Being together, apart: Love in the time of a pandemic

A lover’s face on a dimly-lit screen, movie nights put off by poor internet connection, and special dates celebrated in blurry virtual rooms—such scenes have come to define love in the time of a pandemic. With half a year of physical distancing measures dividing friends, family, and lovers alike, communication has survived—but only through the narrow lenses afforded by technology. Romantic experiences have been reduced to brief digital snippets; the richness of physical touch is surrendered for a pixelated approximation and a monaural voice.

With lovers separated, de facto long-term relationships have become a reality even for those who had never imagined they’d be in such a situation. And in this new environment, spurred on by interactions behind the safety of a screen, another form of romance has emerged: the “quaranfling”.

In these unprecedented times, lovers tread carefully, seeking to answer whether romance has become another casualty of this six-month quarantine—or has only developed in surprising ways. 

The heart adapts

Though most of us understand the health benefits that the mandatory physical distancing provides, some may argue that being apart from loved ones can be a painful emotional ordeal. Chester Howard Lee, psychologist and associate professor at DLSU’s Psychology Department, advises that to avoid possible conflicts and to build trust in any relationship, couples require “constant personal communication with [each] other.” For many, this trust is founded on an established sense of “normal”—a normal now being greatly challenged. 

For My*, a 19-year-old political science student from Ateneo de Manila University, this sense of normal manifests in a common routine that she and her partner had built up over the decade that they’ve known each other.

“We actually live in the same condo in college…being together was the normal thing,” My remarks, noting that adjusting to separation posed a number of challenges. “I tend to be aloof and protective of my emotions…being physically away makes it difficult for us to connect emotionally and mentally.” 

Lee, however, says that it is possible to overcome such hurdles “as long as the couple makes up for the other critical components to make relationships work, [such as] similarities and positive experiences.” 

For some couples, the lockdown served as a catalyst for developing deeper romantic connections. Erika Santelices (V, AB-ISE) and Paul Robles (V, COB-FIN) are one such couple whose love story began several months after the imposition of quarantine measures. Robles says that they were “always close”, but “quarantine was the time that gave us a chance to [flirt].”

In addressing some of the issues they faced as a couple, Santelices alludes to the five “love languages” and how it has been influenced by the quarantine. “Sense of touch [was] taken away pretty easily,” Santelices admits. “[Robles] is personally someone who has [physical] touch as his love language.” 

While physical touch may not be feasible given current circumstances, “we can always choose to learn other love languages that can compensate for [those] that are limited by the pandemic,” Lee suggests. 

To further aid in adapting to these personal changes, Lee emphasizes another very important part of any healthy relationship—understanding. “Having this understanding,” he elaborates, “will greatly help in further appreciating the efforts of one’s partner in maintaining the relationship even in the presence of the pandemic.”

Temporary stand-in

The pandemic has transformed the dating scene such that dating pools have seemingly been narrowed and expanded simultaneously. While the necessity of isolation deprives everyone of physical interaction, it also opens a larger space and greater desire to connect with more people online. 

Born out of this situation is a familiar encounter termed as “quaranfling”—a type of online dating that has become commonplace during the ongoing quarantine. This kind of setup is often held without expectations:  no-strings-attached, low-stakes flirting to keep each other company in the midst of the bleakness and isolation.

“At first, we were just sharing our personal insights, but then we got used to talking to each other, it became a habit,” Selena*, a 16-year-old student, recalls her own quaranfling experience on Facebook. However, it did not last long; it only took two weeks for the connection to gradually fade out. 

Ultimately, quaranflings are driven by people’s inherent need for affection. “The affections they are normally getting from their friends, special someone, relatives are suddenly limited because of the quarantine,” Lee explains. “As a result, the mind will find other ‘substitutes’ to fill in this loneliness and boredom they are feeling.” 

While this dating alternative is understandable and seemingly to be expected given the circumstances, Lee insists that is not necessarily correct, advisable, or even healthy. “Having a ‘fling’ online is a dangerous game. People can get hurt. Unwise decisions can be made. People may make extreme decisions in the state of loneliness,” he says. 

Selena further expounds on these concerns, mentioning that online communication remains impersonal as people can easily put on different a different facade. “There should be a physical interaction with people,” she asserts, “because a person’s personality differs in real life from their life behind the screen.” 

“To search for a fling is self-serving because you are making yourself feel good,” Lee maintains, suggesting instead that people inspire others who are especially affected in the current situation. “What’s good about giving these is that it returns to the one who gave these. The encourager is encouraged. The inspirer gets inspired.”

Beyond time and distance

Lee believes that the extended periods of quarantine have not necessarily brought about a new kind of love. Instead, what we see is love in different colors amid this isolated, electronic landscape. 

To compensate for the physical distance imposed by today’s situation, lovers must supplement their verbal affection with gestures that show their commitment to the relationship. “More than the simple ‘I love you’s’ in Zoom, people in relationships must express affection through giving,“ Lee suggests. And giving can come in any number of creative ways—bouquets, food, or even handwritten letters.

While the restrictions of social distancing may ask for tweaks in our love languages and drops in passionate expressions, Lee emphasizes passion is not all there is when it comes to relationships. There remains commitment, decision, and the ability to behaviorally express love to our partner. 

“People in a relationship today must focus on these and not use ‘feelings’ as the gauge of their relationship’s health. Action more than feelings is what matters more during these times,” Lee states. 

For some couples, understanding this is what keeps their love unfazed. Reflecting on the evolution of their relationship, Robles says, “Love is not just a feeling. It’s learning how to love someone better as well as knowing you chose the other person everyday.”

Continuing off the sentiments of her partner, Santelices adds, “You strive to make things better for both of you. A partner is someone you know you want to share your experiences and growth with. And yeah, that’s how I treat him.”

*Names with asterisks (*) are pseudonyms.

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