For better or for worse? How the pandemic is changing relationships

It's been a year into lockdown, and we've seen both long-term relationships and dating behaviors change – sudden and involuntary LDRs, a surge in online dating app usage, the unexpected end of long-term relationships, an influx of engagements, quarantine weddings, and what seems to be a quarantine baby boom. On top of that,, home dynamics and friendships have shifted, too. (READ: Cabin fever in lockdown? What it is and what you can do about it)

It's safe to say that our lives have changed since March 2020 – and not always for the better.

Love in lockdown (or lack thereof)

According to psychologist and relationship counselor Lissy Puno, the barrage of stressors – financial concerns, uncertainty over basic needs, frustration over limited activities, job insecurity, losses, boredom, isolation, and the possibility of contracting the virus – have affected our relationships with others (and even ourselves).

Have you been experiencing increased tension, irritability, emotional distancing, low moods, and more stress? Lissy said that this stems from expectations set at the start of lockdown that have proven null through time. Relationships are struggling due to an imbalance of a lack of communication and a demand for more.

According to Lissy Ann, there have been an increasing list of "demands" from partners in lockdown – with most not always feasible.

"Be there all the time for me," he says, but you're working hard from home. "Protect me from the virus," she asks, but how? "Have fun with me," she requests, but you're too emotionally drained to do so. "I'm feeling stuck," he complains, but so are you, at home. Everything is a possible recipe for disappointment.

Marriage, dating, and the devil that is the pandemic

"The pandemic has also cost marriages," Lissy Ann said. Married couples may have become distant, with nothing much to talk about anymore. Couples feel disconnected and no longer close, now realizing they don't share much in common.

"Loveless and empty marriages may even emerge, as couples realize that only the kids were keeping them together, and that they actually don't enjoy each other's company, being stuck in the same space every day," Lissy said. Even political differences and arguments over quarantine safety and health protocols have become a dealbreaker for many partners.

For the single and itching to mingle, behaviors vary. Many have aggressively turned to online dating apps, flings have found ways to sneak into each other's homes, and new couples have abruptly moved in together to take advantage of the quarantine.

As for splits, couples have long distance and uncertainty to blame. Long-term pairs have also found themselves stuck at home with an unfaithful spouse or a verbal abuser, making break-ups even more urgent than ever.

The greatest motivation is a pandemic

When it comes to rash and unexpected relationship decisions, both good and bad, we shouldn't discredit the effects of the pandemic.

"This uncertainty has created a feeling of mental chaos or even environmental chaos. The unknowns have created confusion, and this unexpected feeling has birthed the sense of loss of control," Lissy said. Making your own choices is one way to regain your locus of control.

"All of these experiences triggered our fight-flight-freeze response, which pushes us to make impulsive decisions that we think will keep us safe. Those dating thought, 'I don't want to ever be apart from you,' or 'I don't need you in my life anymore,' and other similar thoughts," Lissy added.

Has this situation somehow altered people's conventional decision-making process? Possibly, Lissy said, because "individuals are constantly changing and in constant transition." Most of us, after all, are living in probably the most daunting transition of our lives yet.

"This means individuals need to make decisions in their lives constantly as well. The decision-making process is based on one’s current knowledge about the self, the environment, and the world," she said, taking into consideration that our current knowledge of this virus is limited.

How we make decisions: pre- and post-pandemic

According to Lissy, there is a common cognitive-behavioral approach involved in decision-making, using the following questions:

  • What is the decision that needs to be made?
  • What are my alternative decisions?
  • What would I gain and lose with each option?
  • Which alternatives do I want to try first?

Next, one would implement their chosen alternative and set a timeline for it. Soon, they will review their decision and its consequences. If they're happy, they'll stick with that decision. If not – on to the next one.

However, this process has been drastically cut short because of the pandemic. The brain, which has become so hyper-vigilant for danger 24/7, has no more time to go through this approach. We are all on survival mode, and our sense of safety and comfort have been compromised.

