From long-distance breakups to returning home, our lives have been irrevocably changed
To think that the COVID-19 pandemic lockdown started over a year ago feels surreal to many, myself included. But in retrospect, the year has brought with it drastic changes to the ways that people interact and communicate with those both inside and outside their areas of confinement.
Forced into disconnect, the world has experienced — and continues to experience — wavering uncertainty in social dynamics as we adapt to new, uncharted territory. Whether it is with family, friends, or partners, the pandemic has most definitely left its mark on our interpersonal relationships.
This piece will explore how the pandemic has affected the familial, platonic, and romantic relationships of various university students across the globe. Of course, everyone’s experience differs depending on varying circumstances, such as living conditions, family dynamics, and location. However, it is safe to say that, despite our differences, many of our experiences are shared.
As COVID-19 cases rose, many university students returned to their hometowns — due to either the closure of university campuses and residences or health concerns. Some students who have lived with their families for the majority of the pandemic have found that their relationships with their family have strengthened.
“We’ve become a little bit more intimate by sharing meals together every day and simply having everyone at home every day,” said Abigail Wong, a third-year psychology student at U of T. “On the weekend, we would spend the whole day together, rather than only seeing each other at dinner.”
With the increased time spent together, it would only seem natural that some families learned to grow closer. Several students have also found that bonding activities — like movie nights or game nights — have encouraged intimacy within the household.
“I think, in some ways, [this situation] forced my family to socialize more with each other and enjoy being with each other more,” said Simren Sharma, a second-year political science and history student at U of T. “I feel like before the pandemic… we were just doing our own thing.”
Students have also commented that since the start of the lockdown, defining boundaries has become crucial toward working effectively in the same house. Whether it has been about personal space, privacy, or physical distance within the house, communicating with other family members and mutual respect of each other’s needs has proven to be a worthwhile step toward strengthening relationships.
However, some international students who live in different time zones have found it difficult to forge meaningful relationships with family members during the pandemic due to the awkward class schedules. Studying from Hong Kong, Valerie Pang, a third-year U of T student studying cognitive science and philosophy, said, “It’s my health and my relationships with the people physically around me that are terribly affected.”
As someone who particularly treasures time with their family, Pang has found it quite challenging to balance academic obligations, sleeping schedules, and quality time with others.
“Everything that happens is a 12-hour ‘flip’ for me,” Pang said, referring to the 12-hour time difference between Toronto and Hong Kong. At times, in order to spend time with their family, they slept for only three hours before waking up to attend a university-related activity. Pang found themselves juggling university, extracurricular activities, and quality family time.
“It’s not ideal,” they said. “I chose this, but this would have worked much better if I didn’t have that time difference.”
For other students who don’t live with their family, their familial relationships have changed as well.
“I FaceTime my mom more frequently now than I did back in March before the pandemic,” said Emily Park, a second-year psychology student studying away from home at the University of California, Santa Barbara.
“Before the pandemic, I felt like I could go see her whenever I wanted, so I didn’t really feel that desperate to call her every day. But now, since then, I’m reminded of the fact that I can’t go visit her now… So I put more effort into our relationship, and I feel like, as a result of that, we have gotten closer.”
Given the constraints on group bubbles and physical distancing measures, the pandemic has clearly defined many people’s social circles. For some students, that means they must actively choose who they want to hang out with in person, while some platonic relationships have shifted to a new virtual dynamic.
Pang admitted that it’s difficult meeting with people online. “I still keep in contact with a few of my close friends, but because my internet is not really good, I can’t really do massive online video chat parties or whatnot,” they said.
Another common struggle is the amount of effort that is required for sparking and sustaining newer virtual connections.
“I think when you have people you were just connecting [with] or making [new] connections, then you have to put in a lot more effort because you don’t already have that familiarity,” said Sharma. “I think that a kind of familiar, comfortable bond is much harder to create online.”
For her as a second-year student, reconnecting with old high school friends has proven to be a much easier endeavour. After a first year in university cut short by the pandemic, some new connections have withered with time in the distance that followed.
The absence of doing activities together has also impacted friendships. Park shared that some of her friendships relied on the in-person component for constant contact.
“We would get lunch together, or we would do our makeup together,” she said. “When suddenly we couldn’t do those activities anymore, it was harder to transition to electronic communications to stay close with those friends.”
Whether you are currently in a romantic relationship or not, many would agree that instigating or maintaining a close romantic relationship takes a significant amount of effort. For students not in a romantic relationship, the question becomes whether or not to look for one right now. With the help of dating apps though, one might argue that the dating scene has not changed since before the pandemic.
“There’s definitely a different chemistry. You know, I don’t think [dating online is] more difficult. I think it adds a new dynamic,” said Terry Luan, a second-year engineering student at U of T.
For others who find it particularly difficult to adjust to online dating, solitude may be their new partner in light of the pandemic.
“I think it would be too difficult for me to get close to someone online only,” said Sharma. “So because of that, even if I feel lonely and I’m like, ‘Maybe I’d want to be in a relationship right now,’ I’d rather wait until the pandemic is over.”
Couples that began dating before the pandemic may have experienced a new kind of change: long-distance relationships. At the start of the lockdown, some couples in university were physically pulled apart when they were forced to return home. This distance can have major impacts on the physical and sexual elements of a romantic relationship.
“Physical proximity is a very important factor in relationships, and to have that factor taken away is a challenge that any couple will undoubtedly feel in their relationship,” said Wong. Having been in a committed long-term relationship that became separated by distance at the beginning of lockdown, Wong has experienced both the benefits and drawbacks of long-distance relationships.
According to Wong, one advantage has been that due to the distance, couples prioritize getting to know each other more.
“[It adds] a little more emotional and mental intimacy rather than just focusing on the physical aspects of the relationship,” she said. “And it’s also a good opportunity when you take some time apart from each other to know if it’s something that you really want.”
There’s no doubt that many find long-distance relationships challenging and taxing. Yet, if successful, they could also prove to be a strong testament of the strength of connection between partners. While the circumstances are never ideal, a new and possibly stronger connection may form for those that endure.
For those whose relationships did not survive the distance during the pandemic, the breakup also gives them time to reflect on their individual needs and differences. However, given the limited social contact possible, some have experienced this alone.
“I was stuck by myself a lot,” said Sharma, who had just gone through a breakup at the beginning of the pandemic. “And I think when you’re stuck by yourself and you’ve just broken up — even if it’s a good breakup — your brain just goes into ‘what if’ scenarios or ‘what I’ve done wrong.’ And you have infinite time to think, and no other humans to actually come and distract you and talk you out of it.”
While many relationships faced both ups and downs as the pandemic progressed, there was a consensus among the students I interviewed: the pandemic has made many appreciate their loved ones and reflect on their relationships with others and with themselves.
“I tried to be more affectionate with the people that I love. Family and friends included,” said Pang.
Luan added, “While I completely don’t fault anyone if they’ve lost contact or anything, it’s just made me appreciate far more the people that have stayed in contact.”
For Sharma, self-reflection has been crucial. “The pandemic assured me that I only need one or two close relations for me to feel personally fulfilled,” she said. “It’d be nice to have acquaintances and more friends and that kind of stuff, but I feel like it’s made me more content with the relationships I do have.”
Cover visual: FIONA TUNG/THE VARSITY