How I Navigated an Almost-Breakup in Quarantine

After going into enforced isolation, I became obsessed with taking baths. I’d run the water until it was achingly hot and lower myself into the tub with a good book, a beer perched on the lowered toilet lid. It wasn’t just the opportunity to drink at typically-inappropriate times of day that earned indulgent cleaning rituals the top spot on my lockdown list. I started luxuriating in the bathroom because it is the only place in my tiny apartment that has a lock, which made its few square feet much more valuable.

Before the pandemic, uninterrupted time with my partner was precious precisely for its scarcity. When our diaries were otherwise packed with plans the occasional empty weekend would inspire long lie-ins together, marathon sex sessions, and stacks of Sunday-morning pancakes. And when lockdown measures began we were still the rose-tinted first year of our relationship—this extended time alone together was a kind of treat, a break from the distractions of real-life and the terrifying circumstances that had come to define it.

It was a time when we both may have preferred to take space from each other—but because of quarantine, we had nowhere else to go.

But a few weeks in, it became clear that quarantine was not going to be limitless quality time. My income shrunk drastically almost overnight, and days later I lost a close family member. Grief and fear came between us, and put pressure on problems that had previously been easy to ignore in our relationship. Minor irritations became existential crises, disagreements became irreparable rifts, and one particular blazing row left us on the brink of a breakup. It was a time when we both may have preferred to take space from each other—but because of quarantine, we had nowhere else to go.

The tension that rippled through the three rooms we shared felt vastly different from the easy intimacy that my partner and I had always shared. Before our relationship we had been best friends for a decade, after meeting in an English class and exchanging numbers on old Nokias when the teacher’s back was turned. There was no romance back then, but the kind of friendship that comes from the messy process of growing up alongside one another. By the time we finally realized that there might be something more between us I’d spent most of my twenties crashing through a string of short-lived relationships, going on disastrous dates and calling him up afterwards to debrief. I developed a grudging dislike of the dating apps that I’d spent seven years navigating. To me, love was binary. I strived for a perfect relationship that none of my Tinder dates could live up to, and became increasingly disillusioned as each fledgling romance that I had high hopes for descended into ghosting or petered out into half-hearted likes of each other’s Instagram posts.

When my relationship with my current partner began to splinter, the repercussions were note only difficult to escape—I no longer had someone to confide in about it. He slept on the sofa while I sprawled across my double bed sulking. We passed each other in the kitchen and barely spoke. Days of silence would suddenly erupt into a rage that resulted in me screaming at him in my pajamas. My baths grew longer, the water getting colder before I pulled the plug.

And yet, after a few weeks, things shifted. It started with an agreement to venture outside for a long walk together. We found undiscovered corners of countryside that I had no idea were so close to my home. We wandered through fields and let ourselves get lost, our conversations as ambling and circular as our route.

Was there a way forward for us when the world felt frighteningly stagnant?

At first we agonized over the demise of our now seemingly brief romance, lamenting the years of friendship that would be lost and trying to calculate the logistics of separation. Then the conversation began to meander in different directions—it became clear that he wanted to work on things, and in spite of my uncertainty, the conversation became constructive. Could we figure out a way to mend the rift that had ripped its way through our relationship? Did we care about each other enough to try? Was there a way forward for us when the world felt frighteningly stagnant, suspended between the reality that existed before the pandemic, and a fantasy future where life resumes? At first, these questions felt like simply new questions for killing time. Then they became glimmers of hope amid the otherwise bleak and uncertain blanket of the COVID crisis.

In our cramped apartment, small intimacies emerged. He brought me a coffee every morning, even after sleeping on the sofa. We tried couples therapy over Zoom, battling with bad internet in the hope that things might be fixable. When I needed time alone, he ran me a bath, giving me the space to wonder.

Months on, and slowly emerging from the strangeness of those few months, we are tentatively building a future again. I’m beginning to see the rough edges of our relationship as the contours of our love, to understand that most relationships are a little misshapen. We live in an era during which digitalization signals a decadence of choice, and when the slightest sign of strife can tempt us to DM slide our way to a potentially better option. To me, seeking out something new always felt safer than the vulnerabilities of long-term love, yet social isolation has slowed us down, bringing us closer to ourselves.

Lockdown made me stay, and in staying I learned things that made me and my relationship stronger.

I’ve wondered a few times what might have happened if my partner and I had fought when the world was a bit more normal. Whether I would have walked out and never come back. Lockdown made me stay, and in staying I learned things that made me and my relationship stronger. As I draft this from my bathroom, a notepad dampening with steam, I feel hopeful that the choice quarantine made for us was the right one. I’ve learned that a love like this is worth working on. That most problems can be talked out, with enough time and effort. And that sometimes a long bath is all the space you need to figure things out.

Graphic by Lorenza Centi.


Katie Bishop

Katie Bishop is a book editor and freelance writer based in Oxford, UK. She writes on topics including feminism, mental health, the social impact of technology, and the business of being a millennial. You can follow her on Instagram and Twitter.

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