Six decades ago, four shaggy-haired Brits declared that, “All You Need Is Love.” Despite the riddles of the lyrics, the song’s simple phrase has remained the mantra of hopeful romantics ever since.
But what happens to love when a pandemic keeps the world on lockdown? What’s the point of swiping right when you can’t even meet for a coffee? And what about all those couples in isolation together? Does the bliss of quiet time alone make way for annoyance and frustration?
To find out how our community is coping, we asked Metropolitans in Vienna how COVID-19 has affected their love lives.
Dr. Sylvia Häusler is a psychologist who specializes in relationships and helps singles and couples with their individual challenges. Since Vienna began lockdown in March, her clients have been looking for advice on how to deal with some of the feelings that have surfaced. “Love has as many facets as there are people,” she says. “Some prioritize an erotic attraction and acting on their lust; for others, trust, tender friendships or intellectually stimulating conversation are more essential. Perhaps these last few weeks have helped some people realize what kind of partnership they’re seeking or trying to keep.”
With Dr. Häusler, we looked into seven characteristic love-life scenarios and spoke to people who are living them now: From dating remotely, to new love, from a long-distance relationship, to the high-intensity relationship of newlyweds, from a relationship entering crisis, to a relationship with kids; and finally, going solo during self-isolation.
A Remote Romantic Revival
For serial daters, social distancing put an end to the moveable feast. No more spontaneous drinks at a hip new bar, no more awkward first impressions at overpriced restaurants, no more making out at the movies or taking a stroll along the Donaukanal with fingers intertwined, no more late night booty calls. If you’re single and ready to mingle in a city on lockdown, date night has made way for a whole new kind of loneliness.
According to Dr. Häusler, dating apps have become the number one resource for people seeking a relationship, as they offer the largest amount of options for the smallest amount of effort. But just because you can’t (or shouldn’t) meet new people in real life right now, doesn’t mean you have to hit the pause button altogether. If we can move our team meetings to video calls and join everything from parties to yoga classes on Zoom, surely there has to be a digital solution to dating.
If you’re thinking, “I can barely stand the awkwardness of a first date in person!” If you shudder at the idea of meeting someone through a camera lens, this writer feels your cringe. But out there, Tinderers are turning to FaceTime dates as the logical isolation version of their dating lives. Surprisingly, some daters actually prefer certain aspects of it and have vowed to keep it going once we can be socially side-by-side again.
Have we learned something from lockdown? Was there an inherent flaw in the pre-corona online dating world? To find out, I went straight to the source: Julia, an educator and serial dater who’s had little success thus far online, is convinced that corona will be the saving grace of our disposable dating behavior. There are more benefits to this than meet the eye, she pointed out. For one thing, it is a lot easier to get out of a bad first date if you only see each other on screen. On a virtual date, there are far more ways to politely exit without hurting the other person’s feelings. If push comes to shove, you can just discretely turn off your service and blame a bad connection. “Do keep in mind, however, that mistreating others can ultimately damage your own self-respect,” advises Dr. Häusler. “So best to take the high road and clearly communicate in a polite manner that you’re not, in fact, interested, instead of just disappearing into thin air.”
The most surprising, albeit perhaps obvious aspect to Julia’s newfound excitement for virtual dating is the apparent return of romance. Dates that go so horribly awry before the waiter has even served appetizers are the funeral procession to the kind of romance many already believed dead. According to Julia, however, after just a few weeks of being cooped up inside, people are again willing to put in an actual effort.
“It’s amazing, I’ve had more profound conversations over the past month than I’ve had in years,” Julia marveled, too young to remember the romance of long telephone calls and handwritten letters read and re-read. “I’m going to keep this up. No one gets to go on a real-life date with me unless they’ve proven themselves worthy on a FaceTime call.” Adding this step is now Julia’s strategy to weed out the bad apples. To all you fellow singles out there who may read this with a twinge of cynicism, Julia says, don’t knock it till you try it.
Jumping in at the Deep End
Graphic designer and teacher Katharina lives in a gorgeous 2-bedroom Altbau with a balcony in Graz. In it she has celebrated many an iconic party, with a close but sizable circle of friends. Pre-pandemic, she had decided to give up her flat to move in with her boyfriend of several months. “It’ll have to be a new place,” she rationalized her decision. “We need more space and it should be a place that’s new for the both of us.” Under lockdown she quickly began to question her decision.
What happened was this: As sort of a test-run, they decided to quarantine together; he moved in with her and they would see if living together would work. To her delight, it went swimmingly well. “All these notions I had of finding the perfect place for the two of us, this idea of all this extra space we both thought we’d require, that all just went away. Now we’re here and it’s all we need.” Her epiphany has echoes for life in general. We base so many decisions on a complex reasoning, trying to do what seems most logical. But then a crisis hits and we’re forced to reckon with the situation at hand. Often we end up realizing that our real priorities are a lot simpler than we realized, that we don’t need to worry about things half as much as we do. In their case, corona made the decision of when and how to move in together for them. And they’re perfectly happy with the outcome.
