COVID-19 has affected nearly every aspect of society, including relationships. The lockdown and social distancing guidelines have made starting and maintaining romantic relationships increasingly difficult, as physical contact had to be kept to a minimum to prevent the spread of the virus. Even as the lockdown restrictions are easing and some aspects of the world are slowly starting to see a return to normal, the effects of the pandemic on relationships and the dating world are still being felt and will likely continue to be felt for the foreseeable future.
PDBY consulted Dr Shingairai Chigeza, a UP lecturer and Research Psychologist in the Department of Psychology, on the effects of COVID-19 on relationships. Dr Chigeza notes a distinction between the effects on “face-to-face relationships” versus “virtual relationships”. Face-to-face relationships refer to partners who shared the same space during the lockdown and were, in general, affected in one of two ways. On the one hand, says Dr Chigeza, the pandemic and its resultant lockdown “brought unity”, as these couples had to share a space and could thus spend more time together, thereby strengthening their relationship bond. On the other hand, however, was the negative impact of couples being confined together, which could be seen in news reports on the high rates of domestic violence during the lockdown. According to News24, over 1400 gender-based violence and domestic abuse cases were opened in Gauteng during the Level 5 lockdown. Dr Chigeza explains that “being confined in the same space for a longer period of time has a significant effect on mental well-being, which can possibly cause violence.
“Business Insider reports that Match Group, the owner of popular dating brands, such as Tinder, Hinge, and OKCupid, saw a 15% increase in new subscribers over only one quarter in this year“
One inevitable result of the lockdown restrictions, especially under the higher levels of restriction, was an increase in long-distance relationships, as couples who do not live together were unable to meet in-person for a number of months. Dr Chigeza refers to these relationships as “virtual relationships”. In terms of this relationship type, Dr Chigeza explains that partners who were not able to see each other for an extended period of time likely faced many challenges, and she distinguishes between the effects of the pandemic on short-term versus long-term relationships. Dr Chigeza believes that short-term relationships, referring to newer and younger couples, were likely more affected by the lockdown than older couples who have been in long-term relationships. She accounts this difference to the fact that, “psychologically, age plays a big role”. Older people are able to regulate their emotions better and, in general, have a more stable mental well-being. In addition, long-term couples could also be more used to spending longer periods of time apart.
Dr Chigeza highlights the fact that the pandemic and the resultant lockdown regulations have brought about a lot of anxiety, which was largely fuelled by the uncertainty experienced during this time. Uncertainty surrounding the outcome of both the pandemic and its effect on people’s relationships, as well as the loss of physical connection for many couples, also brought a lot of loneliness to relationships. However, Dr Chigeza advises that, in order to curb these effects, couples must remember that “communication is key”. Lack of physical contact and lack of communication weakens the relationship bond. Communication is necessary to strengthen a couple’s bond, build trust, curb uncertainty, stabilise mental well-being, and build the relationship. She also advises couples to keep in mind that, “companionship contributes to happiness and meaning in life” and that “effective relationships are built on reciprocal caring and interactions”.
“However, a Global News article… predicts that “people may move away from online dating once the pandemic is over”, as “[people] are getting fatigued from technology and miss in-person connections”“
However, the pandemic did not only affect couples as the world of dating was also impacted by both the lockdown and social distancing guidelines. As people were unable to meet someone in public, online dating saw a significant rise in popularity during this time. Business Insider reports that Match Group, the owner of popular dating brands, such as Tinder, Hinge, and OKCupid, saw a 15% increase in new subscribers over only one quarter in this year. As their popularity increased during this time, many dating apps launched new features in response. Tinder, for example, launched a new feature called “video dating”, with which, as Business Insider states, users can “go on virtual dates”.
However, a Global News article, entitled “‘I’m going to bring hand sanitizer’: What it’s like dating during the pandemic”, predicts that “people may move away from online dating once the pandemic is over”, as “[people] are getting fatigued from technology and miss in-person connections”. In this same article, Kristen Mark, an associate professor and director of the Sexual Health Promotion Lab at the University of Kentucky, refers to a phenomenon called “skin hunger”, which became especially prevalent during the pandemic. The term “skin hunger” refers to the feeling of “touch starvation”, which the Texas Medical Center defines as the negative psychological effects caused by a loss of physical contact. These effects include an increase in “stress, depression, and anxiety” and an extended period of time without positive physical touch “can even lead to post-traumatic stress disorder”. However, Asim Shah, professor and executive vice chair of the Menninger Department of Psychiatry at Baylor College of Medicine, is optimistic that “people will overcome the stress and anxiety of physical distancing” and will “learn the new level of intimacy [and] human connection”.
Image: Giovanna Janos