"Pandemic relationships" were intentionally temporary for some — and accelerated for others

Many singles who coupled up at the beginning of the pandemic are starting to break up

By Nicole Karlis

Senior Writer

Published May 28, 2021 6:00AM (EDT)

Couple with relationship difficulties sitting on sofa (Getty Images)
Couple with relationship difficulties sitting on sofa (Getty Images)

Right before the United States went into lockdown, Thomas Jepsen, a 31-year-old CEO of Passion Plans, met a love interest at a bar. Not too long after they started see each other, bars — and everything else — shut down. Despite the world crumbling around them, they decided to keep dating during the pandemic. 

"Obviously it was nice having someone through the pandemic, and I saw the two of us being together past the pandemic," Jepsen said.

About a week and a half ago, their relationship ended— which came as a surprise to Jepsen.

"I knew that we had differences and whatnot, but I also think that differences make a relationship interesting," he said. "It's weird having someone leave you so suddenly, especially since I really didn't see it coming."

Jepsen's experience epitomizes the nature of many so-called pandemic relationships, which in many cases were intentionally temporary — at least, for one partner. And while the notion of being a "placeholder" partner is depressing, therapists say the reaction to want someone there for you in the short-term is understandable given the severely isolating toll of the pandemic on single people.

Both singles and couples saw their love lives upended when the pandemic took hold. As with Jepsen, those in new relationships were forced to make quick decisions about their future. Staying together meant companionship and support in a time full of fear, anxiety and uncertainty. For some long-term relationships, the stress of finances, the disproportionate share of labor falling on women, and overall being stuck at home with nothing to do, led to separations. As BBC reported in March 2021, lawyers saw a surge in the divorces once lockdowns ended.

But as vaccination rates rise, couples who found each other during the pandemic are entering a new phase of their relationship that they haven't experienced yet: dating in a "normal" world. 

Dr. Carla Marie Manly, a clinical psychologist and author of "Joy From Fear," told Salon she's seen many clients enter "pandemic relationships." Some were intentionally temporary, at least in the mind of one partner. 

"In fact, quite a few of my clients have experienced those relationships — some are maintaining them as the pandemic winds down, and others are clearly moving forward," Manly said. 

Manly said she saw some people who were in early phases of their relationships when the pandemic began either move in with each other or become more serious.

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"This really improved their ability to have other connections in their lives that they would not have had otherwise," Manly said. "In many other cases, people either had greatly reduced depression or anxiety because whether they were with someone physically or not — it was just the knowing that they had a lifeline."

Manly added there are a few reasons why people might be going their separate ways now. One being that they knew it wasn't a forever kind of love in the first place.

"For some people, they were acutely aware that the relationship wasn't the one, that it wasn't an ideal fit — and that perhaps in some cases, some people really realized that it was a convenient relationship, simply something to get through the pandemic," Manly said. "So there was a knowing that this is a good support, it won't be great in the long run, but it'll be nice for as long as the pandemic lasts."

For others, it could be that the opportunity to experience activities and see friends again, differences between two people might be more obvious than they were during lockdown.

"During the pandemic, we had very limited choices as far as sports and that sort of thing . . . and now as the world's opening up, people's differences, difference in extraversion, introversion, that sort of thing, they're becoming more apparent," Manly said.

Tammy Shaklee, a certified matchmaker, told Salon in many cases, clients who are ending their pandemic relationships are able to do so without much drama.

"I think there's a gratefulness and acknowledgement — you know, while this was coming to an end isn't it so special that we had each other through this time?" Shaklee said. "I realize that's a huge generalization, but maybe there's an emotional maturity that's happened through this extended pandemic."

So if you have a pandemic relationship that's going well, how do you keep the flame burning? Shaklee said for people who are staying in their relationships, they should make an effort to break their routine a little as things might have turned "stale" during the pandemic.

"Go sleep in a different bed together," Shaklee said, noting that so-called pandemic couples have been spending most of their home together. "Get out and go sleep in a different bed, even if it's an overnight trip 30 minutes away."

In some cases, those who sought relationships during the pandemic out of loneliness or boredom have emerged with a strong connection. Take Chloe Sisson, a 21-year-old living in Atlanta, Georgia, who entered the pandemic single and emerged coupled. In pre-pandemic days, she'd swipe on dating apps for fun; but after months in lockdown she thought she might look for something a little more serious — a companion to make the stress of the pandemic and virtual college classes a little more bearable; in other words, a source of support.

"In mid-December, I decided to go on my fifth date from a dating app," said Sission. "We made things official before I went back to college in the spring and have been together for five months now."

Sisson said her current relationship moved faster than usual in part thanks to the pandemic, which, she suspects, made them closer in a variety of ways. Over the last year she's struggled with anxiety and loneliness, meaning her partner had to bear witness to some of her "worst moments," she said.

"I would definitely say that the pandemic made us get more serious, more quickly," Sisson said. "But we're going on almost six months, and we're actually going on vacation for Memorial Day."

By Nicole Karlis

Nicole Karlis is a senior writer at Salon, specializing in health and science. Tweet her @nicolekarlis.

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Covid-19 Pandemic Relationships Reporting