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Relationships

How COVID-19 Challenged Us to Rewrite Our Life Stories

How we made meaning, stayed sane, and may have become more authentic.

Key points

  • The pandemic forced people to turn inward, gave them time to slow down and think deeply about their identities, desires and relationships.
  • An uptick in Google searches related to relationship dissolution at the start of the pandemic suggests that many faced turning points.
  • Many used technology in positive ways, for example by using it to explore different sides of themselves and connect with others.
Roman Didkivskyi/iStock
Source: Roman Didkivskyi/iStock

Remember the last party or social gathering you attended before the pandemic? Remember the first time you heard the phrase “social distancing” or “shelter in place”? I’m guessing a lot of people would rather forget. We experienced a collective trauma, and sometimes forgetting feels like a good way to heal.

But with every challenge, there are opportunities. As we exit the cocoons of our “pods” to participate in this summer’s “grand reopening,” it’s worth considering the unique opportunities the pandemic created.

Here’s the big surprise: The pandemic may have given us an even greater opportunity to be authentic in our identities and our relationships. With the time and space to question and explore, we got the rare opportunity for a “hard reset” on our life story.

An Opportunity for Self-Exploration

COVID-19 challenged the idea that we are the exclusive authors of our life story. The kind of shared rupture in everyone’s life story that COVID-19 created rarely happens—probably only in a war.

By embracing the opportunity of self-exploration, many could reclaim a sense of authorship in their life story. If COVID-19 took people out of the driver’s seat of their story, practicing authenticity in identity and intimacy became a way of getting back in. To get back in control of their story, I suspect a lot of people used this opportunity to experiment with new possible paths.

With restrictions on social life, we spent our time pretty differently during the pandemic, and that created new opportunities.

First, the pandemic forced us to turn inward and spend a lot of time with ourselves. We were compelled to stay home. This gave us time to slow down and think deeply about our identities, our desires, and our relationships.

LGBTQ+ scholars and community activists worried a lot about the closure of community spaces. We’ve long known the psychological value of these spaces to thwart the potential consequences of social stigma and isolation.

Research conducted with LGBTQ teens at the start of the pandemic confirmed some of our fears: Teens reported feeling isolated at home, often with unsupportive families. But there was a flipside: They also reported relief from the common experience of prejudice at school and in their communities and positive feelings about having time to think about their identities uninterrupted. They had the rare opportunity for quiet reflection about their life stories in the early stage of formation during adolescence.

For adults, there were different opportunities. Many in serious relationships grew closer and had more sex, according to research published in the Journal of Sex Research. Some relationships grew stronger, some fell apart. Research published in PLoS ONE found an uptick in Google searches related to relationship dissolution at the start of the pandemic, signaling the pandemic as a turning point in our intimate life stories.

Companionship in Partners, Pets, and Pods

Two other forms of intimacy caught the spotlight during the pandemic: our pets and our pods.

 Bradley Roberge, used with permission
Source: Bradley Roberge, used with permission

The COVID puppy boom was real, and it introduced new characters in our life stories and new opportunities for intimacy. Another study published in PLoS ONE confirmed the mental health benefit of our pets during the pandemic: Those who owned animals experienced less loneliness and less of a negative mental health impact during lockdown.

The notion of a “pod” came a bit more easily to those with chosen families—kinship structures outside the norm of a conventional nuclear family. Those who practiced diverse forms of intimacy before the pandemic, such as those co-parenting in consensual nonmonogamous relationships, had to find ways to maintain these diverse family forms. Research published in Sexualities suggests many successfully navigated this challenge, both by creating pods and maintaining connections through online technology.

Time with our partners, our pets, and our pods kept us sane and gave us a cast of characters to keep our life stories anchored. But I suspect it was that time we spent with ourselves that gave us a chance to reflect deeply about whether and how we might want our life stories to pivot.

Exploring Different Sides of Ourselves Online

And what did we do by ourselves? We spent a lot of time online. This created another big opportunity—the chance to take ideas about our identities, our desires, and our relationships we were pondering alone and experiment a bit, perhaps starting a new Twitter or Instagram account. This is a good example of what psychologists call “positive technology”—“the use of technology for improving the quality of our personal experience.” We had to imagine new ways to express ourselves and to connect. Online spaces were our only place to explore and make community. And so we explored different sides of ourselves online, forming new virtual connections, and even possibly romantic relationships.

Research has yet to examine the ways in which people fully experimented with their identities during the most isolating times of the pandemic. As people went online, did they discover the vast new language to describe gender and sexuality? As they emerge into the next chapter, will they use new and perhaps better words to describe their inner experience of gender, sexuality, or intimacy?

As we enter a new chapter in community life this summer, who will we be? How will our pandemic-era experiments in identity and intimacy translate into the next chapter of our life story? The good news is that, with fewer restrictions on social life, we’ll probably feel a greater sense of agency in writing this chapter of our lives. I hope we’ll appreciate the rare chance we had to take charge of our life stories by being mindful and intentional about our identities and relationships, even in the midst of a situation far beyond our individual control. I hope we’ll come to appreciate even more the power of authorship and authenticity to give us a sense of meaning and purpose in the face of adversity.

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