Shannon Haugh was thinking of spending more time at the home of her boyfriend, Ross Adam, maybe half her time there and half at her own place. They had been dating for about eight months, so she felt there was no rush. Plus, he has two children and Haugh didn’t want to force abrupt changes on them.
Then, around March 15, the pandemic hit Maine. Haugh lost her job at a Wells restaurant and Adam, a postal carrier, needed help with child care. So, she packed “a bunch of stuff,” grabbed her cat and headed to Adam’s house in South Portland for the foreseeable future. More than three months later, she’s still there.
“I had been planning to just dip my toe into the water, but I ended up taking a headfirst dive,” said Haugh, 31, of her plunge into cohabitation and child care. “I’m so glad my hand was forced. I’ve really been able to immerse myself in this lifestyle. I’m so glad we’ve been able to blend our lives this way.”
Romance, like so many things in our world, has been turned on its head by the pandemic. The spread of COVID-19 has pushed some couples together while keeping others apart. Isolation and quarantines have forced people who were merely considering moving in together to go ahead and take that giant step. Some couples have been forced to date from a distance, focusing on the subtler facets of romance, like sunset strolls and long phone chats. Couples already living together, or married, have spent more time alone with each other – away from work, friends and hobbies – than ever before, which can lead to feeling stressed and overwhelmed.
Around the country people who study relationships are conducting surveys and trying to track the pandemic’s long-term romantic impacts. Will their be a surge in marriage a year from now? Or a spike in divorces? Will people stop dating altogether?
We’ll have to wait for the divorce and marriage statistics. We do know online dating services are still in business and report people exchanging more messages with each other than before, and that their conversations are longer too. The pace of dating, understandably, has slowed.
“People are less inclined to be running to the next person,” said Noreen Rochester, a Portland matchmaker and founder of Cara Matchmaking. “Now people seem to be more relaxed and are putting more time and attention into each introduction.”
People looking for a match are being forced to talk more to each other. Heath Seeley of Biddeford has found this out first-hand by taking part in some Zoom speed-dating events during the pandemic.
“You have to do a lot of talking rather than other stuff. I think it makes (dating) more challenging, but also, I’ve learned a lot about people over Zoom because all we have (to do) is talk,” said Seeley, 29.
There are challenges for couples who are already together too, since it can be stressful being cooped up with the same person day after day, with nowhere to go. Some counselors in Maine have seen increases in the number of couples looking for help, as romantic partners are being forced to think about and work at their relationships more than ever.
“The pandemic has certainly put stress on couples, but it can have benefits, too, because people are forced to focus on each other, on their values and on the issues in the relationship,” said Hannah Kazilionis, a therapist at Manifest Counseling Services in Portland. Kazilionis says her practice has gotten two to three times as many calls during the pandemic from couples looking to start counseling. “People have been forced to slow down and deal with each other, learn about each other. Americans always take such pride in how busy they are, but that’s a bad thing for relationships.”
Of course, the pandemic’s impact on relationships is going to vary from person to person. While Haugh says she’s glad the world situation pushed her to move in with Adam, Adam said he didn’t need the pandemic to play Cupid for him.
“Honestly, I knew before the coronavirus I wanted to live with her,” said Adam, 31. “I fell in love with her pretty quickly.”
In fact, some surveys done so far show that most people don’t think the pandemic has had a drastic effect on their romantic relationships, said Gary Lewandowski, a professor of psychology at Monmouth University in West Long Branch, New Jersey. Lewandowski enlisted the Monmouth University Polling Institute to survey more than 800 people at random in May to ask them about the state of their relationships. He said that about 74 percent said it was largely unchanged, while 17 percent said it had gotten “a little” or “a lot” better, and 5 percent felt their relationship was worse.
Before Steve Strom started dating Heather Partin Silvia this winter, he hadn’t been in a serious relationship in more than a dozen years. But they bonded fairly quickly, talking about their lives and families. By February, they were “dating fairly seriously,” said Strom, 59, and by the middle of March the pandemic forced them to make some decisions.
Silvia and her two teenage daughters have had Lyme disease, a condition which could lead to the COVID-19 virus being more severe if they contract it. So she and Strom decided to keep dating, but with fairly limited interaction. They don’t go to each other’s homes – in fact, Strom has never met Silvia’s daughters.
Strom lives in Portland and Silvia in Bridgton, so sometimes they meet outside for a few minutes when either of them has an errand near the other’s home. They’ve taken hikes together, and urban strolls, with masks on. They like to watch the sunset together, “from an acceptable social distance,” Strom said. The one thing they can do without restriction is talk on the phone.
