Love in the Time of Coronavirus

As part of an attempt (one of several) to get away from Facebook, I ended up on Reddit. There’s definitely a lot of alt-right fools and incel jihadists hanging out there, but there are also some sensible corners too — particularly the r/relationship_advice subreddit. I’ve been a peer counselor for more than half my life; naturally I gravitated there.

These days, the sub is blowing up with COVID-19 questions. “Can I go hang out with my partner?” “How do I handle long distance?” “My partner / family member / roommate isn’t respecting quarantine procedure.” There’s a lot of stuff going on, and a lot of insecure people unsure of what they’re going to do.

Well, folks, I’m here. I’m going to answer your questions: “How can my relationship survive the stress of coronavirus?”

And it may shock you to hear that the answer is, “The same way it would’ve survived without it.”

Before we even delve into the question of a stressed relationship, I want to take a moment and establish where we start. Western society tends to do a half-assed job of talking about love — in that it only talks about half of love. So there’s a lot that we need to talk about before we can even begin.

All of us are familiar with the idea of chemistry. Basically, it’s the question of what each of us is attracted to. Most frequently, chemistry is discussed in terms of physical traits: Alex likes big breasts, Bryce likes dark hair, that person Charlie over there wants a strong chin, etc. When we talk about “romantic chemistry” in movies, we are almost exclusively describing physical attraction; two people who “have” chemistry are, at least as far as we can tell, interested in having sex with each other.

This is where mass media romances tend to stop. Alex meets Bryce, Alex likes Bryce (Bryce likes Alex too, it’s fine), they have various misadventures and misunderstandings, but then they get together, and… the story ends. Which is interesting, because for most human beings in actual romances, “Bryce and Alex get together” is not the end of the last chapter. It’s the end of the first.

So, now our two people are together. What next? What do they want to do? Settle down and have babies? Travel the world? …Go to Disneyland? How are their lives going to fit together? This is the level mass media basically never talks about; they don’t seem to have any conception that it even exists. But it does, and I call it compatibility.

And I bring it up because, simply put, it’s the answer to every question you have about how your dating life is going to weather COVID-19.

If chemistry is what draws you together, compatibility is what keeps you together. The point of dating is to find someone to spend your life with, right? — or at least the indefinite future. At some point, it involves putting your daily lives together, putting your dreams together, putting your hobbies and habits and hopes together and seeing if they fit.

Media almost never uses compatibility to resolve a love triangle… which is a shame, because it’s one of the easiest and least character-assassination-y ways to do so. Alex is trapped between Bryce and Charlie, and can’t decide. See, Bryce is… Well, in some ways, Bryce is boring, because they want the same things Alex does. Charlie is more challenging, which means more excitement!… but maybe too much of it too. Charlie wants to travel the world, which is awesome!… but Alex wants to settle down and have kids. Alex loves dogs; Charlie hates them. Alex is easy-going and doesn’t seek trouble; Charlie is constantly scanning the horizon for threats and making plans. Charlie likes certain things in bed that Alex simply doesn’t want to do. (I mean, seriously: with a melon???) None of this makes Charlie a bad person; they’re just… not the right person for Alex. Compare this with Bryce, who is also happy to settle for unremarkable domesticity, who gets along with Alex’s dog, who doesn’t need anything for good sex beyond their bodies. Bryce is boring, precisely because they want the same things Alex does. So, which of the two should Alex go for? Which of them will, in the long term, really make Alex happy?

Compatibility, ladies and gentlemen. It’s the secret to a happy relationship — which is one where you find the person who wants to be bored the same way you do.

And now let’s talk something else: let’s talk pre-destination.

Despite being, overall, a liberal, who believes in self-determination and freedom, I believe in pre-destination when it comes to romantic relationships. And, actually, if you read the above, that shouldn’t surprise you. Chemistry is all well and good, but looks fade and tastes change. (You can only be attracted to things you’ve been exposed to, after all. I didn’t know I liked larger women until I dated one.) Chemistry may determine whether any pair of humans falls in love, but compatibility is what determines whether they stay in love.

And what can we say about your dreams, your daily life, your… well, your overall personality?

It doesn’t change. At least, not frequently. And, even more than that, in a lot of ways it’s beyond our power to change. Alex can tell Charlie, “You’re too high-strung, you need to take a chill pill,” but Alex doesn’t just go “K all done” and switch on a dime; to get over that level of anxiety, Charlie would need years of cognitive-behavioral therapy and probably some medication. (Not that I’m speaking from experience or anything.) Who you are compatible with, and why, is beyond your control. There are some people you can successfully have a relationship with, and others (a lot of others) you can’t, and that is the entire story.

