, if I’m being totally honest with myself, being pushed to this brink is making me realize that I’m OK quarantining by myself and might actually prefer it. That’s a splash of cold water on my face and definitely changes how much value I feel like I can put in a “casual” relationship. Like, am I just wasting my own time and hers if we’re just “hanging out,” “taking it easy” without a thought about moving things forward, to where you’d want to live your life with and for this person? I didn’t think so before. I’ve found a lot of value in having a nice “friends with benefits” situation, while I get my head in order and recover from previous trauma. But I certainly can’t imagine, say, starting a new relationship like that when all of this is over.

And also, to be clear, she’s incredible. She’s great and brilliant and cool as hell. I just don’t feel butterflies in my tummy when we’re together. I couldn’t imagine ever telling her, “I love you.” But I care enough about her that I wanted her to be safe in my house. – Mark B.*

Art by Sam Liacos.

Staying quarantined in their studio has made them realize how distant they’ve become with their friends…

I’m a 35-year-old video producer in New York City who’s been dating my attorney girlfriend, S., for four years. We met at a friend’s birthday party in 2016. We started dating in December 2016 and I moved in around late 2017. 

We live in a studio apartment. I noticed things were getting weird when I realized that S. has an incredible ability to make me feel guilty about everything. If the dishes aren’t done immediately, if the water filter pitcher hasn’t been immediately refilled (which by the way, those things take for-fucking-ever), if the laundry hasn’t been put away, if I’ve taken longer than necessary to clean out the litter, you get the idea. I felt like I was stuck in the house with a parent who’d realized I was a burnout good-for-nothing who’d never leave the house. That’s really what became very apparent; I just can’t really deal with that overwhelming feeling of just not being good enough and that sensation has magnified given our situation.

We never have had such honest conversations because I’ve never needed to. S. wants to make sure things are understood and discussed before it gets out of control. We’re both going to therapy. I don’t know if it’s because we have moments [where] things are a little more manageable or if it’s because it’s some semblance of normalcy. 

We were social shut-ins prior to this, going out on walks and occasional drives into the city or to go hang out with friends. For me the shift has been realizing shit, [like that] we actually don’t have that many friends. It’s noticeable now and we’ve decided to make more efforts to hang out with people. We want to do more outside of it just being the two of us. That’s probably been the biggest shift.

We started putting together a calendar of when calls were happening and scheduling things. We got better at communicating, but I feel that shift is permanent, because I realize that the things that are super cute are actually the most obnoxious things on the planet. I continue to wonder if things were wrong with me and why was I lacking patience to deal with S. 

I realized how lonely I am when I only have one person I’ve built a whole life with. I want to go back out and be more social with my friends, enjoy bars and nights away from the house. I was very active up until we met and this time has made me re-evaluate the way I am with friends and how often we speak to each other and I want to reach out. (I’ve also learned that S has shitty taste in music.) 

Looking at all of it, it seems like there have been a whole confluence of situations that have made me reevaluate the whole relationship. 

What’s become more important is being more sympathetic to each other. The world is incredibly stressful, our jobs precarious, and our patience seems fragile. We have moments sitting on the couch and that’s enough. We talk frequently about how lucky we are to be together. We talk about how much we miss our families. We’ve gotten closer to them because of this. Our habits are still the same. I do the stuff S. doesn’t want to do (food shopping, laundry) and S. maintains the house. We’ve become more vocal and appreciative of things that we do and do right. – E.

Being isolated alone and single finally gave her the space to make herself her first priority…

As a newly-minted single person, I will say that dating in my early 20s versus now (I’m turning 30 this year!) is completely different. For one, I like myself. I didn’t realize I needed to prioritize that before. Of course, all this introspection and growth happened during COVID–19. I will say the insecurity that I had with dudes isn’t in place anymore because we have time, and time has made me realize I don’t care to waste it on anyone who isn’t consistent. I also think so much of the communication during this time is fleeting — it makes dating not feel very real. At least this time, I feel like I’m in the driver’s seat, dictating how I want to spend my time and how much.

Being alone during this time forced me to be OK with myself, thus building a better relationship for myself by myself.

Isidora T.

Self-isolation has reaped me loads of time to dig deep and break through some of the thoughts I was probably afraid to confront previously and would’ve easily found ways to distract myself. Being alone during this time forced me to be OK with myself, thus building a better relationship for myself by myself. – Isidora T.

Isolation forced him to look inward rather than rebounding by serial dating via dating apps…

My ex and I started dating in her last year of grad school, and I was undecided on where I wanted to live. That hung over our relationship for the duration. I didn’t know how much I loved her, because I resisted even thinking about altering my career path after only dating for less than a year. I hadn’t dated anyone seriously for four years prior to meeting her. Although I found myself falling for her more everyday, I was not honest in the way an adult partner should have been. I was stubborn with things that could’ve been better solved by communicating with her. We were trying to make it work without being honest about where we were headed. Ultimately, It was trust. I lost that and it looks as if I’ll never get that back. She decided to take a job in another state. 

