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Relationships in a lockdown

by and Cassidy Garbe

How the pandemic has influenced breakups, new love and self love

(Courtesy La_Petite_Femme/Pixabay)

It had been five months since the world shut down, and two months since Bailey’s relationship had started to decline.The hardwood floor was warm against her legs, heated by the afternoon August sun. He sat across the kitchen floor looking at her, his eyes full of love and yet tears streamed down his face. She moved from the solid ground to the comfort of his lap, wrapped her arms around him and embraced. As lovers turned to friends — she let go, choosing to be alone instead of lonely with company. 

At the beginning of the pandemic, some people in new relationships lingered blissfully in the honeymoon stage: laying in bed, watching movies, forgetting about the responsibilities of the real world. Others, like Bailey, realized that her partner was less of a partner and more of a burden. 

“Overexposure can lead to frustration and boredom. If you’re both working from home, you may feel as though you never get a break,” said Jess O’Reilly, PhD, host of the @SexWithDrJess podcast. “Emotional exhaustion stems from the realities of the current situation. There are too many unknowns and hypervigilance can be exhausting on the mind and body.” 

Bailey, a Sheridan College alumna, navigated the peaks and valleys of her relationship throughout lockdown. She has requested to omit her last name to protect her ex-boyfriend’s privacy. “I tried to make his day-to-day life easier but he didn’t do that for me,” she said, describing the relationship as becoming almost brotherly. When she hugged him, it felt like a lie. Communicating, being supportive and anticipating needs are all part of a well-balanced relationship.

“If you need me to do something, just ask and I’ll do it,” Bailey said her partner told her. And yet, Bailey said, she would ask and still, the task went unfinished. With his trash still on the counter two days later, their relationship was pushed closer to the end. 

Whether living with parents, roommates, friends or lovers, sharing the same space is a rather intimate act. Communication is imperative during any relationship, especially, when that relationship is pushed into tight quarters. Your lives suddenly overlap more than you would like and your patience is tried. Bailey’s relationship was the victim to poor communication and lack of effort — a lethal pair. 

“You can feel love without acting loving,” O’Reilly said. “You can feel loving toward someone but not be really willing to commit to building and sustaining a loving relationship… when you consider all that a loving relationship entails — commitment, trust, vulnerability, intimacy, rejection, generosity, gratitude, patience and teamwork.” 

Even with the newfound barriers of a pandemic world; Plexiglas partitions, masks and two metres between you and a stranger, people are finding new ways to connect, and it’s working. 

“For some couples, COVID-19 has had an overwhelmingly positive effect on the relationship,” said O’Reilly. “They’ve found new ways to be intimate, including having more intimate conversations.” 

Sarah F., a Trent University student, was thrust into the honeymoon stage at the start of the pandemic. She’s requested to veil her identity due to the personal nature of the piece. With two weeks of dating under their belt, she and her girlfriend jumped into bed and didn’t leave for a month. “The first lockdown was euphoric.” They used this time to get to know each other. While the initial stage of their relationship was shaped by lockdown, forcing them to stay at home, they still had the benefit of a physical connection.

Even though they stuck to Sarah’s bedroom for most of their quarantine, it never felt like the same place. To keep things interesting they would rearrange the furniture to suit their needs. At one point, Sarah’s room became a makeshift spa where they helped each other relax with mani/pedis, face masks and massages. When they weren’t pampering one another, they would play card games. 

Sarah and her girlfriend cherished the first lockdown together and used it to set a solid foundation for the future of their relationship. Through communicating their needs and what they expect of each other they were able to form a connection based on valuing themselves and their partner. This was especially key for when they moved back to their separate homes, spending most of the summer apart before returning to Peterborough in the fall. 

“(Communication) ensures we are both understanding how the other feels,” Sarah said. “The minute someone is off or they are internalizing something, you need to talk about it.” 

“Talking about the relationship matters,” O’Reilly said. “Not just in terms of resolving conflict, but actually talking about what you value, what you need, and how you want to grow together is a good sign.”

The pandemic has given people a chance to take their time with relationships, whether that is forming a new romantic bond or one of self-love. We are reconnecting in a time of ultimate disconnect. 

“Self-love is about holding your own well-being and happiness in high regard,” said O’Reilly. “Loving yourself is good practice for loving someone else, but you don’t have to love yourself fully in order to love someone else.” 

Janelle Patrick, a Ryerson creative industries student, reconnected with herself and her ex during the pandemic. 

Before the pandemic, Patrick heavily relied on external validation, which is hard to do when everything seems to go wrong. Her best friend became her boyfriend, and subsequently became a name on a list of exes. She was stuck in a retail job where she wasn’t appreciated, school was just another burden, and her childhood cat Zeus died  while she was living across the country. 

Her life took a turn for the better when the pandemic hit, a privilege not all can claim. In a quiet house — except for the sound of her new, curated monthly playlist — she would draw a bath. Lavender would fill her senses as she dipped into the hot water and she would simply reflect. 

“I learned to look for value and validation from within,” she said. Before the pandemic, she was searching for reassurance from people who couldn’t give it to her: “I can give that reassurance to myself now.” 

Patrick has used the pandemic to become her own best friend — “unapologetically myself,” as she puts it.  Through her self-discovery, she rekindled her bond with her ex in a new way. With the world on pause and the distractions muted, they had a chance to get to know each other, as friends. “There is a (new) level of intellectual connection.” 

While the label of a relationship is staying in the pre-pandemic world, her newfound sense of self-worth has set the foundation for her relationships in the future. 

“Feelings and behaviours aren’t permanent arrival points,” O’Reilly said. “Your love for yourself will fluctuate and that’s OK.” 

The way you manage conflict in any relationship matters, O’Reilly said, “whether you operate as a team looking for a win-win or adversaries looking for a win-lose.”

Without conversation, addressing issues or basic communication, the outcome could be a lose-lose. While Bailey and her ex are on civil terms, looking back, she knows her relationship didn’t end solely because of over-piling laundry and a counter littered with trash. It was more than that. A once dynamic partnership turned into the pairing of a dependant and a caregiver. When it became clear that the adult responsibilities were falling on her, she revised the division of laundry labour from lights and darks to his and hers. 

When his basket overflowed, she moved his dirty clothes out of sight.

Cassidy Garbe

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