“Do you think we would be as close as we are now if it were not for the pandemic?”
I paused, still grappling with an unruly boot as it stretched to accommodate my thick winter sock. He looked up at me from the couch, awaiting my answer.
“I don’t know. There’s no way to know, is there?”
My answer was evasive, and he looked suitably unsatisfied. “I think we would,” he said. “I don’t see why not.”
I’ve been seeing this guy for six months, and which six feels like a crucial detail. We met on an app during the height of the summer vaccine optimism of 2021. The bar we met at wasn’t busy, so we showed our vaccine cards to the bartender and sat inside with seltzers. On the second date, he invited me to his apartment to cook me dinner and asked if that was too soon for my comfort. In any other circumstances, it would have been, but I’d grown so sick of cooking for myself over the course of the pandemic that the slight but omnipresent risk of getting axe-murdered was worth it. His food was delicious. We talked for seven hours.
That summer, our COVID protocol conversation got folded into our STI test talk. In the fall, we went out to the movies and took our masks off for drinks and popcorn. When cases rose during the Omicron surge and New York City’s positivity rate went vertical, we mapped out the walking route of the distance between his apartment and mine. That week, I went into isolation because of a confirmed exposure, awaiting PCR results from a backed-up lab. He met me on my stoop, both of us masked and standing apart, so he could bring me plastic containers of lamb and rice he made. It felt like the modern equivalent of looking out my castle turret to see a knight on horseback. After all, a COVID romance is still a romance, even if it looks fundamentally different than it ever has before.
Like nearly every other aspect of our lives, dating has had to adapt to meet the challenges of the pandemic. Our relationships are being stress-tested in different ways than they were in the past. There’s less meeting the friends, fewer parties, more unstructured time. Courtship looks different, too, now that less is safe and social gatherings are more fraught. I’m not alone in experiencing this strangeness. “Thanks to the pandemic, [my partner and I] didn’t get to go on dates. We just tumbled straight from having crushes to being committed partners,” said Sonja, 34, who started dating one of the members of their polycule in March 2020, when they made the decision to isolate together. “We make an effort to go on dates now, but they’re not the prepandemic go-tos of restaurants, shows, movies. … It’s long, meandering shopping trips to Michael’s; it’s going to look at outdoor art installations or buying a fancy coffee and sitting by the ocean.”
“I hear people talking about their partners differently now,” said Eliana, who met her long-distance girlfriend online in 2020. “It’s so much harder to feel fulfilled by their social lives — no one right now has a satisfying social life! — so the social aspects of dating have gone out the window, and they’re left with, I need someone I can be vulnerable with.”
“As a result of the pandemic and the way that work and labor have changed, people have been spending a lot of time with their new partners in ways that are unprecedented,” said Oumou Sylla, an NYC-based therapist who works with individuals, couples, and groups. “I think that the pandemic layer intensified people’s relationships in different ways. As a result of that intensity, people had to learn some new skills pretty quickly or were disconnected from their skill set as a result of the relationships they were in.”
The upheaval of the status quo in the pandemic and the stressors that have resulted from it have stretched romantic relationships in a variety of ways. While the pandemic has spiked divorce and breakup rates overall, some people I spoke to said they are more ready to commit than they used to be. “The relationship developed very quickly,” said Gaby, who met her boyfriend in September 2020. “We slept together the night we met. After that, we saw each other every single day, and by Halloween he asked me to be his girlfriend. We moved in together after six months. Since then we have some combined finances and joint car insurance. This was not how I usually dated. Typically took months to get to know each other and rarely developed into something serious.”
“It feels like the pandemic has accelerated intimacy,” echoed Mady, a woman in her mid-30s who started dating her girlfriend in October 2021. “A lot of the qualms or connotations I might have had have gone away. I don’t think that’s just about the pandemic, because I also think that’s about the emotional work I’ve done on myself this past decade. It’s hard to disentangle the effects of the pandemic from the effects of getting older and not wanting to be running around with a lot of people anymore.” We cannot know how much of our feelings about commitment are related to our maturation as opposed to the circumstances of the pandemic, because for the time being it’s all one and the same. Even so, people who have started relationships during the pandemic are left to wonder how things would look different if they had met in other circumstances. “For us, the pandemic put us in a situation where we no longer had busy schedules and had a lot of time to connect with each other,” Sonja said, “[which is] an opportunity that wouldn’t have presented itself in our previous routines.”
