Samik, a 32-year-old PhD candidate in New Delhi, got into a relationship a month long before first the lockdown hit India last year. His 29-year-old partner, a model and influencer, had left Delhi for her hometown Lucknow just before the lockdown was announced. She got stranded there.
“We weren’t sure when the lockdown would end, and her landlord wanted her to keep paying a steep rent. So, she had to let go of her apartment,” says Samik. “I was supposed to submit my PhD and head back to West Bengal and join my job as a college professor. Instead, I kept waiting in Delhi, hoping she would return.”
They were so sure it would all work out in the end. But it didn't. Samik's partner maintained whatever she had felt for him for the past three years was in a world without the pandemic—that those feelings were only possible in Delhi, where she was away from her parents. “When I asked for an explanation, I was told she’d gone on autopilot and was taking it a day at a time. I felt like we’d rushed into a commitment and we should not have dated at all,” Samik adds.
There have been several reports in the past year of people increasingly finding love online during the pandemic. However, relationship experts have also observed a spike in the rate of breakups and divorces during this period. A combination of factors, such spending too much time together while being isolated together or having to stay apart due to lockdowns, has contributed to this trend.
With a disproportionate share of housework and childcare falling on women, the very fabric of relationships has changed drastically. According to a BBC report from May 2020, Citizens Advice, a charity that provides free and confidential advice to people about their rights and responsibilities in the UK, reported an increase in searches for online advice on ending a relationship. In the US, a major legal contract-creation site recently announced a 34% rise in sales of its basic divorce agreements among newlyweds, who had tied the knot only five months prior. Mumbai, too, has reported an average of 22 divorce petitions daily over the last decade with a daily average of 19 petitions in 2020, The Hindustan Times reported earlier this year.
The process of recovering from breakups and separations has also taken on a new shape during the pandemic. As NJ, a 30-year-old visual artist and graphic designer based in Delhi, says about her last relationship, “We had been chatting for three months before we started dating, which is an anomaly for me. He was 29, a music producer, and he became a reliable friend with benefits.”
Soon, the couple had some disagreements and a raging fight over him not revealing important details about his life. She wanted to see the relationship go long-term, he didn’t. So they broke up on the phone right before the second wave hit. The sudden ending didn’t allow them to meet and get closure. With one of them contracting covid, matters became further complicated.
“The week I went through the break-up, I got covid and lost most of my work assignments. My income stopped. We were in this weird limbo where we were still talking to each other even though he didn’t want the relationship. It confused me a lot because I was trying to move on and keeping in touch didn’t help,” adds NJ.
Madhav Menon, a psychotherapist based in Bengaluru, adds that while long-distance relationships can be difficult, the pandemic has even complicated ones where distance isn’t really a factor.
“Being shut in with your partner, with no reprieve for your own mental health or the health of the relationship, has been tough. Many of us have had to learn a lot—from coping with the loss of social and professional normalcy, for instance,” he says. “In my experience, this has hastened the demise of many relationships, while taking a toll on the rest. Conversely, this has also had a social impact. Many have begun to find solace in online relationships, which can be a dangerous prospect if you’ve never met the person.”
Most people I spoke with for this story mentioned an overarching sense of loneliness, while experiencing heightened emotions during the lockdown. With lack of access to workplaces, outdoor spaces or social life, many struggled with deteriorating mental health and a “tunnel vision”.
Pallavi Singh, 29, a brand analyst based in Mumbai, separated from her partner and moved into her own place a few months before the first lockdown last year. The novelty and anxiety of being on her own after living together for five years was exacerbated by a sudden isolation from the outside world. “After I got my own place, it was not that bad. The feeling of not being in that relationship was disheartening in general but it never made me feel lonely,” she says. “It didn’t make me feel like I needed to replace the relationship with something else immediately. I chose to work on myself and on my relationships, which are things I didn’t do earlier.”
Singh started going to the gym regularly and dancing again. Even if she was sad, she knew how to navigate the feeling. But with the lockdown, working from home and living alone became intensely stressful. “I wasn’t seeing my friends or going to the gym. The news was not encouraging. Then I got covid in October. I thought the lockdown would only last a month or two. I did feel if I had been living with someone, it might have been easier to cope with it all better,” she says.
For some, the pandemic and the mandated isolation forced them to reconsider their approach to their lives and, consequently, their relationships. For NJ, it brought in a much-needed break from jumping straight in bed with the men she met as she did before the pandemic and instead putting the focus back on to herself.
“I felt like the pandemic prompted a slower way of dating, which I personally needed. I felt like I had allowed access to myself and my energy too quickly in the past,” she says. “In a pre-pandemic world, I’d have gone out (after a break-up), met a few friends, and moved on a lot quicker. That’s not really what’s happening any longer. I am forced to confront my problems instead because there are no distractions now.”
Alina Gufran is a writer and editor based out of Goa.
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