Shortly before the start of the coronavirus pandemic, Celia, an American who was working as a teaching assistant in Spain, began to date a man casually. When the spread of the virus intensified, she essentially moved in with him. She was stressed about the status of their relationship, which they never defined. But the couple didn’t argue, and they were both very affectionate; after finishing work, they cooked and baked together. “He was extremely sweet and caring,” Celia told me. (She asked to be identified by her first name only to protect her privacy in discussing personal matters.)
But after Spain’s restrictions eased last summer, she noticed that the man behaved differently outside the house. He disrespected waiters over small hiccups in service. He seemed less interested in her when they were out together too, avoiding eye contact and not smiling or talking as much in public. One time, she went out to dinner with him and his friends, who are not from Spain, and he spoke only in their native language, which she does not understand. “He was very affectionate when we were in this quarantine bubble,” she told me. “He had no indication of that [rudeness] when we were inside.”
Many relationships that started during or just before the pandemic intensified quickly, accelerated by a stressful new reality and the extra free time quarantine created. But one key element was missing: knowledge of how one’s partner interacted with the outside world—and, by extension, of how a relationship would fare when stay-at-home orders eased.
During a summer of loosened COVID-19 restrictions (which are starting to reverse somewhat) in the United States and other countries with access to vaccines, couples have been playing catch-up on the social elements that animate a partnership. Some discoveries are small. People told me about going on their first movie dates and discovering that their partner doesn’t enjoy the same snacks, or likes to sit close to the screen. But couples have also deferred the deeper disruption of integrating another human into their social life.
All relationships have private and public worlds, both of which are essential. In their theory of “relational dialectics,” the scholars Leslie Baxter and Barbara Montgomery posit that relationships are defined by the constant tension between connected opposites. Seclusion allows couples to establish themselves as private units with rich, shared, and deeply personal ways of communicating. Inclusion in a broader community offers both small benefits, such as giving the couple something to talk about, and bigger ones, such as support from family and friends. (Couples who have this support are less likely to break up.) Social inclusion is also practical: In a healthy relationship, individuals will still have close ties outside the central partnership.
Couples who met during the pandemic, however, are finding that their relationships have been all seclusion, no inclusion. For them, the “relational turbulence” of fusing their full lives—as Gwendolyn Seidman, a social psychologist at Albright College, characterizes it—has come all at once, whenever public-health imperatives have allowed. When we don’t know things about someone we like, we tend to fill in the blanks with positive information or assume that the person is similar to us, Madeleine Fugère, a psychologist at Eastern Connecticut State University, told me. Any unattractive qualities are therefore unexpected and might attract outsize attention later.
Think of the lockdown relationship as a cousin of the long-distance relationship. Long-distance couples obviously lack the proximity of lockdown relationships, but both exist outside the social worlds that are central to successful partnerships. Researchers theorize that idealizing a partner helps long-distance couples maintain their connection. Yet the professor Laura Stafford has found that those who finally close the distance predictably report surprises—positive, neutral, and negative. A 2006 study found that when long-distance couples moved close together, one-third broke up within three months.
This was the case for Celia: Last summer’s easing restrictions prompted her to have a conversation with the man she was seeing about their relationship status. She felt purposeless, living away from home in a relationship that was still undefined. He wanted to keep it casual, a decision she still doesn’t fully understand. He had gotten out of a serious relationship about a year before they met, so she wondered if he still loved his ex, but she never asked him about it. “I felt like I was wasting my time,” she said. “Like, What am I still doing here?” She couldn’t bring herself to end it immediately, but they finally broke up for real in August of 2020.
People usually know what’s nonnegotiable for them. Experts told me that any new information that makes someone feel significantly worse about a relationship can be a dealbreaker; any revelations that make them more excited, or that confirm their belief in their compatibility with their partner, are likely a good sign. In all cases, communication is vital. Jessica, who works in finance in New York, has recently had these conversations with their partner over the pair’s different levels of social energy. (Jessica, who requested to be identified by their first name only, uses they/them pronouns.) Earlier this summer, after a jam-packed weekend visiting friends that culminated with a Saturday-night party, Jessica was exhausted. “I almost immediately shut down,” they told me. After discussing this, Jessica and their partner agreed that the two needed to plan to socialize separately sometimes. They negotiated the boundary between their individual lives and their shared one.
But unearthing new information about a partner can also help a couple know each other in greater depth. Lauren Cocroft, a high-school speech coach in California, had this experience with her current partner, whom she matched with last summer on Tinder. (She said she downloaded the app because she was bored at home with her parents; he told her he bought a premium version of Tinder just so he could “Super Like” her.) “I went from ‘Oh, I just met you’ … [to] four days later I’m farting in your bed and we’re giggling about it,” she told me of the early days of their relationship. During a trip to Los Angeles this summer, they went to a store that sold a special Japanese-made denim Cocroft’s partner loved. She’d known that he was a “denim-head,” but she’d never seen him so in his element, talking about the intricacies of weight, cut, and fit with a store representative who was as knowledgeable as he was.
This small moment might exemplify the tension—and connection—between predictability and novelty, inclusion and seclusion, the security of a private connection and the freshness of a public moment. Watching her partner in the store, “it felt like I had a crush,” Lauren told me. That night, she Googled some of the brands that he had been discussing. She’d been introduced to a new aspect of his world, and she wanted to learn even more.