Pandemic Relationships Get Hot and Heavy Fast. But Does That Make Breaking Up Extra Painful?

With everything going on in the world, a bout of heartbreak could prove catastrophic. But, as some couples are finding out, it’s a whole different kind of agony.

Like basically all of humankind, the COVID-19 crisis injected some high-grade instability into the life of Olivia, a single, 34-year-old writer who works part-time at a foundation in New York City. After contracting the coronavirus early this spring, she recovered, but soon abandoned her Brooklyn apartment over uncertainty about her long-term work status. She opted to shack up with her parents in Ohio and, curious to check out the available locals, fired up the dating app Hinge. She interacted with a few guys, but Chris, whom Olivia calls handsome, emotional and empathetic, emerged from the pack a Cupid-plucked contender. And so, they scheduled a Zoom chat, which was successful enough to spur lots of texting and daily phone calls. 

After three weeks of this, Olivia and Chris (both pseudonyms) decided to meet in person, going on a picnic without much concern over infecting each other with COVID-19, as Olivia had tested positive for antibodies. The anticipation of what felt like something much bigger than a first date was palpable, to an uncomfortably extreme level for Olivia. “I think that funneled into the entire relationship,” she tells me. 

Olivia and Chris kissed during that inaugural date, which lasted about seven hours. They saw each other again a few days later, talking by phone and text in between. By date number two, Chris was asking Olivia if she was seeing other guys; on date three, he was conjuring up prospective living arrangements for the two of them if Olivia wound up going back to New York. On date five, they exchanged I love yous. “At first I was like, ‘Oh my God, this guy’s weird. He must have problems. Is he obsessed with me?’” Olivia says. “Then I started talking to more and more friends, and they were like, ‘I’m getting the same thing’ — like three dates in, somebody is trying to commit.”

Even though COVID-19 is highly contagious and far deadlier than the flu, it hasn’t stopped single people from trying to find each other. If anything, the pandemic has been a boon to online dating, along with video conferencing platforms that have allowed socially distant virtual dates to become a thing. But it remains to be seen if building new relationships in a time when everyone’s anxiety has been ratcheted up is really the best idea. 

Though Olivia noted what she calls “red flags” coming out of Chris’s camp, she shook off his overpowering forwardness. It felt nice to have a guy shower her with attention, especially with doom and gloom perforating every other dimension of her life. He was also the potential answer to some of her personal pandemic problems. “If I lose my job and I’m living somewhere for free with my boyfriend, that would be a nice solution,” Olivia says hypothetically. “I’m not going to say it didn’t cross my mind.”

They had sex after 12 in-person dates across three weeks, which, to Olivia, felt more like four months. “During the pandemic, time doesn’t exist,” she says, with purposeful exaggeration. “In my New York life, there’s no way I’d see someone 12 times in three weeks; it wouldn’t happen. And so, you feel like it’s a longer time than it was.” 

But though Olivia introduced Chris to her parents and friends, and posted enthusiastic updates and photos of them together on Facebook, things continued to grow too intense for her. She started to observe that Chris was a bit of a manboy, too, explaining he “didn’t always have his shit together” and “wasn’t taking good care of himself.” When she tried to put the brakes on the relationship, Chris grew angry and yelled at her for not investing as much as he was. He’s since apologized, but it wasn’t long thereafter that Olivia broke up with him. 

I so can relate.

I’m also a New Yorker who was in lockdown, officially, on March 20. By late April, I was already knee-deep into a pandemic-born relationship. Like Olivia and Chris, Allie and I met on Hinge, and before we knew it, we were engaging in hours-long video chat dates multiple times a week. Before meeting in person for the first time, we were already mapping out moving-in scenarios and declaring that we were “falling for each other,” stopping short of actually uttering the l-word. (I mean, we’re not that crazy.) The thing is, though, the night before I was scheduled to meet her for the first time — on a Memorial Day weekend picnic — I could barely sleep, and not for coo-worthy, romantic reasons. It was because I’d put myself under so much pressure to make us work, when there really wasn’t much of an “us” at all. How could there be when we hadn’t even met in person?

And while we had a terrific time on our first “real” date, I couldn’t shake the feeling something was sorely amiss. By the end of that week, after choppy nights of sleep throughout, I asked Allie for a two-week break so I could collect my thoughts. After the hiatus, during which my sleep patterns quickly returned to normal, I ended the relationship outright. (For privacy reasons, Allie is also a pseudonym.)

As to why, I was too worried that the foundation of our couplehood was constructed upon deep-seated anxiety on my end, brought on by the COVID-19 crisis. I’d sought comfort in someone else, and I’d noticed a troubling dynamic forming between us where I, the one with mental health struggles, was always needing an emotional pick-me-up from the seemingly more resilient Allie. I didn’t want to be that guy. (Allie said during our breakup that, ultimately, it was because I just didn’t see her as “my person” long term and, yeah, that too.)