"Basically, people decide on their relationships based on what they think will keep them 'safe'," Lissy said, even if it may not be the best time to make major life decisions right now.

Heartbreak in the time of corona

Maybe your friend and her boyfriend of 10 years suddenly and shockingly split, or maybe you were already engaged and had to call it quits. This pandemic has seen the unexpected end of many "seemingly solid" relationships – why is this so?

"The pandemic gave people more time to think and to take stock of what they need, what they value, and what was important. They realized that they didn't see it or received it from their partners or from the relationship anymore," Lissy said, which is true – if there's one thing the lockdown has given us, it's a whole lot of time, silence, and space to think.

"The lockdown made people face that if life is so short and can be taken away, what should we be spending our time and resources and energy on?", she added. It has also taken away more opportunities to grow and be together as a couple, and those who were just in the getting-to-know-you honeymoon stage did not have enough steam to do so.

As for the confidence to make such a difficult decision, Lissy said that the pandemic helps – breaking up becomes more convenient, quick, and is an acceptable excuse. No more awkward face-to-face interactions or possible ex bump-ins in public!

On the other hand, others also end up staying in relationships not good for them, because it is "difficult to start anew with social distancing restrictions."

"The pandemic gave them reason to stay in a relationship that was slowly fading because some asked for time and the return to normalcy to determine if it still had a chance," Lissy said.

The start of something new

Not everything was bad, though. The lockdown blessed many couples with their first (or second, or third) child, or gave partners the push they didn't know they needed to finally start their lives together.

"The good relationships had enough of the ingredients to sustain it during the stressors of the pandemic. The troubled relationships were forced to face it sooner than later," Lissy said.

She also said that the apparent "rush" of these life milestones comes from people's now-urgent need to "experience life to the fullest before it's too late."

"Heightened emotions are coloring our decisions in a certain way; it's all about what feels 'safe' at the moment. This uncertainty can lead to panic and then to impulsive decisions," Lissy said, which is not necessarily a bad thing.

There's also social pressure to factor in. "If not now, when?" "I might as well do it now, since everyone is!"

Pandemic-specific relationship reminders

Fearing the future of your relationship? Fear not! According to Lissy, there are simple but impactful ways to help safeguard your love from COVID-19:

  • Care. Offer support and regular caring behavior to one another, even during lockdown. Don't forget to ask each other how you are. "Be creative virtually by sharing a meal, watching a movie, playing games, reading, exercising together, or even listening to webinars."
  • Calendar. Make time for one another and safeguard couple time, even it it is virtual. "If you continue to work from home, unplug and set that special time to just be together."
  • Connect. Physical and verbal affection is important. If you can, holding and hugging can send the message when words are difficult to find.  "If you are in an LDR, your words can be as meaningful, and let it be enough for now."
  • Communicate. Express thoughts, feelings, dreams, as well as fears, worries, and anxieties. "Talk about fun and meaningful memories that has been shared in the relationship. Make plans even if they may not happen in the near future."
  • Cherish. "Let the other know why your relationship is so special right now, and how it contributes to meaning and purpose in your life."
  • Commitment. As the pandemic rages on, reassure one another that you will see it through together. "Remind yourselves of your love and commitment to cope with whatever challenges may come your way, with trust, dependability, and resilience." Crisis intimacy can be strengthened at this time, which is an important foundation of any relationship.

Times are uncertain, and the future may look bleak for now, but that doesn't mean we need to meet it with the same harshness, darkness, and lack of hope.

"Be gentle with one another, and stay interested in one another to discover more. Validate their experience of worry, stress, and anxiety, and don't forget to enjoy this time that you have together." – Rappler.com

Steph Arnaldo

If she’s not writing about food, she’s probably thinking about it. From advertising copywriter to freelance feature writer, Steph Arnaldo finally turned her part-time passion into a full-time career. She’s written about food, lifestyle, and wellness for Rappler since 2018.

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