So when people come on Reddit and are like, “I said ‘I love you’ already / I slept with them already / I told them things about me already / I moved in with them already / We’re pregnant. Is it too soon?” I always laugh. There is no too soon. There can’t be, because “timing” and “compatibility” are in no way related.

To prove it, let’s do a Punnett Square thought experiment. Do you sleep with them “too soon” (insofar as that label even matters, considering that third-date sex is now quite normal)? Are they compatible with you? There are four possible answers.

  1. Don’t sleep with them before 3rd date / They are not compatible with me. Under these circumstances, you eventually break up. Why? Because they’re not right for you. Being cautious isn’t a bad thing, and I’m not saying it is; but it didn’t really gain you anything, did it? I mean, the thing about compatibility mismatches is that they’re too complex for mere sex to smooth over.
  2. Sleep with them before 3rd date / They are not compatible with me. Under these circumstances, you… Eventually break up. Why? Because they’re not right for you. I mean, we’re in the same boat, is the thing.
  3. Don’t sleep with them before 3rd date / They ARE compatible with me. Well, who knows. Depends on how long you hold onto your modesty…
  4. Sleep with them on the first date / They are compatible with me. This is, I think, the outcome everyone is most scared of. “Could I, possibly, ruin a relationship by being this aggressive? Could I turn Outcome #4 into Outcome #2?” I don’t know. Why don’t you ask my wife… a woman who slept with me on the first date. I wasn’t prepared for it, and — if I’m perfectly honest — it wouldn’t have bothered me if she had taken longer to take things to that level. (I think she feels the same way.) But it was a good sign, in context. What she told me, with her actions, was: “I’m into you. I like what I see so far, and I want to see what happens next. And I want to show that to you, as — forgive the pun — explicitly as possible.” Well, what happened next was we fell in love and got married three years later. If she was attempting to ruin our relationship, I don’t think she succeeded.

That’s why I answered Outcome #3 the way I did. Because here’s the thing: Dating is about trying things out. “I’m into you. I like what I see so far, and I want to see what happens next,” and all that. I also dated women who were waiting until marriage, and the message I was getting from that was, “I’m not into you. I don’t want to see what happens next.” Which, when you get down to it, is the same as saying, “Let’s break up.” I mean, if you’re not dating to date, then what’s the point? I’m not saying that you have to jump into bed with someone quickly; I am saying that, if you’re hesitating, well, that’s all the answer you need. If you can’t see this person as someone you might want to have sex with, maybe don’t date them. And if there’s no need to hesitate, well… should you? I mean, to quote When Harry Met Sally, “When you realize you want to spend the rest of your life with somebody, you want ‘the rest of your life’ to start as soon as possible.”

This is also why Outcome #2 ends the way it does. If they are not compatible with you, they do not want to date you; they do not want to see where this goes. Sex is probably not going to change that, because a relationship cannot be founded on sex alone. In that sense, yes, you are sleeping with them “too soon”… Because sleeping with them at any time whatsoever is too soon. Dating them is too soon. Kissing them is too soon! There is never a right time to do these things with that person because there is never a situation in which this person is right for you.

“But Colin,” I can hear you saying, “all those things have a known correlation with break-ups! The couple goes too far somehow and it all ends up in ruin! How could you be saying that this isn’t true, when you have literally thousands of years of evidence in favor of it?”

And to that I would answer, Correlation does not prove causation.

Having sex, moving in together, having babies, traveling together, a death in the family… These are not relationship enders. What I call them is “relationship accelerators.” They’re like stomping on the gas pedal in your car: they don’t change the destination of your relationship, they merely make it get to the destination sooner. Why? Because nothing changes the destination of your relationship. Nothing, short of a radical personality transplant, changes compatibility. Whatever was going to happen between you and your partner, is still going to happen. Now it’s just going to happen faster.