Computer scientist Rob in Vienna has a similar story. He and his boyfriend had only been dating a few weeks before social distancing measures went into effect, and he was initially reluctant to isolate together. Who knows if they’re compatible enough, and if they’ll make it through, he thought. Being burned before had left him more cautious than carefree. But he decided to take the plunge anyway and just see what happened.
It was just what he needed. “I don’t know what’s wrong with him,” he replied when I asked about the status of their relationship. “For whatever reason, this great guy wants to be all in with me, and light bickering aside, we’re doing really well.” So far, COVID hasn’t affected Rob’s self-deprecating nature, but his love life has been effectively changed for the better.
Too many options are often overwhelming, says Dr. Häusler, leaving people increasingly unhappy. External factors, like the current pandemic, can sometimes be a true blessing in disguise as it takes off the pressure of making a decision and forces people to adapt to the situation at hand.
The Age of Separated Togetherness
For the uninitiated, few things seem as challenging as mastering a long-distance relationship (LDR). Scheduling phone calls, planning reunions months in advance and getting by on vegetable emojis in lieu of hugs – there are times when all this seems about as manageable as walking a tightrope suspended between skyscrapers. But maybe it’s good training is a SARS-CoV-2 world? Yes… and no.
“People in long-distance relationships are used to going for long stretches without seeing each other,” says Dr. Häusler. “What’s changed now is that their upcoming reunions have been put on hold for an unforeseeable amount of time. With their other social connections on ice as well,” she warns, “LDR couples might have to reckon with the fact that their picture of a relationship no longer fits the current frame.”
One couple, Marie in Vienna and Yves in Zürich, have been dating for six months, seeing each other every other week. Since they both travel often, it was easy enough to catch up with one another somewhere along the way. Their saving grace, she tells me, has been FaceTime, email and other forms of social media. The frequency of their communication has increased exponentially, however, since they started isolating, says Marie, and that, in some ways, has brought them even closer.
Others, like Kathie and Jon, are getting a lesson in perseverance. Their relationship is straight out of a Nora Ephron movie. They met 15 years ago when she was on a semester abroad in the United States and have been friends ever since. Five years ago, they reunited when a work trip took him to Munich. As their friendship grew increasingly flirtatious, they finally decided last fall to give love a chance. Jon came to visit in January and was planning to move to Austria permanently at the beginning of April, when the pandemic interrupted their plans. But Kathie and Jon’s love can’t be deterred. “After ten years of being long-distance friends, we’re capable of being apart,” she assured me. “However long it takes, we look forward to finally being together when the time comes. Perhaps even social distance makes the heart grow fonder.”
In Global Sickness and in Health
Rituals, says Dr. Häusler, are important to properly ring in each new phase of life. Weddings symbolize the joining of two clans and allow the newlyweds to celebrate their union with family, friends and community. But even those who don’t take to the institution of marriage can still get behind the power of a fabulous party. So when it was announced that all events would be canceled until the end of June, countless couples had to rethink their upcoming nuptials.
In the wake of COVID-19, community manager Lin and her husband-to-be canceled the grand event they’d been planning for months. “It doesn’t make sense to postpone at this point,” she told me. “We still want to get married on the same date, since it’s our anniversary, but we’ll just do it at City Hall, just the two of us.” They’re focusing on what really matters – tying the knot and being together. All this maturity seems a stark contrast to the effervescence of weddings. In just four weeks, the coronavirus had caused a real paradigm shift and put things into perspective. Had exuberant expressions of true love suddenly turned sensible? The pandemic has certainly forced couples to concentrate on the essence of the promise: These two people are there for each other, come what may.
“When a couple get married, they promise to have and to hold one another, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, for better or worse, but the latter often seems very abstract and far away,” says Dr. Häusler. “The corona crisis has now forced couples to spend much more time with only one another, and it’s up to them to create a new balance together.”
So how are newlyweds coping with this unexpected lockdown? One quite public example is the influencer Christiana, better known by her social media moniker Christl Clear. She and her husband Markus have been married for six months and currently seem to be living their best lives. Their self-isolation is well documented in their Instagram stories, where they make guest appearances in one another’s posts, with unfailing humor. Markus’ countless over-the-top headpieces he finds in their apartment are typical of the spousal quirks they celebrate. For many of Christiana’s followers, watching her stories is a morning ritual, even more so while social-distancing. And her laissez-faire attitude towards our shared situation is goals AF, as the kids say (if they still say that, I’m pushing thirty and already a little out of the loop!).
