Hurtling down the motorway on a Triumph T120 with a backpack full of knickers, Jen Lewandowski thought: this is terrific. Lewandowski, 41, had met Tom Gidley, 51, just four times before she moved into his Ramsgate home at the beginning of the coronavirus lockdown in March.
They originally met through work. Lewandowski had contacted Gidley, who is an artist, to ask if she could sell some of his paintings at an exhibition she was staging. When she collected the paintings from his studio in January, there was an instant connection. “She had an energy and real light about her,” says Gidley. After the show opened in March, they went for a drink, and then a cup of tea at Lewandowski’s kitchen table. Finally, Lewandowski, who lives in London, visited him for the weekend.
Then the lockdown measures were announced. “I said: ‘Look, why don’t you just come down here?’” says Gidley. “Everything’s getting a bit strange.” She agreed, and Gidley collected her on his motorcycle. Since that high-speed jaunt, their relationship has barely slackened in pace. They have spent the entire lockdown together, said “I love you” to each other within days and are in general horribly in love. “Isn’t it wild?” giggles Lewandowski. “It is quite whirlwind, but it feels right, and we’re going with it.”
Gidley and Lewandowski are just one example of the British couples turbocharging their relationships by moving in together during the coronavirus lockdown despite scarcely knowing each other. On 24 March, a day after the lockdown was introduced in England, the deputy chief medical officer, Jenny Harries, suggested that couples living apart may want to consider moving in together. “They should test the strength of their relationship,” said Harries at a government press conference, “and decide whether one wishes to be permanently resident in another household.”
Harries’ comments sent couples across the country scrambling into crisis talks, as they tried to decide whether moving in together during a global pandemic was a good idea, a bit premature or potential disaster. During this time, many came to the conclusion that it was worth a shot – the partner could just move out again if everything went down the toilet. “I didn’t really have an exit strategy,” confesses Jack McGarey, a 31-year-old teacher. “I suppose, at the back of my head, I thought: ‘If it doesn’t work out, she can just go home.’”
McGarey is a bold man: he asked Francesca Elizabeth Williams, a 33-year-old marketer, to move in with him after just one date. After matching on Bumble, the couple had gone for a physically distanced walk in Crowthorne, where they both live, on 21 March, just before the lockdown restrictions came in. After the walk, at a loss for what to suggest – most restaurants and bars had by then closed – Williams invited McGarey over for dinner. He arranged the furniture so it would be two metres apart. “We didn’t want to break the rules,” McGarey says. “We had good intentions.” He groans. “Obviously, the night started with social distancing,” Williams says, “but as the night wore on and we had a few glasses of wine, we didn’t keep our distance.”
Two days later, the lockdown began. “I said: ‘Grab your gym kit and your laptop, and come over.” Williams never left. When we speak, the couple are still syrupy sweet on each other. Every day, they stick to a strict schedule of thrice-daily exercise (a morning 5k run, a yoga class and evening high-intensity interval training workout), meditate, listen to a podcast together, cook and have a “deep chat” about their families or childhoods. “We do an audit later in the day,” says McGarey, “to make sure that we’ve ticked everything off.” It may sound hellish to some, but it’s working for them – although they haven’t said, “I love you,” yet, it’s clearly on the cards. “A few times, I almost said it,” admits Williams shyly, “but then I thought it was too soon.”
Still, it is easy to rush headlong into a whirlwind romance when you are young. Time takes the edge off romantic ardour: we become cynical, crablike, cautious. “I’ve learned a lot over the years,” muses Jonathan Lovett, a 53-year-old design director from London. “You have to look for someone who is emotionally available. So many people think they want relationships, but they don’t really.” He met his boyfriend, Kit Yunes, 45, an Argentinian-born, London-based retail worker, on a dating app in February. When the lockdown restrictions came in, Lovett and Yunes were in a music shop, waiting to buy a drum kit. “I turned to Kit,” Lovett says, “and said: ‘Where are we going to put these drums, then?’” The men got an Uber to Lovett’s house, drum kit in boot, and Yunes never left.
Experience has made both men certain that their relationship is durable, and not mere infatuation. “We’re not in a sort of puppy love,” Lovett insists. But the speed at which they have moved has raised eyebrows among some of their friends, particularly when Yunes gave up his rented property and officially moved in. “Some people have said: ‘What if this doesn’t work? You don’t want to end up homeless in a pandemic,’” Yunes says. He is unconcerned. “I am happy to take this risk. Everything feels natural, not rushed. I’ve never felt so close to another partner in my life this quickly.”
Still, living with someone and picking up their socks when you have milk in your fridge that’s probably older than your relationship – there’s no way for that not to be weird. “You catch yourself laughing at how surreal it is,” Lewandowski jokes. “How did this happen?” Adjusting to the rhythms of another person’s life, their schedule, their caprices, takes time. “You definitely have to negotiate around each other,” Gidley says. “The proximity is wonderful, but it takes work to get the balance right.” He has noticed they tend to have a tiny bust-up when they’re tired, on Friday evenings – which they always resolve immediately. “It’s like a pressure valve,” Gidley says. “It feels healthy.”