Again, I can draw upon my own life as an example. Mara slept with me on the first date, and from that point on we were, basically, joined at the hip. (Occasionally, by both hips.) Mara then quit her job; this was not a bad thing, and in fact I encouraged her to do it because, though we had only known each other for six weeks at that point, I could already tell that her job made her miserable; but it did put some extra pressure on us. Her beloved grandmother passed away a mere 8 months after Mara and I got together; I only got to meet her three times, and the last of them was in the hospital. We moved in together three months after that, as Mara was able to find a new job, and our bond became stronger still. Then I lost my job, which was a bit stressful under the circumstances. And then we had a pregnancy scare after about 16 months. Because of the moving-in-together thing, we had no money, and I had only been at my replacement job for, at that time, 2 weeks. It was what convinced me to propose to her, because I saw that, actually, this was what I wanted — to be by her side, taking care of her and her children. I proposed to her before our 2nd anniversary, which is kind of fast, but it didn’t feel fast in the context of our experiences. Indeed, it felt inevitable. I wanted to be her husband. A lot of my relatives have taken four, six, seven years before popping the question, because it took them that long to make the determination. And that’s great! I don’t advise that anyone should make a move if they aren’t ready. All I’m saying is, I was ready.

And that’s my point: coronavirus quarantine is a relationship accelerator. It’s not going to break your relationship unless it’s already broken. And, if it is already broken, why do you want to stay in it?

And now I want to talk about relationship stressors, because in some ways they are identical to relationship accelerators. But not entirely.

As mentioned, Mara and I went through a fair bit of turbulence in our first two years. To a certain extent, that turbulence has never quite ended: after I proposed, we had a wedding to plan; we had to move to her mom’s house for a week after someone drove a car into our apartment’s bedroom; when our lease was up, we moved in with her brother and his fiancée (which was actually really fun); after we wed, she got a job offer at her new district, and we moved to the South Bay, which was a bit of a stretch because the cost of living was higher; barely a few months after that, she brought me a positive pregnancy test, and since then it’s been Shiloh, Shiloh, Shiloh. I guess our relationship will have its first dose of peace and quiet when he heads off to college. The point is, there have been a lot of things that could cause fights.

And that’s what I want to bring up. Because relationship stressors all have one thing in common: a dual nature. They can push a couple apart, or they can bind them more solidly together.

Let me give an example from Reddit. A woman posted because she’s long-distance with her boyfriend, and he is close with his ex. The ex is undergoing some soul-searching, because she’s just figured out she’s a lesbian, and needs close friends in this tumultuous time; the boyfriend, who understandably still cares for her, is doing what he can. The woman who was posting wanted some ideas on what to do.

I’m sure, for some of you, the answer is obvious: “The girlfriend needs to demand that he cut all contact with the ex. Anything that pushes two people apart can draw them together, right? So if the ex is pushing them apart, then cutting her out of the situation will draw them together. See, that was easy!” And yes, it is easy… But it doesn’t work. It requires the girlfriend to assert dictatorial control over her boyfriend; it requires the boyfriend to betray his friendship with someone he cares about; and it leaves the ex alone and friendless at the exact wrong time. Two wrongs may be the easiest solution, but they still don’t make a right.

It’s also not what I meant when I said that a thing can both push people apart and draw them together. I don’t mean that, if X pushes people apart, then its opposite draws them together. I mean that X can push people apart and X can draw people together. And the key to approaching a relationship is using any X to draw you together.

And so what I told the woman was, “Consider befriending the ex.”

First off, we know the ex needs friends, so we are doing her a favor. Second, it takes some of the load off of the boyfriend’s shoulders; part of the emotional support he is providing can come from his girlfriend instead. Third, it should be pointed out that if the boyfriend once dated the ex and is now dating the current girlfriend, then the two women must have some things in common, which is actually a really good foundation for friendship. And finally, and most importantly, it allows the girlfriend and boyfriend to get closer together, by having this new thing in common: the one where they are supporting a mutual friend who’s trying to come out of the closet. They can choose to fight about the ex or they can choose to bond over the ex. You see, anything that pushes two people apart can also draw them together. Anything two people decide to fight about, they can also decide to work together on. And you accomplish this by abandoning the mindset that your significant other is an opponent you need to defeat, and instead treating them as an ally who you want to help. You accomplish this by making their goals your goals — whether you agree with those goals or not. Which is, I might add, how you should be treating your relationship in the first place.

And that’s where we get back to coronavirus.

Yes, you’re going to be separated from your partner, if you don’t live together or didn’t decide to shelter-in-place together. Yes, you’re going to miss them. Yes, you will be apart from them. The question is whether this impetus will push you apart or draw you together. Are you going to be alone? Or are you going to be alone, with them?

