From learning to date differently to bringing babies into a strange new world, the past year has had an extraordinary impact on our relationships. Over the following pages, we reveal how love can conquer even during a pandemic.
Ask most people to sum up the past year and, understandably, you’ll be met with a torrent of depressing adjectives. Terrifying and miserable, monotonous and stressful: there’s no escaping the fact it’s been a treacherous time. And yet – yes, there is a yet! – against the odds, on the bleak and barren terrain of the pandemic, green shoots of hope have sprouted.
That hope can be found in the blossoming of new relationships, the endurance and strengthening of existing ones, the birth of lockdown babies and the determination that our need to forge and maintain bonds with others must endure, even during one of humanity’s darkest hours.
Psychologist and relationship coach Ellie Baker of coupld.co.uk agrees our primal instinct to connect with one another has really kicked in during this time. ‘We are social animals and inherently we want to form connections and bonds with others. It’s vital to our mental and physical health and emotional wellbeing,’ she says. ‘It’s testament to human nature’s survival instinct that people have persevered with dating or put their energy into their existing relationships and starting families at such a challenging time. Life does go on and we have a desire and hope for love that hasn’t been extinguished by the pandemic.’
When it comes to dating, Covid has pressed fast-forward on relationships and the search for them. Despite the barriers thrown in the way of singletons, from lockdown to social distancing (and, of course, the anxiety of catching Covid from a date), dating apps reported a surge in new users and activity.
In fact, 29 March 2020 – six days after the first lockdown began – was the busiest day for swipes in Tinder’s history and a survey by the dating app Match.com revealed that 53 per cent of users had become more serious about their search for a relationship since the pandemic began.
It’s impacted our sex lives, too – a recent Mail on Sunday poll revealed that 20 per cent of us are having more sex than before the pandemic, while Anglia Ruskin University reported that 40 per cent of us are having sex at least once a week – not bad going in the circumstances.
With time on our hands, and life and death on our minds, reflecting on what gives our lives meaning has seen many prioritise the search for a loving relationship. And when The One is found, couples are fast-tracking from first date to serious commitment in a matter of months. In fact, one American-based custom engagement ring company reported a 150 per cent increase in sales in the third quarter of 2020.
Coined ‘turbo relationships’ in a report last year by Relate and Eharmony, Ellie Baker says it’s a sign of the times that couples aren’t hanging about when it comes to settling down together.
‘We are predisposed to rely on one another in testing times, and that has seen people accelerate through the usual stages of a relationship at speed. Also, being unable to see friends, family and colleagues has brought a feeling of heightened intensity to new romantic relationships. Without distractions, new couples have had the opportunity to cement and deepen their bond much quicker than in normal times.’
It’s not just new relationships that have thrived during this period. We’ve seen established couples lean on each other like never before, developing a newfound appreciation and refiring old passions. In fact, in research commissioned by the relationship app Pair with the Open University, 26 per cent of respondents said their relationship had strengthened during lockdown.
However, no relationship is always a bed of roses and many have come under strain too. If that’s you, do not despair! Author Ian Leslie, who specialises in human behaviour, is on hand (here) to reassure that arguing with your partner is not only understandable in the current climate, but can actually be a good thing for your relationship.
For many, bringing a life into the world is the ultimate relationship goal. But spare a thought for those who have become parents this past year. Anna Moore meets the lockdown mothers who battled the anxiety and fear of being pregnant and giving birth during a pandemic. Now with their babes safely in their arms, they reflect on their experience and their love for this special generation of children.
Of the many lessons this past year has taught us, the importance of our relationships with others, and the restorative and protective power of love, are surely among the greatest. Here we meet the people who found, held on to and created love in a pandemic…
‘We were engaged within six months’
Jenny Blackman, 39, is a social worker and lives in Crawley, West Sussex, with her fiancé Tony Wenham, 45, an operations manager.
When Tony asked me to marry him on 30 December 2020, I said yes without hesitation. Although we’d only been together for six months, we had forged a deep bond by falling in love during a pandemic. We’ve all been living with daily reminders that life is short and precious, so even though ours was a whirlwind romance, neither of us wanted to wait to take the next step.
My best friend is engaged to Tony’s brother and they set us up last July. At the time I’d been happily single for nine years – I wasn’t proactively looking for a relationship, but I was definitely open to meeting someone. After exchanging texts and speaking on the phone, we never looked back. We were able to meet for drinks, cook for one another at home, and get to know each other at a time when the world felt a little more relaxed. We clicked quickly and deeply, and my children, who are 13 and 21, approved of him, too.
When the second lockdown began in November, Tony moved in with me temporarily, and it went so well he never moved out! I loved having someone to relax with in the evening, especially after the first lockdown as a single mum.
In December, over a family meal, he made a little speech saying although 2020 had been hard, it had also been the best year of his life because he’d met me – and asked me to marry him. I was stunned but happy.
We’re planning our wedding for 2023 and hope by then we’ll be able to have a big, traditional day with all our family and friends.
In normal times, I’d have thought getting engaged after six months was very fast. But there was nothing normal about 2020, and when you know, you know. So why wait?
‘I never dreamed I’d find love again’
Pauline Birchall, 68, from Uckfield, East Sussex, met John Cannell, 69, while helping at a hospice.
When my partner Paul died two years ago from cancer, I genuinely thought I could never find anyone to fill his place. I had three grown-up daughters from a 26-year marriage and a job I loved running a shop that raised money for a local hospice called St Wilfrid’s. Finding love again was the last thing on my mind.
When coronavirus hit last March, almost two thirds of the regular hospice volunteers had to shield themselves or their families – so I immediately stepped up to help and began work on 30 March. On my first shift I was on laundry duty and noticed a tall, handsome man. By chance, the following week I was put on the same shift as him in an isolation corridor. He seemed so calm and kind in what could have been a rather stressful situation.
