When Karina Martinez, 27, moved in with her girlfriend, Tiffany Treibel, 30, in early March last year, all she had was a suitcase of clothes from her recent trip to India. Only five months into their relationship, the couple assumed sharing the studio was temporary, a way to see each other during the pandemic without endangering Martinez’s grandparents at home.
A few months in, they knew there was no going back, and Martinez brought the rest of her stuff. “There was seriously no conversation about moving in together,” Martinez says. “I think we woke up one day in May, and I said, ‘I think I live here now.’”
While they entered the situation in what Martinez calls “the honeymoon stage of dating,” the relationship quickly turned serious. “At first, it was a lot of puzzle nights and exploring new recipes,” she says. “Then, later, as the dust settled, it brought up major stressors like anxiety, financial stress, and the lack of personal and emotional space. Quarantining in a studio apartment made those stressors hard to avoid and hard to hide from each other, so, in order to survive, we had to lay everything out on the table for the other and deal with it right there.”
Converting a closet into a phone booth for work calls also helped.
The couple jokes that the pandemic “hit the fast-forward button” on their relationship, making it seem like “we’ve actually been dating for 10 years now,” Treibel says. “It’s just unlike any other relationship that bloomed and developed pre-pandemic.”
Martinez and Treibel are one of many millennial couples across the country whose relationship timeline was pushed up by the pandemic — and who decided to move in together for a variety of reasons, from protecting other loved ones to ensuring a budding relationship could continue. And they are not the only ones who, after nearly a year of living together, say the move allowed them to grow closer than they could have imagined.
“For folks in the early stages of their relationship, the quarantine presents a choice of two extremes: Either detach and maintain a perpetual distance of six feet apart, or quarantine together,” says Sabrina Romanoff, a clinical psychologist at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City. “The choice to move in together for an indefinite period of time closely after defining the relationship rapidly accelerates the depth and breadth of connection.”
In a survey of U.K.-based couples published in June, 36 percent of people reported that the pandemic caused them to reach milestones, such as moving in together, much more quickly. Of the 2,002 participants, 58 percent said the experience showed they want to be with their partner forever and 63 percent said their relationship is now stronger.
Leela Magavi, a psychiatrist and regional medical director at Community Psychiatry in Newport Beach, Calif., says that a combination of anxiety around the pandemic, as well as the boredom around social distancing, “may prompt individuals to bypass a few relationship milestones and share keys to both home and heart earlier than ever before.”
At the end of March 2020, Michelle Mouhtis, 29, invited her boyfriend of nine months, Andrew Vassallo, 33, to move into her Red Bank, N.J., home. Although they had planned to talk about living together over the coming summer, she also believed the situation was temporary. Vassallo was working as a clinical pharmacist in an intensive care unit, but he also lived with his older parents, putting them at risk of being exposed to the virus. Mouhtis, meanwhile, lived alone, so Vassallo began staying with her.
A month in, as it became clear the pandemic’s end was nowhere in sight, the couple spoke about making the arrangement permanent.
Between Vassallo’s risky work — which he still does today — and being isolated from their friends and families, the decision forced difficult conversations and a profound awareness of one another, according to Mouhtis.
“I thought it would be a difficult adjustment and put our relationship to the test, but it was actually an easy transition, and living together has only deepened our relationship and understanding of each other,” Mouhtis says. “Knowing what I know now, I’m glad we were forced to move in together earlier than our original plans, because I can’t imagine what our relationship would be like if we were apart during one of the most stressful times of our whole lives.”
In a recent Monmouth University survey of about 800 people who are in a relationship, 34 percent of respondents ages 18 to 35 reported that their relationship has become “a little” or “a lot” better than before the pandemic began. In the same age range, 94 percent of people said that their partner was “extremely” or “very” important to their overall happiness and 92 percent of people said they were “extremely” or “very” satisfied with their relationship.
For some long-distance couples, the pandemic offered a chance to rearrange their situation. After spending their entire relationship living apart, Leslie Wood, 29, was furloughed and began spending more time with her boyfriend, Brant Southwell, 33, in Dallas. Even after her job resumed, Wood’s Houston-based office remained closed indefinitely, and paying rent to live without him didn’t make sense, she says.
In the less than a year they had dated, Wood and Southwell hadn’t spent more than four consecutive days together. “We had each other to have fun together with on the weekends, but didn’t get to experience real life together yet,” Wood says. She adds that because of the move, they’ve “been able to really grow together and be each other’s support system during all of the craziness.”
Two months after she moved in, Southwell proposed to Wood. “Had I not been able to have that quality time, I don’t know if either one of us would have been ready for that commitment yet,” she says.
As Romanoff puts it, the pandemic has “restructured relationships” by eliminating more casual dynamics that may have lingered in the early stages of relationships before. Now, she says, “anxiety about the virus, risks related to untethered and non-committal dating tendencies and heightened isolation have caused radical commitment to flourish.”
In Destiny Neekole’s case, the pandemic presented an opportunity for her and her young daughter to leave an unhappy home, she says. Neekole had an open relationship with her husband, she says, and the 31-year-old had been seeing her partner, Alex Keesbury, 26, for eight months by the time the pandemic started shutting down the United States.
As fear of a lockdown grew, the pair planned for Neekole and her daughter to leave their home in the suburbs of Chicago and quarantine at Keesbury’s in the city proper. Keesbury had already begun working from home and isolating from others.
Before the pandemic, Neekole and Keesbury had no intention of moving in together. “The closest thought we had was to be in the same neighborhood together,” Neekole says.
With the help of a couple’s therapist, gratitude practices and compassion, the pair has fallen in love and cultivated a healthy, strong relationship, according to Neekole. They’re planning to move into a new place together this summer.
Magavi says undergoing the “stress, fear and depression” that may come along with a pandemic “can prompt individuals to share painful memories, repressed desires and insecurities due to the longing to be loved unconditionally and protected.” Indeed, she says, these conversations can “transform a newer relationship to one that feels deeply interconnected and infallible.”
Martinez, the Los Angeles resident, puts it like this: “The worst situation ever has inadvertently set us up to handle whatever the rest of life can throw at us.”
The phone booth closet, however, will not be part of it. “We are definitely moving to a bigger apartment,” she says.