Their recipe to a successful quarantine is quite simple. “Honestly, we’re just happy to finally have time for each other,” Christiana says. “We cook and have dinner together, play cards, work, have sex, clean up – you know, the works.” Christiana and Markus are a great example of a couple enjoying this time away from their busy calendars of appointments, events and appearances. “Fortunately, we live in over 100 m2, so our apartment is big enough for each of us to retreat if need be.” They’ve also started taking separate walks to get some alone time, “which we agree is very important.”
“Those who know how to communicate their needs are better equipped to handle a situation like this than those who are vague or hesitant,” explains Dr. Häusler. For the “Clears”, who are never short on self-expression, these past several weeks have been rather blissful. “The only thing we’re missing is time with family and friends,” Christiana assures us. “Oh, and a balcony would be nice but you can’t have it all.” Their relaxed dynamic is the the key to non-stop relationship time: Love each other but don’t take each other, or yourself, too seriously. Pandemic or not, Christiana and Markus are on to something. And that’s crystal clear.
Turn and Face the Strange
The times, they are a-changin’ – and if you’ve been struggling to adapt, you’re not the only one. “Usually changes of scenery help people regulate their feelings,” explains Dr. Häusler. “If you go to work, you assume a different role there and can get your mind off whatever argument you may have been having with your partner that morning. After work drinks or a stop at the gym can ease the transition between these two spaces and help blow off steam.” So what if a public crisis confines you to your home and robs you of your breathing space?
Couples that were struggling before might have found their problems exacerbated when the lockdown went into effect. With tensions running high and nowhere to escape to, they were forced to face the music, and for some – like Stefan and Hannah – the quarantine turned out to be their swan song.
“It didn’t reveal our problems, but it made those problems unacceptable,” the videographer confesses. The crux of their problems was that he worked absurdly long hours, resulting in lots of broken promises. “As long as there’s a certain distance, it’s easy to compartmentalize these issues and sweep them under the rug,” he said. “But the close quarters made it hard to deny the cracks in our relationship’s foundation.”
So Stefan had to find a new place at the worst possible time. “I stayed there for another week and we transitioned to a fairly friendly state. It wasn’t until I had moved out that I realized how much negative emotion I had pent up in me,” he admits. He was able to stay with friends temporarily and spent the majority of the lockdown with them – which helped him get through it, but also kept him from dealing with his feelings. He’s just spent his first night alone in years.
“I have to figure out how to be alone again,” he says. “It’s not an easy path, but I think it’s important.”
The current restrictions have hit families with kids the hardest, says Dr. Häusler, “There are myriad struggles that parents are faced with right now,” she says. Home office and home schooling are mutually exclusive concepts that often cancel each other out. Small children who enjoy having both parents at home do start to miss playtime with their peers. Some more traditional couples struggle with a reversal of roles as husbands stay home and take over their partners usual tasks.
“But where there are challenges, there are also opportunities,” Dr. Häusler advises. “Reshuffling the deck can introduce a whole new balance to a household.”
For Kelly and Dean, who are parents to a 3 and a 5-year-old, quarantine has been far from easy. “It definitely hasn’t been the vacation it’s been for some people we know,” Kelly tells us. “Having the kids home all the time has been wearing. My husband has to work all day and I have to carry the majority of the housework load. I know it sounds bad, but I really look forward to the kids being back at kindergarten,” she admits with a chuckle and slight dose of mom guilt. Kelly isn’t the only one who reports a newfound appreciation for teachers.
“If I ever said anything bad about our kids’ teachers, I take it all back,” says Susan, mother of three and fellow quarantine-with-kids survivor. To all the other parents out there, hang in there!
One Doesn’t Have to Be the Loneliest Number
An oft-neglected aspect of love, but one that therapists have reiterated for generations, is that the most important relationship is the one you have with yourself. So we would be remiss not to acknowledge all the single in the age of corona. More than 1.7 million people in Austria currently live alone, says Dr. Häusler, and struggle with increased loneliness due to isolation.
“Regardless of how well you’re equipped to deal with this situation, it’s new land for all of us,” she says. “Phone helplines have recorded an increase of 60% in callers over the last several weeks, clearly indicating that people are seeking connection.” So if you know someone who might be struggling with loneliness, Dr. Häusler urges. reach out and let them know that they’re not alone. “We all want to feel seen and connected.”
During the research for this article, we received numerous messages from single people who stressed the importance of self-love. So if you find yourself home alone in your eighth (or more) week of isolation, remember this: Alone doesn’t equal lonely. Just because you’re not in a relationship right now, keep in mind that no one else can make you whole. In the end, you are all that you need. While it might be hard to look at other people in their happy relationships, it’s important to remind yourself of what you have and be grateful for the little things.
And as for The Beatles, we think they were wrong: There’s a lot more we need in life than just love. But we also couldn’t live without it. So right now is a better time than ever to practice it in all its forms. Whether with yourself or someone else, rejoicing in the fact that this too shall pass, relationship or not, we’ll come out of it changed.
We alone can choose if that change is for the better.