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Coronavirus Relationship Struggles Aren’t Just for the Young

A teen couple forced to FaceTime. A widower who still speaks to her late husband. Newlyweds seriously considering having kids. Couples of all generations tell us how COVID is hitting their partnerships

It’s been a long few months of transitioning in and out of the various and increasingly alarming stages of a world in flux. In that time, some relationships have fallen apart, with 31 percent of surveyed couples admitting lockdown has caused irreparable damage. Others, albeit a smaller percentage, have entered into new beginnings. 

There are, as you might expect, generational differences at play here. But even shiny new teenage love affairs have been tested by the limitations of being stuck in quarantine, and the endless necessary adjustments required for falling — and staying — in love in a world currently ill-equipped to cultivate romance.

Of course, success in relationships looks different depending on a person’s age or what stage of the relationship they’re currently in. The same goes for heartbreak. And so, here’s a look at what it’s like generationally to be in a relationship in the age of corona… 

The Teenage Romance

Sometime around 10:30 p.m, River, a 19-year-old college student who’s been living at home since the quarantine began, stops playing NBA 2K20 online with his friends before glancing in the mirror to check his hair. Next, he makes sure his laptop is either fully charged, or his charger is within reach. He’s getting ready for his nightly call with Mandy, his girlfriend of nearly seven months. Slightly begrudgingly (“My friends are still playing 2K”), he signs on for what usually amounts to nearly five hours of FaceTime. “We’re just very involved in each other’s friend drama — not mine, mostly hers,” he says. “We also talk about our days and what we have planned, or anything else that’s going on at home.” 

If they have to use the bathroom, “we will just leave the call on the bed and come back to it.” When he goes outside to smoke weed, he admits to sometimes using her as an excuse for being on the phone outside. “Usually she tells me goodnight and falls asleep with FaceTime on,” he says. “After about 15 minutes, I hang up and go to bed.”

This nightly digital rendezvous that so often bleeds into the early morning is, he insists, how he kept his “relationship from falling apart” during the first few months when they were living at home and couldn’t see each other. It was, for a young couple stripped of their college experience and limited to only a handful of in-person meetups (Mandy’s mom is immunosuppressed), the price of burgeoning, young love in the time of COVID. 

There was a short breakup, too — “Like, three days,” he says — but not because either of them needed space or felt trapped. Quite the opposite — even though they live just a 20-minute drive apart, they only hung out twice in-person between March 16th and the end of May, which for River, at times, seemed hardly enough to keep the relationship going. Before the lockdown, River could “just be walking back from class and pop in her dorm,” he says. “Those 30 minutes, it wasn’t a big deal to me back then, but then being in this situation now, you realize how those little times seeing someone keeps you sane, almost, you know what I mean?”

The other question that would go through River’s head, after they got back together, was whether Mandy was staying with him simply because she didn’t have anyone else around. He worried that when they did eventually go back to school — “she’s in a sorority” — she’d leave him. For months, that feeling seeped its way into their relationship. “It was even worse because we couldn’t talk in person,” he says. “But the closer we get, the more I don’t have those thoughts.” Being that it’s his first relationship, “naturally, I overthink it,” he tells me.

Then the world began to unfurl somewhat, so they began to see each other in person more often. They couldn’t go out because “the bars are closed,” so instead they had dinner at his parents’ house, or they’d go to the beach to watch the sunset. But then sex became an issue. “I had to understand that even though my parents might give me privacy, it’s a different feeling for her, to be in my house,” he says. “We had a fight about how, a lot of times she comes over, she feels like it’s all we do. I can see why, if my parents are home, she’d rather just not do it that time.” 

Still, with his parents always home, they don’t have too many other options. “One time, we’re in the middle of it and we heard a voice in the hallway,” he continues — it was River’s younger sister. “She would never come in, but Mandy freaked out and put her clothes on. She wasn’t mad at me, but she was like, ‘This is why!’”

None of it has been easy. “She bails on me a lot,” River admits. But he’s sure that the reason their relationship has outlasted most of their friends’, who’ve broken up during the quarantine, is because of those late-night calls. “We would never miss a night,” he insists. Through them, however imperfect, their relationship has morphed into something that he says has the potential to last. “I know everything about her,” he says. “She knows that I only ever go the same three spots for food.” She also knows his facial expressions better than he knows them himself. “She’s like, ‘You have that look on your face,’” River says. “And for me, that’s just a resting look. I don’t know. She could just tell when something is slightly off.”

The Recently Married Couple 

Laura, 30, and her husband, Ace, 31, have been married for two years. “I’d say it’s like dog years now in relationships,” he says. “We’ve been married for two years, but that translates in COVID to… We spend every second together.” 

“Like, so long,” Laura adds. 

For them, the most notable changes in their relationship are in their mornings together. “Ace isn’t waking up and going to the gym,” she says. “He’s here in the morning when normally, he’s not, which is actually really nice.” In fact, it’s her favorite adjustment to their COVID days. Laura also likes it because she gets to sleep a little longer. “I don’t sleep in,” says Ace. “I get up at six every morning.” In that sense, he says, his routine, apart from not being able to go to the gym, has largely stayed the same. “But the difference is that when she is up, I literally get a text every morning that just says, ‘Hi.’” Which, he says, means, “Bring me coffee, or some sort of beverages and come back in bed and hang out while I get up and start my life.”

