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Love in self isolation

What it’s like to start dating someone under quarantine

New relationships are meant to be about hot dates, sex, and (maybe) meeting the family – but amid social distancing, blossoming romances are having to find other ways to thrive

These are strange times. Planning beyond next week seems like an impossible task for anyone, as we all try to make the best of our new routines. Those of us in long-term relationships are now learning all about our other half’s annoying office-based quirks, as the world self-isolates and practices social distancing. Yet, if you’ve been with someone for an extended period, there’s a shared history which perhaps makes isolating together a little easier. 

For people in a new relationship, navigating the precarious early days of young love, there’s now the extra obstacle of a pandemic and quarantine to contend with, while the foundations of the relationship haven’t been built. From accommodation administration to the logistics of hygiene, dating someone during a public health crisis comes with all kinds of weird new considerations. 

“Our current debate is whose flat is better equipped for the apocalypse,” jokes Sarah, 24, from Manchester, who met Ben, 27, on Tinder five weeks ago. This wasn’t a conversation they were expecting to have when they first started seeing each other, but “it’s a very interesting time to be in a new relationship,” as Sarah gently puts it.

“Ideally, a month into dating, you’d be going on day trips to places but instead all we’re doing is talking about coronavirus,” Sarah says, “you can’t go out, you aren’t forming shared memories. It’s like going from being a month into a relationship to five years down the line, but with none of the history.” For these two, there aren’t any romantic plans on the cards for now, “unless,” Sarah suggests, “date nights count as him sitting and reading coronavirus updates to me, while I try and watch TV?”

Endless chat about coronavirus has been putting a lot of strain on most of us, but the virus has been an added tension for the new pair: “Ben’s obsessively following this and shares all the updates with me, and I sometimes just don’t want to know,” Sarah says. Both also have very different workloads, as Sarah’s role at a small PR company means an incredible uptick in workload, for Ben, an analyst, everything is a bit more ‘business-as-usual’. Sarah adds: “It has been absolutely manic at work for me. Our first day working from home together was stressful in itself, because he finished work so early and I needed to do several more hours.”

But despite the profound challenges which lie ahead, Sarah feels this is going to be the ultimate test: “If we can get through this, we can get through anything.”

This is the overall feeling from a lot of the young couples I talk with: a sense that if their relationships survive this, their futures together look bright. For Imogen, 26, who’s been with her boyfriend George, 26, for a little over three months after meeting on Hinge, the difficulties are strangely familiar. “Three months into my last relationship, my dad died. I don’t really know what this stage of a relationship is without life-changing crises and massive amounts of emotional vulnerability,” Imogen explains.

Imogen and George live in separate shared houses in London, and like Sarah and Ben, are seeing each other in person when they can. “It’s been tough,” Imogen says, “I find it tough to cope without a plan and every time we try and make one, events get ahead of us! It’s an ongoing discussion; we’re planning briefing to briefing.”

Not living together full-time, there’s the question of how social distancing factors into the physical side of a relationship, especially in those crucial early days. You either have to abstain from sex, and all close contact, or accept that this is the only person you can be around for the foreseeable future. For Imogen, it’s a trade-off they’ve had to make: “We’re staying away from our most at-risk friends and family. I can Skype my mum and my friends for the sake of getting to spend time with my boyfriend.”

“I introduced them to some of my friends on Houseparty over the weekend – a bit of a chaotic first meeting, since we kept losing signal”

When they’re not together, Imogen and George have been relying on daily phone calls and frequent Twitter memes – a key tenet of any modern relationship, but even more important now as self-isolation sees couples turning to technology to be in touch.

Annabel, 26, from London, agrees. “I am in a new relationship with someone I met in January who lives in America,” she explains. “I was supposed to go back and visit them, but of course flights are cancelled.” With this physical barrier, the relationship has no choice but to develop virtually. “We watch stuff together on Netflix Party, I introduced them to some of my friends on Houseparty over the weekend – a bit of a chaotic first meeting since we kept losing signal – and as for sex, we’ve been getting pretty inventive,” Annabel laughs. “Last week they Whatsapp video called me and I watched them take a shower. Desperate times call for strange measures.” 

While some couples are still finding ways to date while physically apart, at the other end of the spectrum you have those who are instantly shacking up together – either by accident or choice. Tweets about people getting stuck in quarantine after one night stands, or moving in together on their second date have been doing the rounds, while others have been brainstorming romcom pitches about exactly that scenario.

Mairi, 25, and Pedro, 29, wouldn’t have imagined moving in together when they met on Hinge late last year. But, as Mairi explains: “We decided pretty early on that we would probably both get coronavirus at the same time. We weren’t really prepared to stop all physical contact. So we’ve been trying to social distance together.” With Pedro’s family in Portugal, they decided Mairi will move into his flat in London when restrictions are tightened. “Normally I wouldn’t expect to be contemplating sort-of moving in after three months,” she says, “but these are exceptional circumstances!”

Similarly, Hannah and Leah, both 30 in Bristol, met on Bumble about four weeks ago, and have already moved in together. “On our first date things hadn’t really fully kicked-off yet,” says Leah, “or maybe they had and we were just blissfully unaware… either way it didn’t stop us from having sex. A few times.”

By date three, a couple of weeks ago, the pair started by trying to practice social distancing — greeting with an elbow bump — but quickly gave up the pretence altogether. “We talked about calling it quits,” explains Hannah, “a FaceTime-only relationship strangely felt too intimate with a practical stranger?” But then wine came, Leah adds, and “plans changed.”

“Our plan is to have candlelit dinners, with no virus discussion”

As Hannah lives with high-risk housemates, she moved – without much discussion – into Leah’s one-bedroom flat on the other side of Bristol. And so far, things look pretty good; Leah feels that her pragmatic nature is the heart of their success. She explains: I’m a chronic over-organiser. I scheduled dedicated date nights twice a week. Hannah added in an extra two after that. Our plan is to have candlelit dinners, with no virus discussion. A covid-free space: just music.”

These dedicated date nights are a space for them to get to know each other. They’ve been listening to Leah’s Fleetwood Mac and Joni Mitchell vinyl and using the “36 questions that lead to love” from the 2015 viral New York Times article as prompts for deeper conversations. I ask Hannah and Leah what their friends think. Apparently, they joke, this is part and parcel of the lesbian experience. “Although even by lesbian standards, this is a lot,” Hannah laughs.

While every other couple talks about having rushed forwards, Leah suggests the opposite is also true. “I think if anything this has also slowed us down a little? There’s no sensible way we can meet each other’s friends or families.” This is the dichotomy at the heart of all these relationships: the couples may have leapt into cohabiting, but none of the usual relationship milestones can be met during the quarantine. “It’s like we’re in a bubble, but also frozen in time,” Leah concludes.