But now that we’ve established that your separation can strengthen the relationship, we need to ask another important question: By what means?

Believe it or not, but there was an era before FaceTime.

Now, I’m not saying it’s somehow easy. My main love language is physical touch; if I’m in a sour mood, all I have to do is put my arm around Mara’s shoulders and suddenly everything is better. If I had to be separated from her — to go from watching TV next to her on the couch, from kissing her, from having sex with her, from waking up next to her in the morning, to being locked up in separate houses for the indefinite future — I wouldn’t take it well. I know that other people aren’t either, and I have nothing but sympathy for them.

But there was an era before FaceTime, and we should probably think about the wisdom it offers.

My first girlfriend and I went to different schools, so a fair bit of our relationship was conducted over phone and email. My next relationship was, actually, much the same, with the addition of AOL Instant Messenger, which at the time was a thing. Only when I met Mara, both of us old enough to set our own hours and schedules, did I move to a relationship model that involved a lot of face-to-face communication; and even then, we still do a lot of texting. (She leaves the bed at 6:30 in the morning; I don’t get home from work until 7:30 at night. It’s better now with the quarantine rules, but those won’t last forever.) So for me, the idea of having to wait a while to communicate with someone I love is not unusual. But then, I am a product of an older generation; all the people having pandemic relationship panic are in their twenties, about half my age, and accustomed to a world where they are always wired to everyone else. My frame of reference works for these circumstances, but theirs don’t, and since we’re trying to solve their problems, my perspective isn’t useful.

Nonetheless, I bring it up for a really simple reason. If you’re in a situation where there’s a whole bunch of stuff you’re no longer allowed to do in person, then… Do it digitally instead.

Because I’m a writer, email is by far the most natural form of discourse for me. Even today, if I’m really angry at Mara, I sort myself out by writing her an email. I don’t send it; she’s asleep in the next room, after all. But this chance to formalize my thoughts and sort out my feelings is still very valuable, and I know that when we pick up the topic again, I’ll be able to express myself calmly and accurately. Email — text messages — any form of written communication — forces you to think about what you’re trying to say and the best way to say it. That’s a really good way to figure out what you’re even trying to say in the first place. Plus, you’re never going to have to deal with your partner interrupting you when you’re halfway through your argument. There are upsides to asynchronous communication, is what I’m trying to say.

“But what am I going to talk about,” you might ask, and the answer is really simple: all the stuff you would have talked about in person. Your life doesn’t stop just because you’re separated from your significant other: you still have thoughts, stories and memes to share. So keep up the discourse!

Consider broaching deeper topics. Remember, because you’re using text-based communication, there’s a buffer between your partner and your feelings… And vice versa. In other words, this might be the perfect time to broach something inflammatory. “What do you think constitutes cheating?” “Is your brother always that racist?” “Anal?” Your partner probably won’t fly off the handle, if for no other reason than the difficulty of doing so using nothing but words.

Also, consider broaching deeper topics. Remember that talk about compatibility at the beginning of the essay? You’ve got to figure it out at some point; while they are apart from you, and sitting and thinking about everything, is a pretty good time to do so. Ask them where they see themselves in five years. Ask them what their ideal partner is like. Ask them about their career plans. Ask them about their dream career plans. Ask them what they’d do if they were suddenly in charge of raising a child.

(And no, it’s still not too soon. Why are you dating this person? Is it because you think there might be a long-term future with them? Then you want to find out, don’t you? And at that point you ask the questions. After all, if the relationship isn’t going where you want it to, there’s not much point in staying in it. Or are you dating them even though you don’t see a long-term future with them? If so, then you need to tell them that; after all, they may decide there’s no point in staying in a relationship that isn’t going where they want it to. And, in general, while people may be upset that you don’t want the same things they do, they’re not going to attack you for it. Regardless of whether honesty is the best policy or not, it’s certainly the only policy that works.)

Do you see what I’m getting at? Even if you’re unable to see each other, there’s still plenty to talk about. And while certain parts of the conversation may be more rewarding in person, there are also parts that are easier and more rewarding at a distance.

