The coronavirus pandemic has provided a dramatic backdrop for love stories, and experts say there’s a scientific reason why these stories are especially sweet in times of crisis, even though there are new stresses that many couples have never before had to deal with.
Danny Sienkiewicz proposed to his girlfriend Beth Salamon on April 11 by writing “Will You Marry Me?” on his N95 mask as he served her breakfast in bed. The two hadn’t seen each other in a month.
As a Lieutenant for the Passaic Police Department in New Jersey, he wasn’t sure if he had been exposed to COVID-19, and so the couple had decided to quarantine apart in their separate homes.
“I started seeing some of my officers one by one testing positive,” he said. “I started to get really scared, to the point where I believed it was not a matter of if I'm going to contract coronavirus, but when,” he says. “It was scary because at some point we didn't know when we were going to see each other again.”
When he was finally offered a test for COVID-19, the results came back negative. The very next day, he proposed.
He says at first, Salamon thought it was a joke.
“Then she looked down and when she saw the ring, that's when she started crying,” he says. “And I got down on my knee while she was in bed with this breakfast on her lap. I took the ring out of the box, I put it on her finger, and then I officially asked her, ‘Will you marry me?’’
Salamon said yes.
She says friends and family were especially happy to hear the news in light of the pandemic.
“These are just completely unforgettable times and challenging times,” she says. “But we're just trying to keep some normalcy within that, to still be celebrating our love and celebrating each other. And I know we appreciated each other before, but that's just a hundredfold now.”
Experts say there’s a scientific reason why love is particularly sweet in the time of coronavirus: humans need each other.
“When people are feeling stressed, anxious, uncertain, worried, vulnerable, there is a biologically-based instinct to turn towards others and particularly the irreplaceable other that is your very special person,” says Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby, a licensed family and marriage therapist in Denver, Colo., and founder and clinical director of Growing Self Counseling and Coaching. “And so, I can understand why people would feel even more deeply appreciative of their partners right now and feel an even increased level of commitment about sealing that deal, so to speak.”
Sienkiewicz says during this time, he takes nothing for granted.
“There's still that element of fear. In the city of Passaic, we already lost a firefighter to the coronavirus. It's a wake-up call that doesn't make the police department immune to anything. I mean, it hits home.”
Researchers have found that heightened awareness of mortality pushes people to get in touch with their most deeply held values, and for many people, Dr. Bobby says, that is love, relationships, family and connection. She says this time of quiet when most people are at home, many are able to hone in on what’s most important to them: love.
“I think that when you take all of that away, people are left to kind of sit with a greater degree of clarity around what really is important to them and what it is that they want to build in their lives and who they want to build that with,” she says.
I said yes to the love of my life in “Paris.” ♥️🇫🇷 💍 pic.twitter.com/O8TjPkg3rJ— Erika Diffendall (@missdiffendall) March 21, 2020
Luke McClung, a graphic designer in Fredericksburg, Virginia, had planned to propose to his girlfriend, Erika Diffendall, in Paris.
They had to cancel their trip one day before they were scheduled to leave, due to the pandemic. “We were looking forward to the art and culture – and of course – the romance,” says Diffendall.
McClung decided to still give her a Parisian proposal, drawing a mural of the Eiffel Tower and Champs Elysee on an alley wall in downtown Fredericksburg.
“I was so locked into the conversation that I didn’t even see the huge chalk mural at first,” says Diffendall. “Of course, then I started crying… from that moment on, the stresses of not going to Paris and wondering about flight refunds and all of that practically disappeared. I do believe it all happened exactly as it was supposed to,” she says.
But life after the perfect Instagram proposal moment isn’t immune to the realities of living in a pandemic.
Diffendall, a high school English teacher, has felt the stress of working from home, navigating online learning and the heartbreak of cutting the year short with no goodbyes to teachers and staff. The couple is also planning a move to Philadelphia.
“Despite the moving and job stresses, we are finding happiness in one another more than ever, and we are trying to stay positive and see the good in everyday life and small moments,” she says. “This pandemic has made it even more clear to me that Luke will always be my person, and I’m pretty certain I’ll never get bored of him. Our new normal of sweatpants, takeout, virtual apartment tours, and Pinterest dreaming of our new home has given me hope that we will come out of this situation even stronger.”
Dr. Bobby says the pandemic has brought about new challenges and stresses, forcing couples to work together quickly to solve problems they’ve never encountered before. And that, she says, is when the adventure really begins.
“Couples who are newer and haven't yet had the opportunities to go through difficult times together may get thrown into a 'growth opportunity', as we like to say, that may feel very stressful if they haven't worked through these things before.” She says couples are strengthened when they can navigate the challenging times and come out of them successfully.
The pandemic has also posed new challenges for couples who have been together for decades. In Florida, Doriela Muñoz and Carlos Saldarrianga, married for 45 years, both contracted COVID-19 and were admitted to West Kendall Baptist Hospital South Florida in Miami.
Both have since recovered, and as they left the hospital hand-in-hand, doctors and nurses applauded them.
Dr. Carlos Torres, an infectious diseases specialist, who treated them at the hospital, says he believes love played a “huge” role in their recovery.
“Even though they were sick, they were always optimistic,” he says. “Probably there are many factors, but certainly their good disposition, their gratitude, their hope to see each other again and their family -- probably all of that contributed to their improvement.”
“I think that that's why successful long term relationships are as precious as they are because they are unique and irreplaceable, and they've been built year by year, month by month,” says Dr. Bobby. She says a good marriage is based on a shared history of having their spouse be there for them when they need them the most. She says time builds emotional safety.
But she also warns that the pandemic could be detrimental for couples who have been together for a long time and haven’t taken care to communicate with each other in a healthy way.
She points to the phenomenon in China. After the quarantine was lifted, there has been a spike in divorces, according to Bloomberg. She says this is due in part to something called attachment wounds.
“It is very easy to do an enormous amount of irreversible damage to a relationship very quickly when your partner needs you on a basic level of emotional support, security, feeling cared for and loved in their time of need, when they're feeling afraid or vulnerable, when people reach out to their partners and they feel rejected or minimized or unloved.”
She advises during quarantine to be very careful to notice what your partner is asking for and to go out of your way to provide generosity and kindness. “To not do it, especially now when you're the only person your partner has day-to-day, it could be damaging to a greater degree than you might realize,” she says.
Mikal McLendon says the pandemic has pressure-tested their relationship. “Marriage is all about weathering the peaks and the valleys – so I’m told. When I’m having a blah quarantine day, he lifts me up and vice versa,” he says. “So if we can stand being around each other this much and still keep the love very much alive, I know we can handle a lifetime together.”
He proposed to his boyfriend, Matt Oswalt, in their bedroom after their trip to Puerto Rico was canceled. He filled the room with flowers, candles and Polaroids of sweet memories throughout their 6-year relationship. “I didn’t want our love story to be thrown off course by this virus,” he says.
“There's an even greater sense of appreciation for the relationship that persists and the person that you have, even when the world is falling apart,” says Dr. Bobby.
For the latest coronavirus news and updates, follow along at https://news.yahoo.com/coronavirus. According to experts, people over 60 and those who are immunocompromised continue to be the most at risk. If you have questions, please reference the CDC's and WHO’s resource guides.
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