“I’m a man who is afraid of intimacy, and it’s interesting to me how intimate this feels,” said Strom, who left his job as a Lyft driver just as the pandemic hit. “We know more about each other than we would have otherwise.”
Joe Galli and Daniel Dõ had already gotten their fill of long-distance romance when COVID-19 began rampaging through this part of the world in March. They had met more than a year ago and developed a relationship that had them crossing international borders to spend time together. Galli, 60, lives in Portland while Dõ, 54, lives in Montreal, Canada. So while some couples keep their distance to be safe, Galli and Dõ are also faced with Canadian law, which is prohibiting most “non-essential” travel from the U.S. to Canada.
The two had been planning to spend more time together just before the coronavirus outbreak. Galli, who is semi-retired and works as a consultant for an online health business, had signed a lease on an apartment in Montreal that was set to begin in April and was planning to stay there for several months. Galli feels as if he and Dõ had been “carefully walking this line” of maintaining a long-distance relationship for a long time, and just when they wanted to break down some of the barriers, they couldn’t.
In some ways it’s hard, Galli says, because they were both ready to take that next step and now it’s been put off indefinitely. On the other hand, Dõ says, they’ve had a lot of practice at a long-distance relationship already. They eat dinner together, exercise together and attend parties together online. They text each other every morning, and talk more in the evening.
“It’s taught us patience,” Galli said. “I have no doubt that our rituals and connections have helped us strengthen our commitment to each other.”
Dõ, who works in multimedia production, thinks the relationship was already pretty strong, and that’s what’s helped them weather the pandemic so far.
“I think a lot of couples living together might take each other for granted and maybe don’t talk,” Dõ said. “We’ve already had this kind of connection where really the only thing we have to bond us together is communication.”
ROLES BLURRED, LIVES CHANGED
Couples who are suddenly spending all their time together can find the dynamic pretty stressful, said Julie Quimby, a psychologist at Psychology Specialists of Maine in Brunswick. Right now, the stress of the world situation – including people dying of COVID-19 and reports that the virus continues to spread – is affecting everyone. But for two people cooped up together, who often rely on each other to reduce their stress, the situation can be tense.
“If people feel disconnected from the world, it can exacerbate problems that are already there and cause people to become more critical or hostile,” Quimby said. “We look to our partner for a sense of security, but people are generally less attuned to their partner’s stress when they are stressed themselves, and usually less able to give them what they need.”
Katy and Joe Beaulieu of South Portland, like a lot of couples, are spending more time than ever together at home. But it’s not exactly quality time.
The couple, married six years, had their second child in February. They both have been working from home – she is a medical insurance underwriter and he works in information technology – while taking care of 4-month-old Cormac and 4-year-old Maddie. There’s a lot of trading off; one parent works while the other cares for the children, or does the chores. And because of social distancing, they can’t take a break by hiring a baby sitter or getting a relative to watch the kids. They try at least to watch a favorite TV show together.
“We’re not meant to fill all these roles at the same time. Usually, there’s time when you’re working, time when you’re with the kids, time when you’re together as a couple, and now that’s all blurred together,” said Katy Beaulieu, 33. “We’re together, but not spending a lot of time together. We’re just doing the things that need to get done. We’re OK with tabling the romance for now.”
The need to get things done was part of why Haugh moved in with Adam. They started dating last summer after meeting at the Wells restaurant where Haugh worked as a server and Adam sometimes performs Celtic music. While they dated, Haugh lived alone in an apartment in Wells with her cat and ate out more often than not. Adam lives in a house in South Portland and has two children – Callum, 4 and Ellis, 6 – who live with him about half the time.
Since moving in with Adam in March, after years of living alone, Haugh has been caring for his two young children, helping them with online lessons and homework. She’s also been planning and preparing meals. And learning about herself and her relationship.
“I feel like I’ve gotten a lot more done, in an important way, to really help build this relationship,” Haugh said. “I’m super thankful for everything that has happened.”
Adam said he was less nervous about Haugh moving in than she was. He felt his kids were ready for it, and he knew he was ready for it. But he’s been incredibly impressed with how “in tune” Haugh has been with the busy, active life of a family.
He also thinks it’s kind of funny that, in the weeks before the pandemic shut Maine down, he didn’t think its effect would be very noticeable.
“I was one of those sort of denying that it would really have an impact on our lives,” Adam said. “But it really has changed our lives. It’s become a big part of our love story.”
Staff Writer Emma Sorkin contributed to this story.