There’s less sex — “I’m having to jack off in the bedroom, with her nextdoor taking a Zoom call,” says Ace — but that’s mainly because they spend so much time around each other, according to Laura. “But then today, I was like, ‘We need to change this.’ So hopefully, we’re going to turn a new leaf.” In lieu of sex, mornings include “working out while Ace watches the news,” says Laura. 

The biggest difference between them is that Ace loves his time to himself, but “Laura loves to do activities,” he says, so they’ll go for a group walk together. For Ace, yoga is a “self thing,” he says. “You’re not talking to anybody in yoga, so I don’t feel like you do yoga with people.” But Laura prefers being around others, “so even if she wakes up in the morning and does her workout and I’m there, it feels like we’re doing something together,” he says.

One of the brighter aspects of being in quarantine, they both agree, is how much money they’ve saved. “It’s unbelievable,” says Laura. This is at least in part because they’re cooking more than they used to, but they’re also doing it with a certain intention that didn’t exist prior to COVID. “I feel like that’s even more romantic than going to your everyday dinner that we would normally go to,” Ace tells me. Nowadays they’re not just trying to rush their dinner as quickly as possible so they can get through cleaning the dishes before relaxing in front of the TV. In fact, Laura’s noticed just how much more often they’re sitting at the dinner table, whereas, “We used to sit on the couch.”

What’s changed most, or at least has most surprised Ace in these last several months, is the way Laura feels about having kids. She used to be hesitant. “More like, ‘I want to live my life first,” he says. “‘There’s time. I don’t want to have them now, while I’m young. It’s going to change our life.’” But Ace has been ready for a while. “I think with all of this that’s happened, it kind of showed that she’s more ready than she thought she was,” he says. 

“So much has happened and things are different, but still the same,” she explains. And as things stayed the same, she took on a new perspective where she didn’t “think a baby would change things as much as I thought it would.”

Ace attributes some of the change not to the “Oh, you have to live life to the fullest because you don’t know what’s going to happen with COVID,” sense of things — rather, he points to a slow down in their lives: They were comfortable before COVID and they’re comfortable, arguably more so, during COVID. “When COVID is over, we’re not going to go hike Kilimanjaro or something like that,” he says. Instead, they’re ready to have a baby. 

The Middle-Aged Couple Starting Out

For Aretha, 55, and Cash, 56, a couple who met only a few months before the quarantine, the dating phase of their relationship is a distant memory. “For me, that excitement of getting ready and dressed up, and being picked up, that whole part is out,” Aretha tells me. “We’re basically like partners that have known each other for a long time, because he sees me sometimes morning, noon and night, day after day.”

There were, of course, some benefits that came along with “not having to get dressed up,” and feeling nervous before a formal night out. “As much I like to go out and eat and all of that,” says Cash, he also enjoyed being able to “wear my Adidas warmups or whatever, and spend the morning cooking breakfast with this person whom,” he realized very quickly into the quarantine, “loved the most.” As Cash tells me, what they lost in the “infatuation” period, they gained in relationship basics like rudimentary trips to the grocery store. “The feeling was great,” says Cash. 

But that feeling didn’t last. Transitioning from seeing someone a few times a week to seeing the same person day-in, day-out wasn’t easy for Aretha — there was, suddenly, no space for anything but their relationship. “Because of the pandemic, I’ve learned that I just need a little bit more ‘me’ time.” The same wasn’t true for Cash, who craved a family life that he hadn’t had in 15 years, since his “first marriage fell apart,” he tells me. What felt like the pressure of commitment for Aretha, accelerated by the pandemic, was serendipity for Cash. 

Still, they’re taking it one day at a time. It helps, too, that they’ve transitioned back to living separately during the week. They both tell me that there needs to be a next step, but in the meantime, they’re fine with the way things are. “We have grown like a couple that doesn’t see each other seven days a week,” says Cash. For him, the nights that he goes home, although he would prefer to be around Aretha, have turned out decent enough. “Sometimes I look around and I’m like, ‘Yeah, Monday Night Football, and a nap,’” he says. “I get a pizza, I sit by the TV and I do that. And that’s relaxing.”

The Widow

The days when Nilla, 78, feels like her late husband is still sleeping beside her, she makes sure not to move too quickly. “I don’t want to wake him up,” she says, laughing. When her husband passed away a few years ago, she moved into a retirement community. Before COVID, she would garden, participate in yoga classes and cook food for “movie night.” “But that’s all done for now,” she says. For the last several months, she’s spent most of her time watching TV, staring into her iPad or speaking with her late husband. “I look at his picture next to my bedside and I say, ‘Good morning.’” When she does the dishes, she thinks about the way she used to get mad at him for how he’d stack them on the drying rack, so she tells him that she’s “sorry for getting angry.” 

When she’s tired or her back hurts, she feels angry with him for leaving her behind. When she watches a movie they used to watch together or cooks one of his favorite meals, she thinks about all the times he complained about it having “too much oil, not enough salt, never enough lemon juice.” She remembers how angry he would get with her sometimes over nothing, and how angry she would get “to face his anger.” Then she laughs. There are pictures of him everywhere: By her bedside. In the kitchen. In the bathroom. “By the front door when you walk in,” she says. 

On occasion, she meets her two sons by a patch of grass in a parking lot near her community. “They’re not allowed inside,” she says. Her grandkids visit, too, from time to time, bringing sandwiches and setting up a picnic in the same lot. Most of her friends don’t live nearby — the one that does is leaving for a different city at the end of the month. 

She spends a lot of time alone. Some days, she’s lonely. “But I don’t cry, because I was happy,” she says. “I’ll see him soon.”