The people I spoke to who got into romantic relationships during the pandemic said they have to navigate with their partners what is safe and what is possible at any given time. “There are a lot of tough decisions [my girlfriend and I] have to make that we would never have to make beyond the challenges of a long-distance relationship, because we can’t travel,” said Eliana, whose girlfriend is living in South Korea, where there is still a mandatory quarantine for travelers coming into the country. “It’s not just that my partner lives on the other side of the world; it’s also that I don’t know when I’m going to be able to see her. I don’t have the liberty to see her anytime. She is considering moving to be with me when we haven’t spent more than a few weeks together, but we have spent hours and hours talking. This is the only way forward because neither of us wants it to end.”
Dating right now is not just about difficulty and challenges. There are benefits to being able to experience how a partner manages the crises of the past two years. “If things weren’t going to work, normally you would only know that much later because you’d probably be dating a lot more casually. During this time, I think you get that more upfront. Maybe it’s childish, but I feel this Bonnie and Clyde thing, except instead of robbing banks it’s surviving the pandemic,” Mady said. “Like it’s us against the world. My girlfriend is resilient, resourceful, adaptable, and very funny. I’ve experienced in the past where one person is out of whack and the other person is a caretaker, and here there is more mutual support and an ability to handle things together as they come. There is an appeal to weathering something with someone.”
No matter how we feel about the gooey innateness of love, a relationship is a social phenomenon that involves some level of social performance. Whether that’s doing a boyfriend or girlfriend reveal on social media, presenting a partner at an office party, or meeting the friends, our romantic attachments signify and communicate things about us to the world around us. All of our relationships, whether romantic or platonic, are informed by the systems we interact with, including our workplaces, our communities, and our cultural norms and expectations.
“There is an appeal to weathering something with someone.”
“The performance of being in a relationship garners social capital. It’s looking more fluid now than it had before because people are questioning now what actually feels good,” said Sylla, the New York–based therapist. “Most people opted into their relationships during the pandemic in ways that are not intentional, but I think now that people are asking, ‘Now that this is the version of life we are living, do I want to do this relationship in this way?’ There is the question of, ‘pandemic aside, would I really be with this person?’” This kind of renegotiation is at once deeply personal and widespread. “I think as people have more dissent and questions about the failures of government, particularly their needs not being met by the government, there are similar questions arising in their intimate relationships as well.” Our institutions are failing us. Can we build something that will sustain us instead?
For better or worse, who we are and how we date is different now than it had been going into 2020. “I would not be in this relationship were it not for the pandemic,” Eliana said. “In this bleak time, it’s been the joyful thing to focus on. This time gave me my relationship.”
As for me, my PCR test came back negative the day before Christmas, so I went over to his apartment for barbecue and horror movies. On the way back from the grocery store, we passed a dive bar, the kind where no matter what time of day it was on the street, the vibe was always 30 minutes before last call. He sighed.
“I hope you don’t take this the wrong way, because we are about to have a great evening, but I wish I was at some trashy bar blowing off steam tonight.”
I understood. I also missed being out in loud, sweaty rooms. I still haven’t seen him when he’s out on the town, so as we walked home I imagined him at a bar on a Friday night, chatting up a group of randos, smiling, and saying something inaudible over the din of the music. He’s on. His joke lands, of course, and the group laughs. He leans forward to grab one of their shoulders for emphasis. The fantasy faded. I paused at a crosswalk and felt a tinge of sadness, hoping that this thing we are doing survives the world yet to come so we can have big, messy fun when circumstances permit — and that when our busy, robust social lives roar back again, should they do such a thing, we still have room for each other. Was I feeling sad about the end of the pandemic?
“What?” he asked. “What is that face?”
“No face!” I lied.
The next morning, I read the instructions aloud for his rapid test while he unscrewed the tiny testing vial and swabbed his nostrils. Once the swab hit the testing solution, he realized he didn’t have his phone timer at the ready.
“Shit! Shit. One 1,000, two 1,000…” he began counting. I yanked my phone off the coffee table and set the timer for 50 seconds. I waited until he hit 10 and started the clock.
“Ooh. Team. Thanks, baby,” he said.
“Damn right,” I replied. “Team.” ●