The New Relationships That Fizzled Out in Quarantine

The pandemic made every non-cohabiting couple a long-distance one—and effectively stopped a whole legion of blossoming romances in their tracks.

A cut out of a heart, with a pattern of the coronavirus visible behind it
The Atlantic

When stay-at-home measures aimed at curbing the spread of COVID-19 went into effect earlier this spring, something weird happened to our sense of geography. For many people who were confined to their homes, physical location suddenly flattened into a binary of “here” and “not here.” Any person who didn’t live in your home was essentially accessible only via phone or videochat, whether 5,000 miles were between you or just a few city blocks.

This had particularly brutal consequences for people who had been enjoying the giddy, touchy-feely early stages of a romance. In the beginning of March, Christine O’Donovan-Zavada, 26, had gone on two great dates with a guy she met on Tinder; they’d cooked dinner together at her home on the second, and she was planning to meet up with him again for a third. Luis Barcelo, 25, had spent a full week hanging out every day with a woman he’d recently met on Bumble. Jessica Magallanez, 23, had just gone on a surprisingly great frozen-yogurt date with a friend of a friend; afterward, he’d ended up accompanying her to the restaurant where she works as a waitress and getting a table in her section so he could talk to her more.

But over the following weeks, as social-distancing protocols set in, the texting communication between Barcelo and his Bumble friend went from a steady stream of check-ins to a slow trickle of memes and occasional jokes. (“We just send each other things that the other might find funny,” he told me. “Nothing of substance.”) Magallanez and her date FaceTimed occasionally late at night, she told me, but they were both tired, and “it wasn’t really the same.” O’Donovan-Zavada and her Tinder guy texted for a while, but before long, “we were saying the same things over and over again. Like, ‘Oh, I wish we could be hanging out,’” she told me. Eventually, “it just fizzled.”

When the coronavirus arrived, many people involved in romances that were just starting to materialize found themselves thrown into what felt like an involuntary long-distance relationship—and then watched their promising new fling sputter and slow down, in many cases to a complete halt. As states and cities begin to lift their strict social-distancing guidelines and single people start to (cautiously, distantly) seek out one another’s company once again, let us spare a moment to mourn the new relationships and budding flirtations that were felled by the coronavirus this spring—and to consider why exactly they were lost.

The loss of physical togetherness, for one thing, can take away some of the foundational experiences that lasting relationships are built on. The first few weeks or months of a dating relationship are typically considered to be some of the most magical. They’re also some of the most dependent on physical proximity: Caresses, hand-holding, and long mutual gazes at close range all help to build intimacy. As well as, you know, other stuff: Among the things O’Donovan-Zavada and her Tinder date found themselves texting each other repeatedly, she told me, was, “I wish I could make out with you!”

The early stages of dating are also when new partners gather the context clues that help them understand and make sense of each other. What are this person’s friends like? How does this person talk to waiters, to children, to strangers who need help? Coronavirus protocols have put a serious damper on new couples’ ability to learn about each other organically, because phone calls and videochats necessarily exclude the elements of the outside world that make many of these observations possible. Some couples have found themselves in a sort of holding pattern, having been in touch for a while but not feeling like they’ve gotten to know each other any better.

If they want to move forward, there are only a couple of options, both of which could feel unnatural: They could slip into essentially a long-distance relationship or decide to become exclusive and join each other’s “quarantine pod” or “quarantine bubble.” Either choice poses a considerable threat to a delicate, developing relationship.

As couples spend time together, they build what Amy Janan Johnson, a communications professor at the University of Oklahoma who researches long-distance relationships, calls the “culture” of the relationship. As couples spend time together, they start to think of themselves as more of an “us.” And the more two people feel like an “us,” the easier it is for them to adapt their relationship to a long-distance or remote format, Johnson told me: “If you’ve been in a relationship for a long time, you have norms established. Your ability to transition it to not just be face-to-face is greater.”

Going long-distance is, of course, a challenge for just about any couple—even ones who have been an “us” for a long time. But Johnson has found that the most successful long-distance relationships are between people who have been together for enough time that they have shared memories—or even images or artifacts (say, a partner’s sweater)—to spend time with or revisit when they miss each other. Couples who have just recently started dating “may not know each other well enough to have those,” Johnson said, “and that may be one reason [new relationships] are dying more quickly.” Other key ingredients in successful long-distance relationships, she added, include a consistent visiting schedule and, ideally, a concrete end date for when the two parties can be permanently in the same place again—luxuries that new couples separated because of the pandemic don’t have.

The alternative, though, is no less intimidating. If couples don’t want to be long-distance but do want to keep dating, they can either take the plunge and move in together, or sacrifice the company of other friends to create an exclusive quarantine partnership between their two households. Both indicate a pretty serious dedication to a relatively new, perhaps even still vaguely defined, relationship—and the person who suggests such drastic measures runs the risk of alarming or overwhelming their new partner. Coronavirus protocols “are forcing people to talk about that commitment question earlier than they might otherwise,” Johnson said. For some, it may be too much too soon.

Certainly, not all dating relationships that began just before the pandemic have been casualties of it. Steven, 31 (who asked to be identified only by his first name to avoid being recognized by people who know him professionally), started seeing someone who lived in the neighborhood adjacent to his in Brooklyn right before stay-at-home orders went into effect. Both parties have been careful about minimizing their exposure to the virus, he told me, limiting their interactions to FaceTime and attending virtual events together (such as a sake-tasting webinar, in which samples were delivered to attendees ahead of time). Earlier this month, they made their relationship official, and last week, Steven and his now-girlfriend hung out together in person for the first time since March, at a six-foot distance, in her neighborhood.

Laura, 18 (who also asked to be identified only by her first name to protect her privacy), was initially worried when we spoke in March that the guy she’d just started seeing on her college campus would forget about her or begin flirting with someone else after classes were canceled and students were sent home. Two weeks ago, she made the three-hour drive from her home in Pennsylvania to meet his whole family. (Because he lives in a small town where few places are crowded, Laura said, they forwent any social-distancing measures at his home—but spent a large chunk of their time together outdoors.)

“I’ve never been a long-distance person,” Laura told me, but “talking on the phone was the thing that really made me feel like, Okay, yes, we can do this.” She enjoyed his conversation, she said, and was surprised to find that she felt close to him even without seeing him. When we spoke in late May, she told me that he had plans to come visit her family and stay overnight.

Not everyone has been so lucky, however. As the weather gets warmer and some states lift their restrictions on places such as public parks and restaurants, single people getting to know each other—carefully and at a distance, perhaps at restaurant-patio tables or on picnic blankets or at the beach—will soon become a familiar sight again. But plenty of those singles will still be privately nursing the heartache of having lost touch, or momentum, with a promising partner during quarantine.

Magallanez and O’Donovan-Zavada, when we spoke, were both resigned to the notion that their pre-pandemic prospects had faded into the past, and were ready to start meeting new people after restrictions are fully lifted in their areas. Still, others hang on to the hope of reigniting their old flames. Barcelo told me he’ll be ready and waiting to see his Bumble match again whenever his social life is finally back to normal. “I’d like to see where it goes, once this is all over and it’s safe to spend time with somebody,” he said. “It’s something I’m definitely not going to just let die off.”