After my romantic debacle, I watched Olivia’s tryst with Chris crash and burn on Facebook where we’re “friends.” She wrote an emotional update about their breakup, prompting several of her single Facebook friends to comment that they’d also experienced similar circumstances since COVID-19 landed stateside. 

Markie Keelan, a licensed professional counselor and dating coach at the Colorado-based Growing Self clinic, says a number of her clients, from across the country, have described near-identical pandemic-dating scenarios to her as well. “Coronavirus adds this layer that can be really tricky for people,” Keelan says of dating these days. The extended amounts of time individuals are spending with new partners — on the phone, video chats and texting, while filling up voids in schedules created by the loss of other social events, commutes or work — will increase the amount of emotional investment placed into a relationship before either party has a true idea of what an IRL romantic arrangement will look like with that person.

“This potentially can lead people to a few different pitfalls, like adopting a sunk-cost fallacy in a relationship, which is the false belief that you’ve invested so much time that it’s not worth it to leave this person, even if red flags come up,” Keelan observes. 

She adds that people can similarly “create a façade,” an inaccurate image of the person they think they’re getting so close to because the vulnerability that’s required online is never equal to what ideally exists when interacting with someone in person. Mix in everyone’s heightened state of anxiety, and you have amped-up pressure placed on a relationship still only in its earliest stages.   

“Sometimes that pressure is good. It creates that passion; we get really excited,” Keelan explains. However, the flipside is the natural worry of: I might not deliver in person what I’ve been providing in virtual settings. “And then that pressure leads us to act differently in person, too,” Keelan continues. “All of a sudden, we don’t feel as comfortable, and we’re using that information as a judgment on the relationship as a whole.”

“I can understand why the pandemic has made people reach out to each other. But it’s not the best time,” says Kate Taylor, a relationship expert for the U.K.-based dating site Ourtime. “Not only has it been harder (even impossible) to meet up and see what your in-person chemistry is like, but it’s been a time without a normal structure or routine, which is hard on new relationships.”

And again, new partners these days are also likely to be having more intense conversations than they otherwise would, which could ultimately be detrimental, too. “You might be exposing your anxiety, political anger, feelings of helplessness, etc.,” says Taylor. “That’s a lot for early dating, and it can create a feeling in the other person of being burdened, or having to comfort you. Or you might regret sharing so much with someone who is, in reality, a near-stranger.”

Olivia tells me that since breaking up with Chris, he’s admitted to her that he was dealing with some pandemic-related anxiety and, perhaps as a result, was “trying to force this [relationship] into something it wasn’t yet.” 

But like me, Olivia says her recovery from this heartbreak has been relatively swift. “Afterwards, I just looked back more rationally and was like, ‘Oh, I was silly,’” she says. In my case, I realized that my initial reservations about dating right now — including my worry that the relationship was merely a device to distract me from what might still turn out to be our end times — were things I should have considered more strongly. Instead, my insecurities and blown-up need for comfort had prevailed. 

“Sometimes it really is just having another person to talk to,” Keelan says of these pandemic romances. “When that’s gone, maybe that was what it served for us; it doesn’t have to be this significantly important relationship.”

Both Olivia and I — for the time being at least — have sworn off dating till there’s a vaccine. “This isn’t our real lives right now, [and] dating someone under those pretences and pretending like you’re in real circumstances isn’t the truth,” she explains. 

That kind of sums it up for me, too. 

With that said, Keelan believes pandemic-planted connections can successfully bloom into a long-term romantic partnership, beyond the crisis, whenever the fuck it finally fucking ends. People are just going to have to be extra-mindful of where they are in their lives, what emotions they’re feeling and what they’re bringing to the proverbial table from the outset. Allowing the arrangement to be “very casual right now,” with low expectations, could also prove helpful, she suggests. 

The last person I speak to is Farah (yep, another pseudonym), who had commented on Olivia’s Facebook breakup post that she’d had sparks fly vigorously with a man, post-lockdown as well, only to have the relationship break apart within days of meeting him in person. A meeting that she’d flown from NYC to San Francisco for, and which had been preceded by online I love yous. But the pressure proved too great, and when things ended, Farah cried herself to sleep each night for a few days. 

About a month later, though, she’s insistent that she won’t give up on love, not even during this pandemic. “People fall in love in war zones; people create relationships out of the hardest situations they’ve ever experienced,” Farah says. “Life always happens. You can’t keep pausing life.”

I wish her the best of luck.