Illustration by Kimberly Cho

Love in the time of coronavirus: How relationships blossomed—and fell apart—under quarantine

Apr 15, 2020

The Covid-19 pandemic is testing relationships around the world. Here are some stories from China about how some couples held it together—and how others didn’t.

With social distancing measures in place, the Covid-19 coronavirus is testing relationships around the world.

Some couples, confined to their homes, are spending more time with each other than they ever imagined, while others suddenly find themselves in long-distance relationships, unable to see each other because of travel restrictions.

We talked to four couples about what it’s like to date in the age of the coronavirus.

“I’ve never been more comforted and certain about the idea of marriage.”

Li Dan knew well before Jan. 25, the first day of Chinese New Year, that she would not be able to return home.

Her hometown of Wuhan had become the epicenter of China’s fight against a novel coronavirus, and she was prepared to spend the biggest holiday of the year alone in Shanghai, where she worked.

But her boyfriend, whose family lived in nearby Anhui Province, was determined. “No,” he told her. “You’re spending it with my family.”

Illustration by Kimberly Cho
Illustration by Kimberly Cho

The couple had met in the United States four years ago and returned to China for work last year.

He initially planned to go to her hometown of Wuhan during Chinese New Year to ask her parents for her hand in marriage. Instead, the city was placed on lockdown, with no one allowed to travel in or out.

“His family drove all the way from Anhui to pick me up in Shanghai,” Li recalls, “and drove me to their home so I didn’t have to take the train and risk getting the virus. It was a challenging time, but luckily, I was not alone.”

(Read more: China’s great artists, confined to their homes, capture love and loss during the coronavirus)

For the next two months, Li spent time at home with her boyfriend and his family in Anhui. They rarely ventured outside, save for the occasional trip to the grocery store. Her parents, meanwhile, stayed in Wuhan.

“I would call them every day, try to talk them out of some dark thoughts,’’ Li says. “And his family were always very supportive and cared about how my family was doing during this whole time. It made me feel really warm.”

For Li, the crisis affirmed their relationship with each other and convinced her that she had truly found her life partner.

“I’ve never been more comforted and certain about the idea of marriage,” Li says.

“He was reluctant to see me again.”

For others, the fear and uncertainty ended up severing relationships.

Michelle Fang started seeing someone in Hong Kong several weeks before Chinese New Year. She decided to go back to her family’s hometown of Xiamen in mainland China to celebrate the new year with them.

(Read more: Speed dating, Tinder, and very expensive matchmakers: Finding love in Hong Kong is a lonely journey)

When she flew back to Hong Kong after the holiday in February, everything changed.

“He was reluctant to see me again,’’ Fang recalls. “He’d ask if I had a sore throat or mild fever.”

After she went through the mandatory 14-day quarantine for travelers from mainland China, she says she lost the urge to see him again.

Illustration by Kimberly Cho
Illustration by Kimberly Cho

“It is really hard to quarrel over video.”

For couples living in different cities, travel restrictions have turned their relationships into long-distance ones.

Ryan, who declined to give his full name, lives in Hong Kong but travels frequently to mainland China for work. His girlfriend lives just across the border in Shenzhen, and he would stay with her once a week.

But with the border practically closed—anyone who crosses it must spend at least two weeks in quarantine—they haven’t been able to see each other for two months.

“We call each other every night,” he says. “It’s become a ritual.”

Illustration by Kimberly Cho
Illustration by Kimberly Cho

For Yifei and her husband, the distance was manageable before the coronavirus. He works in Hangzhou in mainland China, while she is in Hong Kong, and the couple would meet up two or three times a month during weekends.

But with the recent travel restrictions, they haven’t been able to see each other.

“He is very busy, so I’ll just ask him to turn on Zoom on a workday, but we’re silent,” she says. “Working from home for a month just makes me feel lonely, and having someone there, even without talking, is somewhat comforting.”

(Read more: With the coronavirus, China’s delivery drivers are now basically first responders)

Plus, “it is really hard to quarrel over video,” she says, laughing. “Once, I started to blame him because he didn’t give me enough priority, and he just turned the camera off.”

Two days went by before they video chatted again. “It’s a difficult time for everyone to maintain a good mood,” Yifei says, “but to help the relationship, everyone needs to compromise a bit.”

They’ve discussed the possibility of meeting up in a third place, but with Covid-19 now a worldwide pandemic, the options are limited.

“It’s just really hard to plan anything right now,” she says. “Hopefully life goes back to normal soon.”

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