Why COVID-19 Will Inevitably Lead to Breakups

Kirstie Taylor, 28, has been dating her boyfriend for eight months. For a while, things had been going well — until COVID-19 hit, and they started discussing quarantining. She wanted to do it with him. He wanted to do it with her as well… and with his parents.

“He thinks it’s safer. But I feel like I won’t be comfortable around them and two weeks is a long time,” she tells Rolling Stone. “[I’m] down to quarantine with him. But not sure about with his parents.”

Such are the types of discussions taking place in the age of COVID-19, the highly contagious viral disease that’s recently been declared a pandemic, and is currently sending the world into panic. With public health officials encouraging self-quarantining and social distancing, COVID-19 has changed the fabric of our everyday social interactions — and with it, too, comes a shift in the topics couples most often fight about. In light of mounting concerns about it spreading within the United States, arguments about quarantining and reducing the risk of transmission and exposure are becoming increasingly urgent, making fights about money or sex or passive-aggressive texts from in-laws seem almost quaint by comparison..

“We’re literally in the middle of a fight right now,” says Bradley*, 28, from New York City. (Some names have been changed upon sources’ request to protect their privacy/to avoid pissing off their significant others even more). Bradley is set to be the best man in a wedding with more than 200 guests this coming weekend, and Bradley’s live-in partner is furious he’s attending; he’s in the wedding party, and he feels obligated to show up. “Basically we’re going back and forth and I’m trying to determine how much it’s worth it to go, in terms of public health AND potentially pissing her off even more,” he says. “[We’re in] separate rooms right now. Not currently talking.”

These fights tend to follow a fairly predictable pattern: one partner is concerned about COVID-19 transmission, and the other is, well, less so. “She doesn’t think I should do a SoulCycle birthday on Sunday, I say it’s probably one of cleanest places if they’re doing it right,” says Alex*, 29, from New York City, whose name has been changed. “She doesn’t want to go to a beer hall birthday, and I refuse to go in a social cave this quickly.”

Perhaps unsurprisingly, these arguments tend to fall along gendered lines, says Heather McPherson, licensed couples’ and sex therapist with practices in Austin and Denver, who says that people who self-identify as female tend to be more concerned than males. “In general men can have a hard time validating and understanding emotions and feelings and don’t have as much experience with how to reflect that, which could play a role in it,” she says.

In her practice, McPherson says, concern over COVID-19 and resulting marital discord over it has “completely overtaken the entire session time,” taking fights over standard marital issues — money, for instance — to an entirely new level. One of her clients, she says, spent $2,000 in groceries over the past week, causing the other partner to become frustrated because they wanted to have savings built up for a potential recession. Now, she says, “they just have tons and tons of toilet paper.”

To a degree, rising tensions within relationships aren’t necessarily surprising. Global pandemics are inevitably high-stress times, and the thought of our health care system becoming overrun by desperately ailing people does not, for most of us at least, have an immediate aphrodisiac effect.

Yet in theory, the stress of dealing with the spread of COVID-19 isn’t necessarily a recipe for relationship turmoil. In fact, with more people working remotely and couples spending more time in enclosed spaces, that could potentially lead to heightened intimacy (i.e., porkin’), says Curt Ramsey, a marriage and family counselor in Blacksburg, Virginia. “Stressful times inevitably lead to more arguments, but that can sometimes lead to makeup sex,” he says. “And I’ve often seen a lack of sex in a relationship come from being too busy and too tired. If isolation is giving people a break from busyness, it’s bound to at least provide more opportunity for sex.”

In practice, however, this does not appear to be the case. For some, the question of whether or not to have sex has higher stakes than others: McPherson, for instance, treats many poly couples, some of whom have immunocompromised partners who are concerned about having a slightly higher risk of infection. Most, however, are simply too consumed with anxiety over the virus to harbor much horniness. “We definitely haven’t been feeling the romance vibes the past two weeks or so just because we’ve been generally stressed,” says Ashley Austrew, 32, from Omaha, Nebraska. Patricia*, 35, from Philadelphia, puts it in more stark terms: “We have not been boning :-/.”

For some couples, the stress over COVID-19 and its accompanying financial or sexual woes (not to mention the stress of mandatory or voluntary self-quarantine with a person who drives you crazy) may be enough to drive them to call it quits. “I definitely think there’ll be some breakups,” says McPherson. “For the couples that are already at that breaking point, this just pushes them over the edge.”

But for those couples who are more resilient, or at least are better-versed in communicating about their concerns and anxieties, there may be a silver lining to COVID-19: Even at the darkest moments of the crisis, it may serve to bring couples closer together. That’s the case for Taylor, the woman whose boyfriend wants to quarantine with her and her parents. “We’re in it for the long haul,” she says. “It’ll be interesting to see what happens with quarantining together and the convo about his parents, but we’ve talked about marriage before this. Corona won’t change that.”

It’s also what happened to Austrew, who for weeks has been fighting with her husband for traveling for his job, which she viewed as needlessly risky. At a certain point, the disputes spilled over into every aspect of their domestic life, such as grocery-shopping (she wanted to buy extra supplies; he didn’t) and whether their son should attend a birthday party at a trampoline park.

All of the arguing came to a head, however, when her husband’s coworker sat next to a man on a flight who later tested positive for the virus. Her husband was asked to self-quarantine separately from the family, and while neither he, Austrew, nor their children are exhibiting any symptoms, it was a sobering moment for the both of them. “I can imagine there are a lot of people arguing about how seriously to take this, and the answer from both of us now is: seriously,” she says.

But while they’re literally sleeping apart, the fear over COVID-19 has had the surprising effect of bringing them closer together. “We definitely don’t feel as stressed anymore, which is an odd thing to say given the situation,” she says. “But I think he understands my fears a lot better now, and I understand that he was really doing what he thought was right and wasn’t trying to be unreasonable. We’re on the same team, and we always were. The unknowns just made it harder to trust each other’s take on the situation.”

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