Locking Down or Breaking Up: Newly Cohabitating Couples in the Time of Coronavirus

dogbod2020, blog

by Isabel Quattlebaum

The lockdown in the United Kingdom has changed relationships and dating drastically. Gone are the one night stands and the casual hook-ups, and budding relationships have either been put on hold or ramped up to warp-speed. Jenny Harries, the deputy chief medical officer of England, gave some unexpected advice to new couples during a press briefing: move in together or face it alone. Specifically, Harries said that people should “test the strength of their relationship and decide whether one wishes to be permanently resident in another household.” This announcement was a curveball hurtling towards the normative stages of the typical relationship that were hammered into me in the conservative southern US culture that I was raised in. Meet, go on a first date, spend time together more, make it official, spend even more time together, and then maybe consider moving in with each other after you are either extremely committed or preferably married. Where I am from, there may be no ‘right’ way to do a relationship, but there is a way that won’t make your church-going grandmother clutch her pearls. What I perceived to be the usual order of a relationship was just chucked out the window. New couples have shacked up together, bringing about a drastic change in both partner’s lifestyles and the nature of the relationship itself.

I usually live alone in a tiny studio apartment. My friends are spread out throughout Edinburgh, and few are within walking distance. I was anticipating the lockdown and decided to ask my boyfriend if he would let me move in with him if and when it happened. He readily agreed. His flatmate had recently gone back to her home country, so he was living alone too. At that point, we had been officially dating for about six weeks. Within days of bringing up the idea, I had thrown a hodge-podge of items into a suitcase and set up camp at his flat. My apprehension of living with a partner for the first time after what I considered to be much too short a courtship was dwarfed by the potential loneliness of my microscopic and isolated flat. Moving in together has accelerated our relationship greatly. A two and a half month relationship suddenly feels like a year has passed. Our daily routines have had to be adapted to accommodate one another at rapid speed. Part of my university coursework involves confidential conversations with classmates to practice our listening skills and semi-mimic a counseling session. This requires space and privacy, which in turn requires a compromise between my partner and I. Personal space in a small flat is hard to come by.

Moving in together in the time of coronavirus is drastically different than moving in with a partner during non-pandemic times. Typically, one or both partners is working during the day. With layoffs and work from home orders, couples can be spending 24 hours a day together. There is no rest for the weary in a cohabitating coron-ationship. There is also the added stress of the current world situation, with jobs and peoples’ health being threatened. This can give the usually happy milestone of living together a somber tone. Additionally, the new living situation can affect more than just the couple. One Edinburgh woman told me of her experience of her boyfriend moving in with her and her family during the lockdown. The house is packed with her four sisters, her mother and now her boyfriend. She credits her part-time job at a GP clinic as the saving grace for the relationship, giving her some much needed time away from the hectic household. As for how her family is handling it, she says “My family all love him. Perhaps more than they love me!” However, living in a house with so many people has made intimacy difficult, as she puts it: “(it) makes it quite hard to feel intimate when your 12-year-old sister is always hanging around.”

Various news outlets have been exploring the new wave of couples living together. The Wall Street Journal published an article at the end of March on couples in Paris adjusting to the lockdown. The couples interviewed had a range of reactions to their new living arrangement. For some, it has tightened their bond. For others, it is pushing it to its limit. One man said of his relationship, “We’re learning to get bored together. I am very worried about our relationship.” This brings up another interesting dimension to a new partnership. There are no more nights out together, romantic restaurant dinners or cinema dates. Boredom and complacency sets in quickly and can challenge a relationship whose foundation is still being forged. Personally, I have been trying to combat the monotony by planning elaborate themed dinners once a week, complete with costumes and a film whose genre matches the meal. So far, The Breakfast Club has accompanied pancakes and leg warmers, and a red velvet cake with jam ‘blood’, red wine and lots of dark eyeliner has preceded a screening of The Exorcist.

The Huffington Post has also covered this rapid change in address. Lydia Spencer-Elliot wrote a personal piece for the publication on her move into the family home of a man she had been dating casually for two months. She cites surface-level changes to the normalcy of the relationship, like her abandonment of the desire to impress her partner’s parents with her appearance and manners. She describes the “distasteful traits” that she would normally hide in the early stage of non-pandemic era relationships, now out in the open for the whole household to take in. This reminds me of an episode of the US hospital sitcom Scrubs, where a particularly eccentric character is given the advice to dole out his ‘crazy’ in small doses so as not to shock his date too much all at once. Unfortunately, after over a month in lockdown, I have discovered that it becomes difficult to hide from your partner that you have to unplug the hairdryer immediately after use not for energy conservation but out of fear of spontaneous combustion.

Coronavirus has changed the rules of dating overnight for many people. Difficult choices had to be made on the spot regarding isolating together or staying apart indefinitely. It will be interesting to follow up on the statuses of the relationships of those who moved in together under these circumstances and determine if adversity strengthens or damages the bonds. Will there be a baby boom, or will there be an uptick in blocked phone numbers and changed locks? Will intimacy blossom, or will it be squashed by cramped quarters and short tempers? Only time will tell, but for couples living together for the first time: good luck, stay safe, be kind to one another and remember to put the toilet seat down.

About the Author

Isabel Quattlebaum is from the United States and is studying for an MSc in Counselling Studies at the University of Edinburgh. She participates in a discussion group on families and relationships under lockdown that is a spinoff of Lynn Jamieson’s Sociology class on Intimate Relationship. This blog is based on her personal experience.