How gen Z couples are coping with self isolating apart
We spoke to young romantics and relationship experts to find out how to sustain a relationship while you can't see one another for 12 weeks. Stay safe and sane and read their advice.
In a plot twist straight out of Love Island, earlier this month the UK government told couples to either live together or separate for 12 entire weeks as part of lockdown measures to prevent the spread of COVID-19. While necessary to flatten the curve, the ultimatum was crushing for many young people who don't live with their partners. They now face the prospect of months spent apart from the person they spend the most time with in normal circumstances.
For most gen-Zers still living with their families, isolating without their partners has been the only option. And while love at any stage can be intense, these dizzying highs are usually at their most potent during early romance, first loves and childhood sweethearts, making separation all the more heart-rending for some. Too young to fully recall 9/11 or the 2008 financial crash, coronavirus is for many of us, our first major global crisis. Despite coming under fire for corona-nihilism, and a morbid ‘boomer remover’ meme, this generation are no doubt struggling with having our lives, our relationships and our education put on hold.
“Gen Z already have higher levels of anxiety than the generations above it,” explains psychologist and relationship expert Dr. Jennifer B. Rhodes. “And now, they’ve been thrown into a crisis where they don’t have the tools they’d develop in later life to manage their emotions… It can be incredibly overwhelming.”
“For people starting their adult journeys, healthy relationships can ground them and help to manage their anxiety,” Dr. Rhodes continues. That's one reason why having the stabilising force of a relationship upended can be so distressing. Since finding out about the lockdown, Tegan, a 19-year-old from Cornwall, says she's cried almost every day at the prospect of not seeing her 'childhood sweetheart'. “It’s usually a mess in my room because of him,” Tegan says of Liam, also 19. “And now, I miss it being a mess, even though I’m a neat freak.”
“At night, when I'm in my bed alone and there's no warmth there, is what I’m finding most hard,” Tegan continues. Liam will sometimes send her a funny meme when he senses she's feeling low, or she’ll look at pictures of them cuddling, saying: “it sounds weird, but I can feel it, how I felt then.” Dr. Rhodes attributes this to a lack of oxytocin -- the chemical produced during hugging. “Being separated, you’re thrown hormonally out of balance,” she adds, “a factor likely to worsen the anxiety.”
Anxiety, and general despondency over feeling like there’s nothing to look forward to, can be another hurdle to effective communication, something that's in normal circumstances crucial to maintaining healthy relationships. “It’s a different kind of relationship,” Fleur, 16, says of love under lockdown with her boyfriend. “We haven’t really had much to say to each other," says the Sheffield based teenager. "You can’t really ask how their day has been because we’re not doing much, or make any weekend plans.”
The fact that most gen-Zers are averse to talking over the phone can also exacerbate the lack of meaningful connection. Seamus, a 20-year-old trans man from Dublin, admits that he finds phone calls particularly difficult, as he often feels unable to “read” his girlfriend. "I'm a physical person”, says Seamus. "I prefer to show my emotions usually, rather than speak about them.” But Seamus has been forced to adapt quickly, now speaking to girlfriend Sara for around six hours a day since the lockdown began, usually over FaceTime. Not all of this time is spent talking, however, as the couple will often engage in virtual activities, such as live-streaming drag shows together over video-call.
Other gen Z-ers are acclimatising by finding more creative ways to sustain their fledgling romances while apart. TikTok users have been creating sentimental photomontages of their other halves – or using the platform to lament their partner’s gaming console addictions.
Over on YouTube, couples like Holly, 18, from West Sussex, and Max, 19, from Kent, have been vlogging their separation. The pair, who met at University and have been dating for six months, say they are harnessing their channel to “spread positivity”, and to fill each other in on their daily lives.
Episodes so far have focused mainly on the minutiae of life under lockdown, from the couple’s daily exercises, to meal preps, and household chores. Behind his relentless optimism on camera, Max admits he’s been struggling with missing Holly: “it’s been quite painful sometimes,” he says. “I think it’s made me realise how much I love her, and that I couldn’t live without her.”
Outside of their YouTube channel, Max and Holly have been playing online games like 8 Ball Pool and Words With Friends. Dr. Rhodes says that this kind of activity-based connection can actually be “more beneficial” for relationships, than, say, “a 10 hour phone-call,” and that as a society, we place far too much emphasis on verbal communication. Fleur, meanwhile, is hoping that games on Houseparty and over iMessage will inject some fun into her relationship with Sam, and help them to build “a new normal”.
But for some, the adjustment is easier than others. Cassidy, a 17-year-old from London, says communicating almost entirely online with her girlfriend Jade has been a relatively seamless transition. Attending different schools and living an hour away from each other has meant that most of their relationship has been built and sustained online. "Long distance is do-able," Cassidy says. "As long as you keep on communicating your feelings to one another." This kind of perspective, and emotional resilience, will likely determine which young relationships die out and which survive. "It’s about protecting that beautiful connection from the stress of what’s going on,” explains Dr. Rhodes. Cassidy says she contacts friends just as much as she talks to her girlfriend, and that her relationship is, if anything, “a distraction from quarantine”.
For a hyperconnected generation, lockdown still remains a daunting prospect for many couples longing for IRL experiences with their partner. On top of this, they're processing immense anxiety, which makes coronavirus “the most anti-seductive situation ever,” says Dr. Rhodes. Embracing new forms of interactivity – whether it’s gaming, streaming parties, digital clubbing, or content creation – may prove vital for those wanting to sustain their romances.
Inevitably, some relationships will wilt and die, but either way, COVID-19 will be seared in gen Z’s collective consciousness for a lifetime.