And that’s just the conversations! Let’s delve into the exciting world of online entertainment. There’s plenty of ways for two people to have fun together from separate couches. In fact, there are so many I’m not even going to list them all. Here, instead, are just a few suggestions:

  • Do you have any idea how many card games can be played from your phone? My wife had to make an excuse to her other grandma, who kept inviting her to play rounds of a licensed rummy variant called Phase 10. And of course we scarcely need mention all the poker, chess and checkers apps.
  • If you’re looking for something a little more traditionally tabletop-y, there are licensed app versions of games like Settlers of Catan, Ticket to Ride, Splendor and — my personal recommendation — Magic: the Gathering. (Magic is the greatest game of all time. Fight me. If you dare. I’m playing Green, so my creatures are bigger than yours.)
  • Let’s also talk the Jackbox Games. Designed by the company behind the irreverent trivia game You Don’t Know Jack, these games are designed to be hosted by one person (typically on a computer or a console), but played on phones, typically by logging in on www.jackbox.tv. They are designed with the express purpose of being played via some sort of video-streaming service (twitch.tv, Zoom, etc) and can support up to 8 players plus a bunch of “spectators” who can contribute in other ways. (My personal favorite title is Earwax, which is basically Apples to Apples but with sound effects.)
  • If all you have is an old computer, you’ve still got options. Both Heroes of the Storm and its more popular (if less accessible) sibling League of Legends are 10 years old and don’t need much in the way of hardware — I mean, I play them on a Surface Pro 4, which isn’t even a computer but rather a tablet/laptop hybrid.
  • If you aren’t interested in player-vs-player competition, and instead want to team up with a friend to beat up some computer-controlled baddies, there’s Spiral Knights, an MMO that controls like 2D Zelda and is so low-requirement that you used to be able to play it in your browser. AirMech, spiritual sequel to the legendary Herzog Zwei, is similarly non-taxing. StarCraft II has gone free-to-play; it’s also 10 years old, and has 2-vs-AI co-operative matches in addition to its killer single-player campaign. And Torchlight II, a Diablo clone from the people who actually made Diablo (back when they were called Blizzard North), allows multiplayer and actually has no PvP component at all.
  • And there’s always the graphics-intensive people-versus-AI stuff. Borderlands 3, the anarchic and irreverent shooter! Warframe, the MMO where you play as a space ninja! Diablo 3, where you get to kill Satan! Left 4 Dead, the zombie apocalypse you play with your friends!

While the games in the first three bullet points all mandate player-vs-player competition, the bottom two can be played with teams of humans against an AI. Cooperative multiplayer — you know, the thing you probably want to do with your partner. Also, Spiral Knights, AirMech, Heroes of the Storm, League of Legends, StarCraft II and Warframe are free-to-play, and easy to progress through without in-game microtransactions.

And that’s completely aside from the most low-tech forms of interactive entertainment which can be carried out solely by e-mail: Never Have I Ever. Two Truths and One Lie. If you’re feeling frisky, MojoUpgrade or WeShouldTryIt.com, which allow partners to take surveys of sexual practices and then exchange results.

All I’m saying is, if you’re looking for ways to have fun experiences with someone who isn’t in the same room as you, there are options.

And when you fight — it’s kind of inevitable — you have to remember the right attitude. “Anything that pushes us apart can also draw us together.” You may be unhappy at the circumstances — actually, I’m certain you’re unhappy at the circumstances — but the key is to recall that you and your partner are suffering together. It can be tempting to turn on them to vent your frustrations, but this is not only factually wrong, it is unhelpful. And if you are unable to control your frustrations this way, then the problem is not that your partner is apart from you; the problem is that you’re a child in need of maturity.

The world isn’t a steady place right now. We’re in the midst of a massive upheaval, and it’s fairly clear that a lot of our old coping mechanisms aren’t enough. (Hence these shelter-in-place lockdowns, for instance.) It may be that the old ways of conducting relationships are not enough to overcome these circumstances. As such, it comes down to whether we can be flexible.

But that’s fine, because that’s what all relationships come down to, in the end. COVID-19 is not asking us to do anything new, just more of what we were doing before.

And the thing is, it’s an accelerator. It won’t change anything. If you’re truly committed to your partner, and they are truly committed to you, then you will both adapt. If one of you isn’t… well, then, the relationship was doomed from the start; you’re just finding that out faster. In some ways, COVID-19 is a blessing, because it’s giving us the gift of efficiency. You will know more about yourself, what you need, what you’re willing to give, by the time we’re all done. And that’s not a bad thing.

It just might not end the way you were hoping.

But that’s okay too. Because, in romance, the reality you get is often even better than the reality you were hoping for.