A little more than a month ago, Kesse, 29, traveled to visit a dear friend of his, and as they hung out together, he realized that he had developed feelings for her. At the time, he decided to keep his feelings a secret. But after they parted and he went home to Germany, she informed him that she’d come down with COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus that has rapidly infected more than 1 million people across the globe. Kesse immediately became “incredibly worried for her life and safety”—and then he, too, began to feel unwell. He has been recovering for the past two weeks from an illness he believes to be COVID-19, though he says he’s been unable to get a test.
Kesse eventually went to the emergency room, and “seeing so many people [there] in pain, some of them dying, had an impact on me,” he told me. He’d lost loved ones before, and began to worry that if he succumbed to the virus, his friend would never know how much she meant to him. “Being ill and seeing people in a worse state than myself made me decide I didn’t want to waste time pretending not to have the feelings I have.” The next day, he told her he liked her.
As the COVID-19 pandemic has rapidly, dramatically altered daily life all over the globe, this has been one of the more surprising effects: Thanks to a potent mixture of anxiety, boredom, loneliness, and cabin fever–induced recklessness, people are revealing their feelings to the objects of their affection—“shooting their shot,” so to speak. In some cases, this is because social-distancing measures have forced most interactions to take place remotely or virtually, lowering the stakes considerably; in other cases, like Kesse’s, it’s because the stakes are now higher than ever. In just about every case, though, it’s safe to say that either the coronavirus pandemic or the protocols that have come with it have changed the trajectory of the relationship between the two people in question.
None of this surprises Sandra Langeslag, who studies the neuroscience of emotion and motivation at the University of Missouri at St. Louis. Of course people’s romantic impulses are going somewhat haywire under the circumstances. For one thing, people who are suddenly cooped up at home without anywhere to go or anyone to see “may just have more time to think about another person, and are then more likely to act on it,” she told me.
Some people have come to the conclusion that confessing their feelings will be easier when the object of those feelings is far away—and out of range of any awkward encounters if things go badly. Marin, a 19-year-old college student, had been eyeing a classmate of hers all semester, and in mid-March, when it was announced that students would all be dismissed from campus for the rest of the year because of coronavirus concerns, she texted her crush to ask if he’d like to hang out and get to know each other better. If he said yes, they could get together in the next 48 hours, before everyone went home—and if he said no, she reasoned, they didn’t have the same major, so she’d probably never have to see the guy again.
Initially, Marin told me, her crush opened the text and didn’t respond. (Marin, like most people I interviewed for this story, requested to be referred to by just her first name, for fear of being forever linked online to an embarrassing story. As she put it, “Nobody wants their last name included in a story about them getting left on read!”) Hours later, he texted back: Who is this? “It was pretty rough,” she said. Still, she told me, she’s glad she said something. Although her tale of bravery came to a pretty humbling denouement, if she hadn’t spoken up, she might still be hung up on what might have been.
Others have been inspired to profess their feelings not because quarantine is keeping them safe from any uncomfortable run-ins, but because of the deadly threat of the coronavirus itself. “Because this is an emergency situation, people may think about what really matters to them in life,” Langeslag said.
Savanah, 20, told me that she first contemplated telling her crush she liked him when it came up as a joke: Offhandedly, she’d remarked to a friend that maybe it was time to tell her crush that she liked him—so that if, God forbid, the virus took her or her crush, “at least I’d had the nerve to tell him.” As she thought about it, though, the idea became less and less ridiculous. Savanah and this guy were good friends, and because she’d traveled a few states away to shelter in place with her family, he was far away now. She missed him. She had no way of knowing when she would see him again. Why not now? She composed a text—“Okay so before the coronavirus possibly wipes us out, I guess I’ll tell you that I may or may not have this little crush on you or whatever, lol”—and sent it.
The emotional side effects of the coronavirus pandemic can, it’s worth noting, create ideal conditions for something researchers like Langeslag call “misattribution of arousal.” Misattribution of arousal, she explained, is when people mistake emotional or physical stimulation for sexual or romantic stimulation. “Being in an emergency situation, or any situation that makes you very emotional, could lead you to then attribute that resulting arousal to someone else, leading you to find that person more attractive,” Langeslag said. For instance, feeling anxious or frightened because a pandemic is raging across the globe could lead someone to mistake their heightened feelings about the chaos unfolding outside for heightened feelings toward someone they like—and then feel the need to confess them.
While absence and worry seem to make the heart grow fonder, so do close quarters: Adam, 30, quite literally can’t escape his feelings for his roommate, with whom he’s quarantined in a two-man apartment.
Adam, who chatted with me on Google Hangouts so that his roommate wouldn’t overhear a phone conversation, said he’d started having fond feelings a few months ago, but things had really escalated since both his and his roommate’s offices had closed. “Once you start spending 8 to 12 hours a day together, it kinda forces you to confront the things you can put off with work,” he wrote. Once they were housebound, Adam said, they quickly fell into an everyday routine—working in close quarters, checking in on each other during breaks, taking walks together. This felt so much like a relationship that Adam found himself accidentally describing himself and his roommate as though they were already an item. “I’ve definitely slipped the ‘we’ word [into conversation] a few times,” he told me.
When we spoke, Adam hadn’t yet confessed his feelings to his roommate, but said he was leaning toward telling him. Still, he didn’t want to throw a functional and happy roommate situation—already difficult to come by, especially under the current stressful conditions—into jeopardy. “It’s very emotionally confusing,” he said.
Indeed, every big leap of faith these days will mean new realities to face once everyone emerges on the other side. Adam could come out of self-isolation weeks or months from now in a new relationship—or in need of a new roommate. Kesse, who told me his friend has recovered fully but has been somewhat distant since he confessed his feelings, may need to figure out where his long-standing friendship will go from here. Marin, when she returns to school, will have one new person to avoid on campus, but a pretty good story for anybody who wants to hear one.
And Savanah—who told me her friend seemed appreciative of her just-in-case declaration when he responded, “You never know”—could emerge from all of this with a friendship that’s about to become something more. For the many people who have chosen the chaotic present moment to make their feelings known, that thin, shining strand of hope might be enough to pull them through.