“I have a confession,” my roommate, Amber, told me between glasses of prosecco, when we reunited at our Brooklyn apartment in June. I had been quarantining at my parents’ house in New Jersey, and, as I was about to learn, I had no idea where she had been. “I’ve been living with Arron in the Poconos for two months,” she said. My mind swirled. Wait, what? The Poconos? Arron, the guy you only started talking to about a week before quarantine hit? “We have a garden together,” she added. What?
It’s now clear to me that Amber is in a COVID-19 “turbo relationship,” a term a term coined in a June report analyzing relationships in lockdown in the United Kingdom, which describes new couples who feel “seriously committed” as an effect of pandemic conditions. “Over a third agree that two months in isolation feels equivalent to two years of commitment, and the same amount say they’ve reached common relationship milestones, such as moving in together, quicker,” states the report, conducted by dating service eharmony and UK-based relationship-support organization Relate. “This acceleration has also led to more sex (23 percent), better communication (28 percent), and the opportunity to discover new, shared passions (18 percent).”
If that sounds as wild to you as it did to me (based on my reaction to Amber’s news), take a moment to let it wash over you. Because, perhaps it’s actually not so surprising. As years pass, after all, more and more couples have opted to cohabitate before marriage; 2019 Pew Research findings note that 78 percent of people younger than 30 say moving in with a partner is acceptable without having an intention to ever marry, period. And whether married or not, that same Pew study found the top two reasons cited for cohabitating are love and companionship, the latter of which is significantly more difficult to approximate when you don’t ever see each other in light of, say, quarantine restrictions.
“Pre-COVID, people moved in with and shared spaces together for many different reasons—for example, there are divorced couples who continue to live together because it’s not financially possible to part or individuals who are dating and then find they spend more time in one person’s apartment and decide to cut the cost of living and move in together,” says relationship psychotherapist Lia Love Avellino, LCSW, who can see how the pandemic can, in some cases, rev a turbo-speed engine behind new relationships, especially. “Relational psychotherapist Esther Perel says that crises end up working as an accelerator, and COVID has definitely accelerated things for some,” Avellino adds.
Perel’s “some” definitely includes Amber and Arron, who, it bears mentioning, weren’t total strangers leading up to their turbo relationship transformation. They were in the same kindergarten class, went to high school together, and had a quick fling in 2015 after he reached out to her on the online dating platform Plenty of Fish. (“I remembered him, but I could tell that he didn’t remember me—I’d gone through some hair transformations,” she recounted.) That interlude fizzled out quickly for no good (or bad) reason, and the two didn’t speak again until she reached out this spring. “We started talking again on Facebook, and from there, we just kind of picked right back up where we left off,” she says. “And then he was just like, ‘you know, what if I came to you, and you started like spending some time with me?’” And once the pandemic picked up steam in mid-March, they passively slipped into happy cohabitation.
Why a turbo relationship can work
Let’s remember that certain effects of COVID-19 anxiety combined with close-quarters living situations can prove tough for even for long-standing couples who shared an address pre-pandemic. One survey by The Knot and the app Lasting reported that cohabiting couples are spending way more time together each week, and too much time together can have negative effects. For instance, high tensions can lead to arguments and—more drastically—the divorce rate is expected to surge in the United States, much like it did in Wuhan, China, following a 70-day quarantine.
“It is not necessarily good or bad to move in with someone simply because it will make life feel a bit better—the challenge becomes when it’s ‘accidental.’ It’s important to make the decision conscious and intentional.” —relationship psychotherapist Lia Love Avellino, LCSW
And yet, both long-term and turbo relationships alike can thrive so long as everyone involved makes clear that sticking it out together—with love, compassion, and respect—is a conscious choice and priority. “It is not necessarily good or bad to move in with someone simply because it will make life feel a bit better and easier right now—the challenge becomes when it’s ‘accidental,'” Avellino says. “It’s important to make the decision conscious and intentional, even if that awareness is that we are moving in not because it’s the best thing for our relationship but because it will make quarantine less lonely or ease financial pressure.”
Amber’s impetus for slipping into cohabitation with Arron was indeed impromptu, but the choice to remain together in isolation together was intentional from both of them. She was enjoying his companionship first and foremost, but given that she was also furloughed from work at the time, she also had more time and mental energy than she would have otherwise to dedicate to seeing whether a relationship had real potential for her. The lure of doing so in a full-size house in the Poconos (rather than being alone in a small apartment) certainly sweetened the prospect as well.
“He was like, ‘All I do is work from like 7 to 3 every day—you know, you could stay at my house. I have a whole kitchen, I have two bathrooms, I have three bedrooms, I have a backyard,’” she says of how Arron had framed the setup of their life in quarantine. “So, I thought, ‘When am I ever going have time off like this again? When am I going to really escape like this again? I’m going to go enjoy myself, take advantage of this time and see if there’s anything there with this person.'”
And to date, it seems there’s indeed something “there.”
How to steer clear of common pitfalls of cohabitation (and codependency)
The most important aspect to relationship success while living together or otherwise is to make the implicit explicit, and be very clear about boundaries, needs, and expectations, says Avellino. In short, communicate—and when you think you’ve communicated effectively, communicate some more. “It’s also important to remember that although your partner may be your main source of human contact right now, they cannot meet all of your human needs,” says Avellino, who adds that in the context quarantine, when other forms of social, connective rituals and habits are unavailable, many end up putting more pressure on their romantic relationship to fulfill all of their needs—whether or not they realize it. “You can make your needs known to your partner and ask them to be recognized, but it’s important to be mindful that they cannot be responsible for meeting every single one,” she says.
And do be sure keep in mind, especially considering that certain states have or may soon re-enter a state of lockdown, that dating is an active, ongoing venture, not an unmoving status—even if you’re dating someone monogamously while sharing space all the time. “As boundaries in our lives have blurred, many couples notice they are spending a lot more time together,” Avellino says. “It can be important to differentiate between when you are ‘on a date at home’ versus ‘at home together’ to set clear expectations around togetherness and separateness.” Being intentional with “date night” may make a meaningful difference between feeling as though you have a roommate versus life mate under pandemic conditions.
Of course, moving in with someone because of COVID-19 doesn’t have to be permanent, and knowing that can remove some pressure associated with the need to decide whether your quarantine mate can also make a solid life mate. (Of course, take care to follow your state’s guidelines for quarantining and social distancing, when and if you decide to make living-arrangement moves.) For Amber and Arron’s turbo relationship, that understanding came into play: She decided to return to our shared apartment and also remain in the relationship for the time being.
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