Whether it’s by having to stay socially isolated and away from friends and family or holed up with loved ones with little privacy or me-time, it’s safe to say that we’ve all experienced this lockdown period slightly differently. We’ve turned to Laura Mucha, author of We Need to Talk About Love, to try and understand the impact that these trying circumstances has had (and will have) on our experience of love and relationships.
To write the book you had to interview hundreds of strangers from the ages of 8 to 95 in more than 40 countries – what common ground, if any, have you found amongst all of these different experiences of love?
As I only interviewed one or two people in some countries (Denmark/Argentina/Nigeria, for example), I don’t think my ‘sample size’ is big enough to make comparisons across cultures as I can’t assume that one person in Argentina represents the views of all Argentinians. Having made that disclaimer, I did notice kindness coming up again and again in interviews – with people from South Korea to Poland talking about its importance.
“If that doesn’t give you faith in humanity, I don’t know what will.”
And that was echoed in international research. In an enormous study called the International Mate Selection Project, a mammoth 10,047 people across 37 countries and 6 continents were asked to rank 13 characteristics in order of preference – and ‘kindness and understanding’ was ranked as most important by both men and women. (This was followed by intelligence, an exciting personality and health (in that order).
If that doesn’t give you faith in humanity, I don’t know what will.
Your book combines factual evidence and statistics with philosophy, psychology and anthropology. Did any of the data you uncovered in your research particularly surprise you?
I was surprised to learn just how much relationships can change you. The Seattle Longitudinal Study followed 178 married couples for up to 35 years, measuring all sorts of data, including intelligence, education, happiness and age. When researchers analysed the masses of data, the results were pretty clear – over time, partners became more similar in terms of happiness, vocabulary and intellectual ability. Who we choose is important as they will shape who we become.
This also came up in the interviews – a 95 year old poet called Maurice told me that his wife of 65 years changed him by opening him up to the rest of the world. And Paul in China told me that his boyfriend of 10 years had helped him to understand himself better and come to terms with being gay.
As someone who lunged at my husband (multiple times – and got rejected), I was also very surprised to hear how rare it is for women to try it on with men. In a 2016 study of single people in the US, only 13% of women had asked a man for his number and only 29% had initiated the first kiss. And in an online dating study of more than 14,000 people, women were four times less likely to make the first contact than men. It’s a shame that women aren’t as forthcoming as research (and mathematical algorithms) suggest that you get better results if you reach out and risk rejection…
“Who we choose is important as they will shape who we become.”
On a slightly less uplifting note, I was very surprised to hear just how many people experienced infidelity – one lady in Portugal describing how her husband had cheated on her for seven years with four other women at the same time. Given quite how many people disapprove of infidelity (88% in one US study), I was surprised to discover how often people cheat (up to 70% of women and 72% of men). There’s a huge amount of hypocrisy, secrecy and shame around infidelity.
How do you think the lockdown has positively and negatively affected relationships?
The impact of lockdown and social distancing on your relationships will depend on your attachment pattern. Avoidant people tend to be hyper-independent – their strategy in times of difficulty is to withdraw, whereas anxious people tend to be hyper-sensitive to threats (and at the moment, every trip out of the house and every human being is a potential threat).
“Lockdown will impact every relationship, whether that’s a 30-year marriage or a third date with someone you’ve never met face to face.”
In the context of a relationship, someone avoidant may have felt incredibly suffocated during lockdown, whereas someone anxious may have felt very worried and needed attention and reassurance. For those in an anxious-avoidant couple, that means they essentially wanted opposite things – and they may now find themselves in a more polarised position.
Research into SARS and Ebola outbreaks found quarantines aren’t great for mental health, with low mood and irritability being common symptoms. Add to that worries about finances, job security and the future – lockdown will impact every relationship, whether that’s a 30-year marriage or a third date with someone you’ve never met face to face.
But it can have both a positive and negative impact – recent research conducted by Relate found that the younger you are, the more likely you are to be having doubts. 12% of couples admitted they were doubting their relationship – but this was nearly double 21% for 25-34 year olds. So this experience may accelerate the breakdown of some relationships, but it might strengthen others – 43% said staying at home bringing them closer. (Interestingly, only 17% of couples said they were having more sex, so I doubt we will see any sort of baby boom as a result.)
Any thoughts on how the internet and dating apps have changed how we find romantic love in recent years? And particularly how that might have changed in recent months?
Online dating is an increasingly popular way to find love – according to a ginormous 2019 US study, it’s the most popular way to meet someone.
But the way people date online is changing, particularly as a result of the pandemic. Perhaps because dating isn’t a household essential, many apps have been working hard to keep people dating. One launched a free hotline for anyone struggling to navigate online dating under self-isolation, and another started offering online speed dating where you swipe through video feeds and have a two minute timer before you have to decide whether you like them.
“Online dating is the most popular way to meet someone.”
US data suggests that the number of people using online dating each week has stayed the same. But perhaps those users have been more active – March 29 was the busiest day for swipes in Tinder’s history. People have also been going about it in a different way – use of Bumble’s video function rose 93% between March 13 and March 27, and the average call was nearly 30 minutes long.
What do you do if everything goes well online? Social distancing precludes being physically intimate, but you could go for a socially distanced walk, maybe, and there’s always phone/cybersex. (Perhaps that’s why sales of sex toys have increased since lockdown…) And delaying sex has its advantages – sex can cover up all sorts of incompatibilities, so the ‘safe six’ rule (staying six feet apart) means you’re forced to figure out how compatible you are emotionally, instead of letting physical compatibility drive what might otherwise be a doomed relationship.