Relationships in ‘Perspex’tive: Connections in the time of Corona
By Angel Chew
At the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, a third of the world’s population was under some form of lockdown. As 2020 draws to a close, much of Europe has locked down for a second time, and many other countries are imposing some form of lockdown or additional safety measures in anticipation of higher rates of infection from year-end festivities.
Despite curfews and the closure of bars and restaurants, people have still found creative ways to connect with each other while being cooped up at home. In countries where infection numbers are falling and there is an urgency to restart the economy, lockdown measures have been relaxed. Here in Singapore, people eagerly await the shift to phase three of the nations’ reopening, where group size limits for social gatherings outside homes could be increased from five to eight; possibly greater capacity limits at public venues; and the piloting of activities at high-risk settings such as nightclubs.
But even as social and economic activity restart, active management of the spread of COVID-19 is necessary through safe-distancing measures. Some of these measures are conspicuous — from perspex partitions to SafeEntry check-in stations at every establishment — and will remain for as long as the virus remains, and as long as most people remain unvaccinated.
Moving out of lockdown, it is uncertain if people will keep up with virtual ways of maintaining relationships, or if those leaving the safety of their homes will limit their interactions only to trusted social bubbles. While it is still too early to tell, it is useful to understand potential new ways by which relationships could be forged or maintained in a period of protracted safe distancing.
Relationships under stress
At the height of lockdown, prolonged close proximity as a result of lockdown proved to be too much for some couples. As couples spend more time together at home, arguments over trivial matters quickly escalate into full-blown conflicts. In Japan, the term “corona divorce” was trending on Japanese social media sites as unhappy couples aired their grievances about being confined together. In China, cities such as Xi’an, Shijiazhuang and Shanghai saw a surge in divorce applications after lockdown — a phenomenon dubbed by the Chinese public as the post-pandemic “divorce with a vengeance”. Still more alarming are reports of rising incidence of domestic violence as victims are confined with their abusers, without the temporary reprieve of school or work.
Unintended benefits of lockdown for some others
But the lockdown also meant that parents who used to work long hours could spend more time with their children. Families and partners learnt to live with each other better, connected more deeply, and provided emotional support to one another throughout the pandemic. According to family psychologist Brad Sachs, there is a “shared sense of vulnerability” with the pandemic, and because of this, families are connecting with one another and developing richer connections.
The enforced solitude of lockdowns also provided many with moments of reflection, some taking the time to consider mortality and economic fears, and to re-evaluate and recalibrate priorities in life. Research conducted by the Australian Institute for Family Studies (AIFS) during lockdown for instance, showed that lockdown reinforced the “essentialness” of kin and close connections among families and close friends — in providing both financial and emotional support. Some estranged families even reconnected during the pandemic — something experts say helped boost mental health and bolster resilience.
New ways to seek support and build new relationships
For individuals living alone, friends proved to be an important pillar of support. Sharing fears and concerns with close friends during this uncertain period can help with tackling loneliness and anxiety. Some even took to forming “quaranteams” or “germ pods” — groups of people who choose to live with one another during the pandemic. In such groups, trust and communication proved essential; each person’s safety is after all at the mercy of the decisions of others. Experts point out that people coming together in such unconventional ways to tackle the challenges of lockdown is evidence of community resilience.
Many singles also continued to build new relationships online. While the use of dating apps and websites is not new, previously shrinking usage climbed in March when lockdown measures were put in place. Dating.com reported that global online dating was up 82% in March; the average length of Tinder conversations increased by 25%; and Bumble reported an 84% surge in the number of video calls between the third and fourth weeks of March. And for Match Group, which controls over 60% of the dating app market, the average revenue per user rebounded and even surpassed pre-pandemic levels according to their second quarter 2020 earnings report.
Relationship experts say these are promising signs of people choosing to slow down and extend the courtship process; it is making some people reconsider what they want out of a romantic relationship and build more meaningful connections. Nevertheless, some dating app users say that virtual dating simply saves them money and time, and they can meet multiple potential partners in one night.
With the uncertainty of an effective vaccine being quickly distributed, and the prevalence of asymptomatic transmission, cautious singles may remain anxious about seeking potential partners in an era of safe distancing.
Post-lockdown social bubbles
Just as some limited their social interactions during lockdown to “quaranteams”, others are entering post-lockdown with caution, forming “social bubbles”. These bubbles consist of small, trusted groups of people who all agree to socialise exclusively with one another without minding safe distancing measures. Outside this bubble, all other social interactions are severely limited and subjected to safe distancing measures.
Some governments even encouraged their citizens to form social bubbles when lockdown measures were being relaxed. For instance, New Zealand authorities allowed bubbles to expand beyond households to include close family and whānau, caregivers and even isolated people. The Canadian province of Newfoundland and Labrador adopted a “double-bubbling” approach where households are allowed to pair up with just one other household, and later allowed up to six more people to be added to existing double bubbles. Anecdotal evidence in Singapore suggests that some more cautious citizens are also forming their own social bubbles to provide a sense of safety as they resume social gatherings.
Social bubbles are proving beneficial in enabling socialising and improving mental wellbeing. They also facilitate contact tracing and could reduce transmission since the extent of social interaction is measured. Social bubbles could also allow some families to return to work by sharing childcare responsibilities. However, forming a social bubble can be a prickly matter, not unlike choosing teammates from among your friends (or in-laws).
New normal for relationships?
Widespread distribution of an effective vaccine is still some time away. We can therefore assume that safe-distancing measures will be in place for a while longer. Some of the abovementioned behaviours such as a newfound focus on family, friends and meaningful relationships could persist post-pandemic, but so too could anxiety about meeting new people and limiting interactions with people outside one’s social bubble.
Given the importance of relationships to individual, community and even national resilience, it is worthwhile considering how relationships are changing with the pandemic and if any of these changes will be permanent.
Angel Chew is Lead Strategist at the Centre for Strategic Futures.
The views expressed in this blog are those of the authors and do not reflect the official position of the Centre for Strategic Futures or any agency of the Government of Singapore.
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