It was late March, and Michael was lying in his bed on his phone, quietly Googling the most stress-free ways to end a relationship. The 29-year-old Londoner had been with his partner Ben, 27, for four years, but the situation was devolving. Sex was rare, their conversations were repetitive and initiating date nights felt like an immense, soul-sapping effort. After living together for two years, their once electrifying romance had turned monotonous, and he was starting to feel the boredom “in his bones.”
“It was the same shit, every day,” he tells me. “I’d get back from work, exhausted, and Ben would make one of three meals on regular rotation. Maybe pesto pasta, or some chicken with broccoli. Then we’d sit and watch TV, grunt at each other, have a scroll on our phones and go to bed.”
The pair were just too busy. Michael is a creative director and Ben is a stylist, so by the time they got home from their lengthy, 12-to-15 hour shifts, any additional energy for emotional bonding or intimacy had evaporated. “We just weren’t engaged with each other or connecting at all,” Michael says.
But then COVID happened. Just days after Michael began stealthily searching for online breakup advice, the world went into lockdown. Offices closed, social lives were retired and people were forced inside their homes. With no choice but to confront his issues with Ben, Michael prepared for the worse — but ended up being pleasantly surprised by the weeks that followed. “It’s so crass to say given how bad lockdown has been for people,” Michael says with a nervous laugh. “But it was probably the best thing that could have happened to us as a couple.”
COVID’s overall effect on relationships has been mixed. Earlier in the year, before it was fully unleashed on the world, dire warnings circulated about the emotional wreckage it left behind in China. According to reports, the country’s marriage registration offices were greeted with an “unprecedented” number of divorce requests when they reopened after lockdown, with many relationships collapsing under the pressure of 24/7 confinement. And sure enough, as the pandemic began to work its way across the West, similar doomy headlines began appearing. In the U.S., there was a 34 percent increase in divorce compared to 2019, while another study found that 31 percent of relationships had been “harmed” by lockdown. Much of the bad news seemed to be coming from Southern states that had been hit hardest by the pandemic, or areas with a “high-risk” of COVID-induced layoffs.
As 2020 went on, though, the mood began to shift. For a lot of couples — particularly financially secure ones — the pandemic offered an opportunity to grow closer. In the U.K., a quarter of people claimed that their relationship “improved” during lockdown; 17 percent of American couples said the same (meanwhile, the majority, 74 percent, said the pandemic hadn’t had any effect on their relationship, with only five percent claiming it had made it worse). The reasons for this improvement are pretty logical — in a world where we’re encouraged to work as hard and as often as possible, and with presenteeism on the rise, putting aside quality bonding time with your partner becomes less of a priority. And so, lockdown gave many people the chance to focus on their homes and relationships and helped them fix what they may have previously neglected.
“After working, walking the dog and cooking dinner, we were pooped and didn’t really spend any quality time together,” says Shirley, 30, from Nevada. She’d been with her partner of two years when the pandemic started, and though they were relatively happy, lockdown led to a marked improvement. “We trauma-bonded,” she writes over Reddit DM. The pair were both given six weeks of paid furlough, which gave them plenty of time to talk, go on walks and do chores together. The time off also helped them regroup and rediscover what really mattered to them, with Shirley buying “self-love” workbooks on Amazon and going through them with her spouse. “That kind of reflective thought is impossible in normal circumstances, especially working the typical 40-hour work week plus commuting, shopping and the general busyness of life,” she explains.
For others, lockdown was even more transformative — a la Michael and Ben, who were forced into some tough confrontations, shining a harsh spotlight on issues that had been dusted under the rug. “We did a lot of mushrooms,” says Michael. “We got high together, I told him how I’d been feeling, we cried and talked it all out. We realized that we really loved each other, but had been focusing only on ourselves, so we started doing more things together like watching TV, going on walks and cooking.”
It was a similar turnaround for Steve (a pseudonym), 31, from Oregon. After being married for five years, his relationship with his wife had gone on autopilot; both were focusing on their son and careers, not really each other. During lockdown, Steve was working long hours teaching infantry to U.S. Marines, while his wife spent most of the time sequestered in their new at-home office, embarking on an intensive, full-time nursing program. “With her locking herself in that room and me still working long hours, on top of not going anywhere any other time, it all got very taxing very quickly,” he tells me.
The shift in circumstances, and the growing tension saw the pair opt for couples therapy. It was intense and illuminating, and they ended up having regular sessions (they’ve since stopped, but plan to return “as and when” it’s necessary). “The communication had broken down so much, and just because we spent so much of our time together, none of it was intentional; we were just consequently together,” Steve says. “We realized that we need to be intentional with our time together, so even though we couldn’t go out to a movie or dinner we still needed [to make an effort].”
They did so by consciously putting away their phones in the evening, listening to music together or watching their favorite shows. They also started to make more effort in their day-to-day conversations. “We like to find topics that we might not have discussed together before, like a type of social issue or debate that’s currently ongoing or has happened in the past,” he says.
And though no one knows how — or when — the pandemic will finally conclude, all of the couples I spoke to are hopeful that things will remain good once life starts to shift back to normal. In the words of Shirley, they’ve weathered “a pretty catastrophic world event” — one that has caused collective anxiety, instability and fear (and also, literal death). If a couple can survive this, she believes, they’ll be much more likely to endure other everyday hardships. “I feel like the changes in my relationship were very positive, and that they will be permanent,” she says.
That said, “hustle culture” is still a prevalent part of 21st century work, and it doesn’t appear to be going anywhere anytime soon (pandemic or no pandemic). For couples like Michael and Ben, who bonded thanks to the quality time they were given during furlough, there is a wariness about falling into old career-driven patterns. “We’re both cautious about becoming workaholics again,” Michael says. “But I feel confident that at least now, if we did, we’d be able to identify that as a problem and adjust [our behavior] accordingly.” Along those lines, he explains that, when the lockdown lifted temporarily, the couple made an effort to schedule in “quality time” on their Google calendars, and as with Steve and his wife, vowed to put their phones in another room during it. Basically, as long as they remember to make time for each other, in amongst the chaos, that’s all that matters.
“We’re genuinely closer than ever now, and I just can’t see us ever going back to the way things were,” Michael says. Even if they did, he adds, “There’s always mushrooms.”