Is there any way to tell how a relationship formed under the weight of a global pandemic can go? “All things are possible,” says the Relate counsellor Gurpreet Singh. “I don’t think there is a single rule that applies.” Moving in prematurely will exacerbate underlying stressors. “Couples who move in together too soon haven’t worked out a strategy for resolving arguments amicably,” he says. “If you end up in a lockdown situation too soon, you may drive each other up the wall a little bit, and that might put you off the relationship.”
Taking a punt on love doesn’t always go to plan. Emily, a 26-year-old student from Birmingham, met Neil (not their real names) on Bumble in late March: they went on a date just before the lockdown was announced. “I went over to his, and we had a nice time,” says Emily, “so I ended up staying over. He seemed quite keen for me to stay again the next night, so I did, and then I ended up staying for the weekend.” When Neil asked her to stay with him during the coronavirus lockdown, Emily agreed. “I thought it would be a way of helping each other through a mutually difficult time,” she says. “Maybe, in retrospect, I wasn’t using my best judgment.”
The two cohabited together amicably, at first mostly because Emily swallowed her feelings. When Neil was on video calls with his family and friends, he didn’t mention she was there. “He was cagey,” Emily says. “I felt like he was trying to conceal me and our relationship, whatever it was.” The anxiety gnawed away at her. “I finally cracked,” she says. “I said that I was uncomfortable and anxious about where I stood. He said he wasn’t ready for a relationship yet.” That must have been tough, I say, after living together for two months as a quasi-couple. “The fact that it was so intense – I suppose I expected a little bit more,” Emily says flatly. “I wish he had been a bit more honest about his expectations because then I wouldn’t have opened up so much and allowed myself to fall for him.”
Emily isn’t bitter about her decision to move in with Neil, even though it ended badly. “I don’t regret it,” she says. “Last year, I was serially dating, mostly through apps, and not getting much out of it. This seemed like a nice chance to give a relationship a go, without overthinking it all the time.”
The pandemic has given prospective partners the opportunity to connect outside a brutal and sometimes dehumanising dating scene. “With online dating,” says Gidley, “it can feel horribly like a marketplace. It encourages you to think there’s always another option out there, so you never commit to anyone, even if you really like each other.”
In our hyperscheduled modern lives, having the time and space to get to know someone away from work, family and friends means that lovers can develop an intimacy that would take months, even years, to gestate under ordinary circumstances. “It’s given us a bubble of time to build our closeness,” says Lewandowski. “I think that intimacy would be hard to achieve when normal life is happening.” In lockdown, time speeds up, slips forward, accelerates. A meal at your kitchen table together is the equivalent of three real-world dinner dates. A Zoom quiz with friends feels like hitting the three-month mark.
“You feel like you have time to waste, almost,” says Lovett. “Nothing has to just be a conversation over dinner. You can have conversations for hours or even days. That’s the beauty of it. It’s been so intense.” Lovett travels abroad frequently for work and doubts he would have had the time to grow so close to Yunes were it not for the lockdown. “I’d have had to make space for him in my daily routine, seeing my friends, going to work, the gym,” agrees Yunes. “It would have taken a lot longer.”
This is dating on steroids: a time-lapse fast-forward stumble through all the major relationship milestones. “It feels like we’ve been together for six months,” says McGarey, “not six weeks.” They plan to move to Texas together later this year, so that McGarey can take up a teaching job. “I want to be where Jack is,” Williams says. They have met each other’s families – on Zoom, of course.
Lewandowski compares the heady excitement of her lockdown romance to the shotgun weddings of the second world war. “There’s something old-fashioned about it,” she says. “We haven’t met any of each other’s friends or families. It reminds me of those old movies where the soldier coming back from the war hops off a train with his new bride.”
But a better comparison may be prison. “Those who have relationships in prison have better mental health than those who don’t have a partner or have a partner outside prison,” says Dr Rodrigo González of the University of Salamanca. He has conducted research into relationships in Spanish prisons. “It’s partly about companionship,” González says. “But it’s mostly about sex. Having sex relates to better mental health and higher satisfaction levels in the public as well as prison inmates.” He’s probably on to something: the always practical Dutch authorities even recommended that single people find a designated “sex buddy” during lockdown.
Is the intimacy these couples feel real? Or are they punch-drunk on the surreal enforced intimacy of a global pandemic? “It’s as real as it can be,” says Singh. “If they’ve coped well together during these times, it would give me the sense there is strength in the relationship.” But Singh points out that none of the couples will have met each other’s family or friends in real life or had to balance commuting, living apart or work commitments. “Good, healthy relationships are formed over time, when people have lived in each other’s lives during periods of vulnerability,” Singh says. “You can’t build that in a few days.”
“Reality is the true test of any relationship,” Lovett admits. “We’ve been in this bubble, but I know it’s coming very quickly – the real world.” But he’s confident they will go the distance. “People may be cynical,” Lovett says. “But sometimes you’ve just got to take that leap of faith.”
Lewandowski and Gidley certainly are. On a beautiful Saturday afternoon in the Kent Downs a few weeks ago, Gidley asked Lewandowski to marry him. “I said yes,” Lewandowski says, “and we had a lovely kiss. Just as we did, the wind picked up! It went: whoosh. It was very romantic.” Lewandowski lets out a peal of laughter. “It’s a good job we’re in lockdown because if people could see us, they would puke,” she cries. “Let’s just see if it lasts!”
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