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Love in the time of coronavirus: What happens to romance and relationships amid a global pandemic?

The coronavirus pandemic has forced us out of public spaces and into our homes, intensifying feelings of loneliness and amplifying a desire for human connection. For some, the forced togetherness is also testing the strength of relationships facing new anxieties and strains.

Loneliness, resentment and a desire for human connection are heightened as we're driven together and apart

They say love conquers all, but does that include the COVID-19 pandemic? (Ben Nelms/CBC)

Depending on where your romantic life was about 2½ weeks ago, when in one afternoon the world shifted under our feet, you may find yourself in one of a few, very strange circumstances.

You may be single and wondering how you'll ever meet someone now that the prime minister is holding daily press conferences calling on Canadians to stay two metres apart.

If you're quarantined with a partner, you're now confronted with their presence for almost 24 hours a day — suddenly, painfully, hyper-aware of their phone voice, loud typing and the petty drama that unfolds in their virtual work meetings.

The coronavirus pandemic has forced us out of public spaces and into our homes, intensifying feelings of loneliness and amplifying a desire for human connection. For some, the forced togetherness is also testing the strength of relationships facing new anxieties and strains.

They include Morgan Golbeck, 30, who is now working from home in her one-bedroom Vancouver apartment with her partner of eight years.

"The first day we worked together we got in a fight within the first two hours. It was just like, we don't know how to do this," she said.

"Honestly, this is probably the most amount of time we've spent together in — ever."

If you're quarantined with a partner, you're now confronted by with their presence pretty much always. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

But while there are obvious challenges in this era of physical distancing — in which we're literally instructed by officials to stay apart — it doesn't have to mean the end of intimacy or the end of a relationship, says Erin Davidson, a Vancouver-based counsellor specializing in sex therapy.

"Great relationships work through distance, closeness and each person being independent," she said.

Together apart

For you singles, if you're wondering when — or if — you'll ever date again, the data shows that lots of people are still doing it.

Dating app Bumble has seen a 42 per cent spike over the past week among people aged 18 to 22. Use of its video call feature has soared by 21 per cent in the same time period, with a 36 per cent increase in messages sent and users reporting a higher "quality" of chats.

If you're planning a virtual date, Davidson suggests having a glass of wine, playing an online board game, watching a show together, or answering the New York Times' 36 Questions That Lead to Love.

Canadians are being told to practise physical distancing by keeping two metres apart. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

The guidance for couples who don't live together is less clear. If both people live alone, work from home, and practice physical distancing, is it still OK to shuttle between each other's places?

Isaac Bogoch, an infectious disease physician in Toronto, said those visits should be limited "as much as possible."

"Having said that, there's going to be certain situations where people truly need help — either mental, emotional, physical," he said.

As for those who live together — often in cramped spaces, perhaps also balancing childcare, homeschooling, and increased stress around health and finances — Davidson said it's important to normalize that this period will be stressful, and develop a plan to deal with inevitable fights when emotions aren't running high.

"Communicate what your needs are — whether it's turning off the news, having some alone time or, even, in a very small apartment, moving to a different couch," she said.

The coronavirus pandemic has forced us out of public spaces and into our homes, intensifying feelings of loneliness and a desire for human connection. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

Golbeck said noise-cancelling headphones have been "a dream" while working in a small space, while drawing a clear distinction between each others' workspaces has helped set boundaries.

But she also said the closeness between her and her partner has forced them to resolve disagreements faster, and they've gained new understandings of each other.

"I'm a kind of a goofy, not serious person, so for him to watch me be in work mode, he's never seen me like that before," she said.

"It's really been cool to learn how to respect each other's space in a weird way that we've never had to do before ... Respecting each other's independence at home is very different than respecting the other person's independence when the other person isn't in your space."

Um, what about sex?

A lot about coronavirus isn't completely understood. But it's not a sexually transmitted disease — you're more likely to spread it through kissing.

Davidson said while the time may not be right to explore new partners, your sex life doesn't have to be put on hold.

"It's a good time for consensual sexting, whether that's video or text. It can be a really great way to explore interests or fantasies that you have on your own terms. It's also a great place to have some fun and practise asking for what you want sexually," she said.

Davidson explained everyone has different accelerators and brakes for sexual desire and — like cars — different sensitivities to those brakes and accelerators.

For most people, she said, stress and anxiety — for example, the kind triggered by a global pandemic and pending economic doom — put a pretty major brake on a desire for sex, and that's OK.

"We're all different, and it's all normal," she said.

About the Author

Michelle Ghoussoub

@MichelleGhsoub

Michelle Ghoussoub is a journalist with CBC News in Vancouver. She has previously reported in Lebanon and Chile. Reach her at michelle.ghoussoub@cbc.ca or on Twitter @MichelleGhsoub.

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