Olivia Lyda is a communication student in the College of Media, Communication and Information at CU Boulder. This story was written as part of a package of reporting on COVID-19 by students in Assistant Professor Christine Larson's class, Writing for the Media. All stories have been lightly edited for style and updated based on new information.
After a 16-hour shift at Beaver County Jail, Brian Nowalk, 23, comes home to his fiancé, Ashley Grady, who has been at home doing online classes for her cosmetology degree. With stay-at-home orders classifying Nowalk as an essential worker, his 60-hour workweeks have surprisingly added to their relationship during this difficult time.
“Before quarantine, there would be weeks where I’d only see him when we were going to bed. But with his days off and me now being home all day, this stay-at-home order has been positive for us,” said Grady, 21.
According to a recent study by The Knot, over 40% of couples reported spending at least 20 additional hours together each week due to social distancing guidelines in the U.S. Based on that information, you might think that couples living together 24/7 would report quarantine quarrels. However, young couples––engaged and dating alike––are reporting positive aspects of being quarantined together.
Tawna Loutsenhizer, a therapist who's been virtually counseling couples during social distancing, noticed these positive trends in all types of relationships, she said, adding that couples are finding new tools to further connect. Research shows that these shared rituals lead to stronger relationships, and during the national stay-at-home order, couples had plenty of time to cultivate hobbies together.
Katelyn Westfall, 34, and her boyfriend, Matthew Kocek, 38, found joy being quarantined together for this reason. After being laid off in both their fitness and restaurant professions in Boulder, Colorado, Westfall and Kocek found more time to connect and grow closer, Westfall said.
“We’ve been trying to work out and hike together as much as we can,” she said. “It’s been pretty fantastic for us.”
However, social distancing has also added obstacles for some couples to overcome. LemLem Gayeem, 19, and her girlfriend Victoria Keibler, 18, have worked to find ways to continue their rituals while quarantining in different areas of Pennsylvania. The couple, who'd been together at Washington and Jefferson College for 6 months, had to learn to adjust to the distance between them, Gayeem said.
“Sometimes we watch a movie together, but a lot of our time is spent on FaceTime,” she said. “Just someone being there, even if they’re quiet over the phone, makes us feel better.”
Even couples with more long-term relationships are experiencing closeness through ritual. Nowalk and Grady, who are coming up on seven years together, have learned even more about each other during quarantine. The engaged couple implemented game nights, said Grady, to have something to look forward to.
“Quarantine has really given us the time to think about and work on our connection,” Grady said. And with The Knot reporting that 68% of engaged couples are making emotional connection a priority since quarantine, couples nationwide have grown together during this time.
While many engaged couples like Grady and Norwalk are reporting closer relationships, so are less committed, shorter-term couples. Westfall and Kocek planned on moving in together in August after 10 months of dating, then, their plans got interrupted.
“It’s been an interesting experiment,” Westfall said, as they, too, have learned new tools together. Ironically, one of those tools is increasing their own social distance from each other when necessary.
“I have bipolar disorder, and we’ve had a lot of conversations about my mood fluctuations and anxiety,” Westfall said. “Sometimes that means him going into the other room for a few hours.”
In a time where everything is uncertain, some couples’ future plans are being put on hold until further notice. In addition, many couples are experiencing stress and anxiety together. According to The Knot, 71% of engaged couples experience increased anxiety during quarantine, despite the other positive aspects of sheltering together. Loutsenhizer noticed that a majority of couples reported “a lot of fear surrounding what is going to happen next, and if they are taking the right steps,” she said.
Madeline Denko, 18, and her boyfriend of six months have battled daily bouts of anxiety as a couple, she said.
“I am immunocompromised, so even when everything opens back up, it’s not safe for me to leave the house,” Denko said.
Denko and Ethan Zeis-Miller, 20, currently live together at his parent’s house. The two spend the majority of their time in a single room, Denko said, which has made it quite difficult to create space from one another.
“It’s definitely little things that set us off,” Denko said. “I’ll freak out and have all day to blow it out of proportion. But we’re working on it.”
While the anxiety of quarantining together can create tension among couples, it can also strengthen relationship bonds. Evaristo Gomez, 21, and his partner, Enoc Martinez, 32, have experienced this anxiety together, just as they have experienced many losses in the last two months, Gomez said.
“Towards the beginning of quarantine, my grandmother passed away. I do not believe I would have been as okay as I am now without my partner,” he said. The couple have been together for nearly two-and-a-half years.
This unprecedented time pushes couples to take a leap of faith together, or separately. But according to Loutsenhizer, this seems to be creating stronger bonds.
“Excuses have gone away at this point,” Loutsenhizer said. “We’re forced to look and work at the core issues, which are usually something deeper.”