Smart Health

Uncoupling After COVID

How the pandemic is impacting intimate partner relationships.

Every time you turn around, someone is talking about another relationship that became a COVID casualty. Perhaps it’s a couple who began dating shortly before the pandemic, quarantined together, but then broke up as restrictions eased. Or a long-term couple that seemed to have it all together, but ultimately decided to split once the world reopened.

Although these stories may feel commonplace, it has actually been quite difficult for researchers to measure the degree to which COVID has impacted intimate partner relationships. And finding out how LGBTQ relationships have been affected remains especially challenging.

Studies suggest that divorce rates have increased as much as 30 to 50 percent since COVID began. Newer relationships, and particularly marriages of less than one year, seem to have been especially hard-hit by the pandemic. 

All of this raises an important question: if intimate partner relationships are supposed to be a source of strength and support, what does it say about relationships—and perhaps our expectations for them—that so many couples have been driven apart by the stress of COVID, rather than turning toward each other?

As it turns out, the overall stats on same-sex marriage are pretty good. According to the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey, in 2019 there were roughly 980,000 households with same-sex couples in the United States, and most of those were married (58 percent, compared to 42 percent unmarried). And when it comes to splitting up, the divorce rate for same-sex couples is about half of that for heterosexual married couples. These numbers challenge the stereotype that LGBTQ relationships are unstable. Yes, queer people are partnering up and getting married. And yes, those marriages can be successful. 

In fact, it’s possible that a unique type of mutual understanding lies at the core of queer relationships, creating a bond that is difficult to erode. This may be the result of LGBTQ couples having to overcome so much—including family, work, coming-out, and health issues—in order to be together.  

Relationship Challenges

So how, exactly, has COVID contributed to the demise of so many relationships? Certainly, the annoyances of everyday life were magnified during the most intense days of quarantine restrictions. Without the usual outlets for relief, couples were forced to spend inordinate amounts of time together, resulting in areas of minor friction deepening the pre-existing cracks. 

Beyond the usual relationship dynamics, LGBTQ couples can be disproportionately impacted by employment stress, financial strains, and mental-health or substance-abuse disorders. These additional stressors can contribute to relationship demise by weakening the resolve of one or both partners.  

And as always, bringing the best version of yourself to an intimate relationship is often impossible when you’re still struggling internally to become the best version of yourself. 

Back to Basics

Starting and maintaining relationships can be tough. It requires you to negotiate a way to create time and space in your life for another person. As you make accommodations for your partner’s wishes and desires, you end up compromising in order to meet in the middle. You’re figuring out how to communicate your side of things while also allowing the other person to be heard and understood. You practice vulnerability, hoping your partner accepts you—warts and all—as they begin to see a side of you that no one else has seen. Expressing vulnerability is an important and underdeveloped skill for many people. Most societies and cultures prize people who appear to have everything together, even when they don’t. The good news is, these skills can be practiced and learned over time.

How can people in relationships find support, strength, and comfort through their partners during trying times? Do you ask for help when you need it, or do you assume that your irritable behavior will tell your partner that you’re having a tough time? 

Do you work to create more open channels for communication and dialogue? Scheduling time to “check in” on each other’s feelings can be a vital component of deepening intimacy.

Getting Real about Dating

If you’re single and meeting new people, it’s important to monitor your expectations. Making assumptions about a potential partner’s character or intentions is an easy way to get off track when dating, especially since we may not always be entirely generous when interpreting the behavior of others. 

Avoid making long lists of “must haves” for your dates. Sometimes the most exciting aspect of building a relationship comes when you discover something unexpected in a new partner.

If your tendency is to commit to others prematurely after only a few dates, perhaps you should work to slow things down. While you don’t want to play games with other people’s feelings, it’s helpful to keep your options open and remember that it takes more than a few dates to get to know someone. 

Looking at your previous patterns of behavior can provide many of the answers on how to proceed with future relationships. What things have you done in the past that work well and enhance getting to know someone? What mistakes have you made that you want to avoid repeating? Ultimately, it is through our relationships with others that we learn the most about ourselves. Knowing yourself is the key to finding the right partner. 

This article appears in the February 2022 edition of OutSmart magazine.


Daryl Shorter, MD

Daryl Shorter, MD, is a Diplomate of the American Board of Psychiatry and Neurology and is board certified in both general and addiction psychiatry. His clinical practice focuses on the use of psychotherapy and medications to treat mental health and substance use disorders. Dr. Shorter serves as the psychiatrist of record at The Montrose Center and lectures widely on LGBTQ mental health and wellness. Dr. Shorter can be reached at [email protected]
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