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Expert Alert: Romance in the Social Distancing Era

May 6, 2020

Ashley E. Thompson studies romantic relationships and sexuality. She shares insights on keeping romance alive during the pandemic. 

Ashley Thompson

Lockdowns and social distancing due to the COVID-19 pandemic have impacted nearly every aspect of society—romantic relationships are no exception.

Those single or living alone may feel more socially isolated right now, whereas those living with a partner may be grappling with concerns kick-started by a lack of independence. In fact, brand new research conducted by scholars at Indiana University’s Kinsey Institute reveals that approximately half of adults have experienced a decrease in intimacy with one’s partner as a result of the pandemic. So, how might sheltering in place impact the ways in which we connect, date, and maintain relationships and what can we do to spice things up?

Those with live-in partners

Among those with a live-in partner, it’s important to make efforts to keep a relationship healthy. Although life may not be what it was a few months ago, it does not mean love and affection need to feel constrained or ignored. In fact, there are a number of things people can do to protect their relationships and keep the spark alive.

First, focus on the good times you and your partner have had. Think about that vacation to the Rockies, eat that meal you shared when you celebrated your work promotion, or listen to the song that was playing when you shared your first kiss. The act of  “nostalgizing” has been shown to result in remarkable benefits including counteracting loneliness and boredom, limiting defensive responding, diminishing stress, and actually producing sensations of physical warmth! With all of the COVID-19 negativity permeating the news, we could all stand to introduce a little positivity in our lives. 

Second, tune into your own needs and amp up the self-soothing. During these times it is very common for partners to respond differently to the anxiety and uncertainty created by COVID-19, which is likely to result in disputes and disagreements (particularly related to how to protect oneself). So, in times of high anxiety or unhelpful attitudes, it may be best to step away and engage in some much needed “me time.” For example, self-soothing could mean engaging in little behaviors such as taking a few deep breaths before snapping back at a partner, waking up a little earlier or staying up a little later to get some alone time, or avoiding COVID-19 news for a short while. The ability to focus on your own needs will not only help you, but it will also benefit your relationship. 

Third, try to have some fun! Although for many it may be difficult to separate themselves from the fear and anxiety associated with COVID-19, it’s important to let go of the stress and stir craziness or it will only get worse. You see, when we are stressed, our body is not generating dopamine and oxytocin (known as pleasure chemicals). However, when we engage in enjoyable activities (e.g., reading a book, engaging in an art project, going out for a walk) we are able to generate these chemicals and promote happiness. Furthermore, oxytocin is a chemical directly linked to human bonding, affection, and intimacy. Thus, in a world characterized by social distancing, it is more important than ever to maintain face-to-face interactions with one’s live-in partner in an effort to promote connectedness and reduce tension. 

Finally, don’t attempt to be the perfect partner, instead, focus on avoiding elementary mistakes. In fact, social psychological research has shown that people rarely get credit for delivering more than they promise. However, when failing to deliver on a promise, people often pay a stiff price. Consequently, in these times of high stress, it’s important to conserve your energy and avoid doing more work than necessary. Try taking things day-by-day, promising less, and making sure that you are able to deliver on what you promised. There’s enough angst in the world right now without adding it to your relationship and your home.

Those without live-in partners

For those who are single or live separately from a romantic partner and are unable to express themselves physically (due to “social distancing” and “stay at home orders”), virtual methods of interaction can prove incredibly useful. In fact, in the current landscape, many dating apps are promoting and relying on their video chatting features to keep people connected and to promote intimacy. For example, Bumble (a location-based social application that facilitates communication between interested users), has heavily promoted its video chat and voice features, allowing users to interact with one another while maintaining social distance. According to a feature published at technologyreview.com, these shifts in online dating are welcomed and provide a much-needed reality check, in which “people are trading filtered selfies for a more realistic image of a person.” 

This shift to virtual intimacy may very well change the ground rules and relationship scripts that have typically guided romantic interactions. According to script theory, we have all been socialized to approach and interact with romantic others in similar ways (i.e., scripts). On a first date, we all have an idea of what the typical chain of behaviors looks like and how to behave, we don't need to think about what we should say or do. Prior to COVID-19, texting someone to set up a date was fine but calling or video-chatting before a date was creepy and awkward. Consequently, although the COVID-19 pandemic has brought with it an abundance of hardships and inconveniences, it will likely also result in a variety of modifications to the ways in which we connect with others (some of which will likely prove advantageous). 

In sum, the ways individuals—both those living with a romantic partner and those living alone—interact with one another and behave intimately have shifted dramatically as a result of COVID-19. The good news is that we’re seeing evidence of the remarkable adaptability and resiliency of human beings. As a result, this might just be the perfect time to creatively cultivate love and intimacy.

Ashley Thompson is an associate professor in the Department of Psychology at UMD. Her research interests include attitudes and judgments relating to romantic and sexual interpersonal relationships, the onset and maintenance of these relationships, and the role of gender in romantic and sexual relationship experiences.