A few days later I was asked if I’d do a double shift on my own, and my mystery man – John – stepped up to say he could help, too. That evening, during our break, the sparks flew – we didn’t stop talking for the whole hour! Later that month, my phone rang and it was John, saying he’d love to take me out for dinner when this was all over. I did a little dance of joy.
We met for a walk on the beach in early May to talk things through, and decided to get to know each other gradually. From that moment on we were on the phone as often as possible – and the longer it went on, the surer we both felt that this was true love. In the summer I met his daughter, and then his son and grandson at a barbecue in their back garden. As for my girls, there couldn’t have been a bigger thumbs-up from them. We’re now actively looking for a place to rent together full time.
When I tell some of the patients, the smiles it puts on their faces are heart-melting – that during this whole horrible time something so beautiful could happen. stwhospice.org
‘Each lockdown has been a gift for my marriage’
Nicole Louise Geddes, 37, entertainment producer of Manic Stage Productions, is married to Nathan, 38, a lieutenant commander in the Royal Navy. They have a son Jack, five, and live in Portsmouth.
I met Nathan at school over 20 years ago and I have always accepted that his career in the Navy means for most of the time I’m a solo parent to our son Jack. Nathan arrived home on leave the day lockdown one started, having been away for six months.
Normally he is home for short periods, but this year we had three months thanks to the first lockdown – and we have never spent such an intense length of time together. When he is deployed it’s usually for months at a time, overseeing 200 men at sea, while I go into warrior woman mode, organising life at home. There’s usually some adjustment time; inevitably, we have to be considerate around one another as he fits back into our life.
I thought it would be difficult having him at home for such a long period, but it has made our 13-year marriage stronger. Jack was in his element having us all to himself, too. We couldn’t see grandparents (who don’t live nearby), or be our usual social selves, but it made us realise we don’t need to do that. The first lockdown was exactly what we never knew we needed – it made us want to spend more time together – and we are still reaping the benefits.
While Nathan has been at home through the second and third lockdowns, he’s been working long hours every day at a naval base nearby, and with few opportunities to socialise, we have learned to be creative with our time together.
Each lockdown has been a gift for my marriage. The pause in time has brought us so much closer together, when we are often literally oceans apart. manicstageproductions.co.uk
‘Dating in a pandemic has been eye-opening’
Verity Bright, 40, is an account manager and lives in London.
Pre-Covid, I wasn’t a fan of dating apps, preferring real-life events and meeting guys while out with friends. So to have to shift my dating life online was a huge change.
There were pros and cons to virtual dates. With everyone’s lives on hold, people had more time and less distractions. I found guys were receptive to striking up an online chat if we ‘matched’ on an app, then progressing to a video date – which meant I could get to know someone better before meeting them in person. During the first lockdown I was having two video dates a week – not just because I was looking for a relationship but also it was fun, especially as I was living alone.
The downside of virtual dating is that you can’t get a sense of someone’s physical presence or height, and getting on well on FaceTime doesn’t necessarily translate to a real spark – as I discovered when I met a guy who I’d video-dated every week for three months, and realised we had no chemistry. That was gutting, as we got on really well.
Although I was able to meet men in person last summer, it wasn’t a return to normality. Being socially distanced, feeling unsure of how to greet or say goodbye when you can’t kiss and hug someone, and dealing with people’s anxieties made it a strange time. I had a memorable date with a guy I’ll call Mask Man, who kept his mask on all evening while we sat in a beer garden, sipping his drink through a straw out of the side of the mask. There was another guy who lived with his elderly parents and was anxious about protecting them. I totally understood, but it also made it impossible for either of us to relax.
As time has gone on, I think lots of people’s enthusiasm for dating is waning. A walk in wet weather just isn’t as appealing. However, I turned 40 in December and would like to meet someone, which is why I’m persevering. Recently I went to an online speed-dating event and I’m chatting with a guy who lives in Holland who I met through work. I’m hoping to meet up with him when travel is allowed.
It’s impossible not to feel my biological clock ticking. The pandemic has taken a year of my fertility and I’m very conscious of that.
‘The crisis brought us together’
Sarah Brown, 40, a senior project manager, lives in Surrey with her partner Richard Mason, 50, who runs a personal training and triathlon coaching business.
Had it not been for the pandemic, I don’t think Richard and I would be together now. Pre-Covid, although we both worked for the same charitable organisation, our roles meant we were rarely in the same office. I’d met Richard a few times at work events and thought he was attractive, but just assumed he was with someone, while I was a single mum to my ten-year-old daughter.
Last March, both working from home, we were in daily contact by phone as we furloughed staff and dealt with other issues caused by the lockdown. At first our calls were strictly work-related, but then we began to talk about our personal lives, which evolved into evening calls. He was so easy to talk to, and I felt a spark between us.
Our first ‘date’ was in July when he came for some drinks in my garden. After that, we were a couple. I enjoyed the simplicity of dating in a pandemic. Both furloughed by then, we weren’t distracted by work, and simple things such as long walks and camping trips took the place of expensive mini-breaks and meals out. It didn’t matter that I needed my roots done – it felt like we were really getting to know one another properly and quickly.
He moved in with me in November – the original plan was just for the second lockdown, but we’ve made it permanent now, and have both gone on to start new jobs.
If you’d told me this time last year that by Christmas I’d have fallen in love and moved in with someone, I wouldn’t have believed it. But at a time of such uncertainty and sadness in the world, Richard has made me feel so happy and secure. Things may have moved quickly, but it feels very natural and easy being with him. I know it was meant to be.
Words: Eimear O’Hagan
Additional interviews: Matthew Barbour, Samantha Brick