When the whole world went into isolation, Lauren Anderson experienced it twofold. Her one-and-a-half year relationship ended in mid-February, and she moved out on her own, just in time for bars, restaurants, and gyms—the holy trinity of potential meet-cute locations—to shut down.
The only place to find someone new to date—and to help her heal from her heartache—was on dating apps, like Hinge and Bumble. At first, it worked. Swiping left or right was almost fun for the 25-year-old. Plus, it was a virus-free way to interact with prospective partners. But the giddiness dissipated after discussing who she’d met online with her friends: “There’s like seven single guys in Boulder,” Anderson says, and they had sent the same exact messages to each of her friends. Furthermore, being relegated to texting, Zoom, and a few awkward socially distant dates began to affect the way she saw herself in the mirror. She says she remembers asking a friend: Do I need to get lip injections or what’s the deal?
YY Wei is not surprised about the tribulations singles experience in isolation. As the founder and director of the Relationship Center of Colorado, Wei expected that dating would be challenging and that people would date for the wrong reasons—namely to create a distraction instead of truly wanting to form a connection. However, Wei isn’t only concerned about singles; quarantine presents challenges for couples, too, especially as the stress of the pandemic changed Coloradans’ interactions with their SOs.
Janelle Washburne, a licensed clinical social worker and certified sex therapist with her own practice, has been seeing higher levels of anxiety and depression in her clients since the beginning of the pandemic, naming confrontation avoidance and the inability to socialize with others as just two causal factors among what are likely many. For individuals, there’s the added issue of everyone having different ideas about mask-wearing and what it means to be safe. What’s more, breaking into someone’s COVID-19 quaranteam requires the who-else-have-you-been-exposed-to-lately (read: are you seeing other people?) conversation. For couples, Washburne says there’s been a common theme among her clients about not wanting to “open Pandora’s box” with regard to relationship problems during quarantine. Being cooped up and then piling on additional stress hasn’t seemed like a path that many of her clients are clamoring to take.
Wei agrees, saying that couples had a tendency to bury their feelings even before the pandemic. And, back in the pre-virus days, each half of a partnership could use excuses to avoid dealing with relationship grievances. “People could go anywhere they wanted,” Wei says, explaining that staying late at work or meeting friends out for drinks are typical tools of avoidance. Then partners could use those outings as excuses for why they were tired, or why they needed to go straight to bed, or why they didn’t want to have sex…again. Now that those scapegoats have disappeared, Wei says couples need more than communication to work through these issues: They need “productive” and “respectful” lines between them. “I tell my clients, ‘If you think your wife is nagging you, it’s OK,’” Wei says. “But it’s one thing to say that with the utmost respect and another to call her a bitch.”
Some couples, though, turned to communicating more deeply and intentionally. Take Josue Huerta and Tina Rea. The Denver-based couple went on their first date a few days before lockdown started. Nine months later, they’re considering marriage. “Knowing myself, it would have taken me a lot longer to have those in-depth conversations that we were allowed to have,” Huerta says, “because all of my distractions were taken away.” Due to the lockdown, Huerta, 26, began working from home. Rea, 30, who spent her pre-COVID days fundraising for her creative ministry, lost the ability to gather in-person, host concerts, and run Bible studies. “We figured out how to really feel like we’re a team together and that neither of us is alone in our problems,” Rea says. Huerta agrees, saying the level of dependence they have on each other pushed their relationship further along more quickly, something he wouldn’t have been comfortable with in his past relationships.
Whether it’s cooking more together, dancing in the kitchen, or being more adventurous in the bedroom, Washburne says a positive she’s witnessed during the pandemic is partners finding new ways to bond. But as individuals and couples navigate the ever-evolving pandemic landscape, negative emotions are bound to surface. For Huerta and Rea, they started a tradition of driving into the mountains, phones off, to work through stressors until they’re back to enjoying each other’s company.
For Anderson’s part, she says she’s deleted the dating apps “87 times”—and then re-downloaded them. “You get to a point where you’re like, ‘This is just not doing good things for my brain.’ And then you get lonely,” she says. It wasn’t until Anderson sought advice from a therapist that she realized she wasn’t alone. “I felt like I was losing control, and that I was the only one,” Anderson says. “I feel like I’m not losing my mind when I’m [at therapy].”
The simplest thing is sometimes the hardest thing for humans to do, Wei says, and right now that’s accepting that life is not normal, not ideal, and not a lot of fun. But she says to think of hard times like a phoenix—they have to burn to come alive again; they have to go through suffering to get better. Says Wei: Relationships, like life, aren’t perfect. They are joy and pain together.