Before the isolation, I planned on dating for fun. I didn’t want to seek love; I still loved the woman I lost. I sought flexibility and mindless companionship early. I had a hard time accepting love and being vulnerable in the last relationship and did not open up until late. While I am trying to figure out how my emotions work, I wanted the room to be able to improve at my own pace. 

After the breakup and before the isolation, I sought to see if my identity as a bachelor still existed. I got so close to a long term serious relationship with my ex and the possibility of changing my life around our relationship had me pondering if I was still the guy with all the dates from the dating apps or was it finally my time to ride off into the sunset with my significant other. 

Time has slowed down. I had all three dating apps (Tinder, Bumble, Hinge) after the breakup, but I’ve deleted them all. I live in a pretty transient metro area filled with young professionals. The dates after the breakup were quite underwhelming (when they happened, if they happened). In previous breakups, I’d serial date. Maybe it’s too early, but now that the virus is here I have been amazed at how the anxiety and the constant need for gratification from dating apps has subsided. You can’t see anyone, you can’t go out to the bars, and even with zoom dates, how much can you really get a feel for how you mesh or vibe with someone? I have taken comfort in being with myself at this time, and for someone with FOMO, it’s been amazing not to feel the pressure.

My ex has not left for her new city yet. We have been communicating and biking together on the weekends (6 feet apart, of course), and the quarantine has given us a chance to enjoy each others’ company before she leaves. It has not been all I dreamed of, but having her companionship has made dating less of a priority. I am more comfortable with the clock in terms of dating once again. When I’m ready, I’ll be ready, but no more pressure. I don’t have to serial date to get over her like I did in the past and now I see the wear and tear I put on myself in the past, trying to keep up with the clock. – Jonas L.

He’s realized making excuses and not communicating his feelings and needs, while his girlfriend’s communicated needs go unfulfilled, is exhausting…

Being separated physically from my girlfriend during the pandemic has most certainly added stress and strain to what was a fairly smooth time until now. In the beginning of March, I was going through a lot of personal changes. I had accepted a new job offer, was set to close on my first home and start a new job. My priorities in that moment, admittedly, were different, and my girlfriend was not front and center. As I packed and moved, I kept her away, rather than include her (we are not moving in together). She was eager to help, but I didn’t want her included in what, for me, was a stressful situation. I didn’t communicate that feeling and instead just repeatedly told her that she didn’t need to help. 

Throughout the next week, I was inundated with work. A mix of onboarding and urgent project work. Again, I didn’t share much of that work stress with my girlfriend. She works in healthcare, albeit indirect with insurance, but the general fear from the virus was weighing on her too. One night that week, I told her to stop looking for additional information. Her regular anxiety, paired with a virus that could potentially impact her family and friends, was working her up into tears. She was offended, and told me that I was not taking things seriously. 

As the weeks went on, I buried my head in work during the day, texting when I could, and having short conversations at night, while I continued to move from the rental. There were also several nights that I was taping and then painting a few rooms. At that point, my girlfriend was understanding why I wasn’t visiting. She did call me out in that span for not communicating. I was most certainly guilty, but I offered some reasoning and excuses as to why. They were true from my end, but they were excuses.

The issues with my feelings toward the relationship came that weekend. My girlfriend had asked me to hang out during the week. I gave a non-answer, for the most part, and it didn’t come back up until Friday. When she asked again, I said no. We were in Michigan, in the middle of a full lock down. 

In the previous week, one of my girlfriend’s roommates’ brother and sister and law moved in with them, totaling five people in their rental. That made me uncomfortable and question why my girlfriend was OK with this deliberate social interaction, but I was the one that hadn’t been taking things seriously weeks before. Rather than express any of these feelings, I maintained that I was generally uncomfortable, and I was still digging through boxes and unpacking. 

The following weekend, I agreed for my girlfriend to come over on Saturday. The night was pleasant, I was happy to share the house and the changes I had made. We talked about how stressful the whole situation was for both of us, and it was mutual stress, rather than one against the other. She did mention again that I had been absent in communicating, and that she had cried over it already. That item gave me pause. Crying is a powerful reaction to me, and I didn’t realize that things had gotten so bad. I took it seriously. I made the mental notes that I needed to help the situation. 

We celebrated an anniversary on the 15th. It was a great night, and there were no mentions of communicating. The next night, the conversation started back up again, and my girlfriend admitted to needing attention and affirmational “I love you’s” and phone calls. Looking back, all of these things are a non-issue when we see each other, in person, on a regular basis. 

I started questioning the relationship, because I know that I am, in a way, the exact opposite of that. I have always been independent and comfortable being alone–not quite to the level of being anti-social. I don’t fault her at all for wanting those things in a relationship, but I’d like her to express some sort of ownership to the relationship stress. We have different communication needs, and that is OK. I’m willing to recognize that, and work on myself, but it does feel a bit one-sided. I don’t see her ever wanting less communication, and it does make me question if at this point, I am actually under communicating to the point it is a detriment to our relationship or if this is all a symptom of the pandemic. She has not really acknowledged the latter, and I am a bit exhausted. – Dan D.

*Name has been changed

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