Nurses and doctors are working on the front lines of coronavirus — and trying not to bring their work home. But how does it affect their relationships? Below, two nurses and one ER resident talk about how working through the pandemic has affected their romantic partnerships. As told to Emma McGowan.
Caitlin, 35, Seattle
I’m currently in an ongoing romantic relationship with someone in Seattle, but I also have what the poly community refers to as “comets,” which are either strong connections with other people or former serious relationships. We don't see each other much, but there's a short-term, intense reconnection when we do. I have comets in several cities, and while I haven't seen them during the pandemic, our communication hasn't really changed. The only real difference is that we're all being a little extra supportive of each other.
When coronavirus first started to ramp up, my partner and I limited contact for the foreseeable future. That was in mid-February, and those first few weeks were hard. We spoke a lot over the phone, video chat, and text, but it felt like a big disconnect. We both had anxiety about it, and there was ambiguity about how much worse it would get and what that would mean for us.
At work, the mood shifted steadily but slowly. We were speed-training nurses from other departments to work on adult acute and critical care floors, where I work as an RN; none of us felt very good about it. Everything was being done in haste and with little to no training or supplies. Those in charge weren't acting with our best interest or safety in mind and more people were getting sick.
I started having conversations with my partner about what it would mean for us if the situation at work got worse — how long and how thoroughly we should social distance, and whether our boundaries would change if I was assigned to a COVID unit. I saw him once in February when I had some extra masks. I drove to his house, and we did an exchange. I put the masks in a plastic bag on the ground and backed away. I parked my car with the trunk-end facing the trunk of his car, and we popped our respective trunks, sat, and talked for a little while, which was nice. There was a glimmer of contact without actual contact.
I had seen my partner days before symptoms arrived.
Then I got COVID in late March. I was incapacitated for about two weeks and then went back to work. My experience with the disease was pretty mild compared to a lot of people. I felt really guilty and frightened, thinking of how many people I potentially exposed. I saw my partner days before the symptoms arrived, and I didn't know that I was contagious, but luckily he didn't get sick.
By April, with conditions in Seattle improving, we saw each other infrequently for a while. We made the unofficial commitment to each other that we wouldn't hang out with anyone other than each other if we could avoid it. We both have roommates. He was working remotely, but I was still going into work, so I was still coming into contact with patients and coworkers. We both just tried to stay safe in the meantime and connect in other ways while we were apart.
I've had to work to prevent stress from the pandemic from excessively spilling over into my relationship because my anxiety will run high. I try not to bring work home — which I'm typically pretty good at — but it's been disrupting my sleep, and I’ve had a shorter fuse and a stronger craving for comfort lately. I try not to look to my partner to suit all of those needs and all of those irritations. Now, we spend a lot of time communicating about how we're feeling, and then consciously putting that aside just to enjoy the time we have together.
Alisa, 32, Denver
I was in a long-distance relationship for about a year. I live in Denver, and he’s in California, where I’m from. I'm a nurse and he's studying to become one. One of his roommates wasn’t immunocompromised but wasn’t in great health, so it wasn't a good idea for my boyfriend to travel. I suggested he visit me and get tested on either end of the trip, but he rejected it. We couldn't see each other for a couple of months. I assumed it was just because he was worried about infecting his roommates.
When COVID hit, it seemed like he got more depressed. He had quit his job to go to school for nursing, which he's now doing full-time. I wrote it off as, "Well, this is just part of the stresses, and we're in a pandemic. It's difficult for everyone."
He actually ended up ghosting me, which was really out-of-the-blue. That was very jarring — it really upended me. I don't know if depression played a part in that or not seeing each other got to be too much for him, because I have no answers.
I didn't know how much longer I was going to be able to hold it in before having a meltdown.
The pandemic took a toll on me, too, because I was emotionally exhausted from the schedule changes at work and had anxiety about working during a pandemic. The hospital was closing whole floors without warning to save money — and one time my floor closed. I was getting moved to other hospitals in the Denver area for 12-hour shifts, which would've been unheard of before COVID. I had no idea how all of these changes would impact my pay.
I never discussed how worried I was about the pandemic with him, because I just didn't want to saddle him with my problems on top of his troubles. But I noticed it was building up inside of me, and I didn't know how much longer I was going to be able to hold it in before having a meltdown. I thought maybe I should go back to California to be with my family after the breakup, but it's hard to make a big decision when you're in such an emotional upheaval in the middle of a pandemic.
I'm a very open person, so it was just kind of ironic that I didn't really talk to him about how I was feeling. Ultimately, I think his insecurities and shame resurfaced and led to this very strange ending.
Nina, 33, Montreal
My partner and I met on Tinder, and we’ve been dating for about a year and a half. I've been in residency to become an ER doctor, as long as she's known me — I'm in my fourth year now. In early March, I was in Florida visiting my grandparents. When I got home, I worked a few shifts at the hospital, and then developed COVID symptoms. I didn't go into work or see my partner during that time. That was especially difficult because we were getting devastating news from Italy about how the hospitals were overrun, and there were nurses and doctors dying there. It was terrifying.
Right before I developed symptoms, I saw my partner. There was already some tension building because I was really stressed — I was constantly on my phone and reading the news like, “Oh my God. This is happening.” As a doctor, I was anticipating everything.
She got sick with flu-like symptoms, too, after I did. That was a scary moment for both of us. She told me that everything was too crazy and suggested we wait until it's over to decide what we wanted to do about our relationship. But I knew this wasn't going to be over any time soon. Every scientist and doctor in the world kept saying it was serious. I think she was in denial at that point.
I found myself really able to focus on her and the simple pleasures of life, like having a meal and sitting quietly together.
I couldn't handle the uncertainty of not seeing my partner or knowing if I would ever see her again, on top of everything else going on. So, I told her I couldn't do it anymore. She really made me realize that you want a partner that will be there when things get tough. For a few days, I couldn't tell if we had broken up. What do you usually do when you're going through a breakup? See your friends. A hug from your family. But I couldn't do either.
I don't think we ever came to an agreement about the state of our relationship, but we're together now. I think I just calmed down and decided that the stress of a breakup on top of everything else that was going on was too much. She accepted that COVID-19 was not a short-term situation, and I accepted that freaking out about it wasn't productive. We're now in a place where we try to enjoy our lives within the constraints and not panic about what may or may not happen. We spend a lot of time at her place, which shifted the whole dynamic of the relationship. I find myself able to focus on her and the simple pleasures of life, like having a meal and sitting quietly together.
It helps that my workload got a lot better with COVID, for a couple of different reasons. Some of it is just weird timing. I was supposed to be doing a fellowship in California during this time. Part of that was going to be in person in UC Davis, but most of it was actually going to be online. So I actually have a lot of time put aside in my training for this fellowship and that means I'm not doing as many clinical shifts as I usually would. Usually in the emergency room, I would be doing like 17 shifts a month, plus teaching days and other academic requirements, but right now I'm only doing a few a month.
In some ways, I was lucky — even though it didn’t feel lucky to treating COVID patients in the beginning of the pandemic. I didn't die. But it helped me recenter my attention on what really matters, like those quiet moments with someone you love.
These interviews have been edited and condensed for clarity.