While socializing and dating in person may have mostly fizzled this past year, as could be expected in a pandemic, in some cases it’s accelerating relationships faster than parents might otherwise have allowed.
Parents are letting their children’s boyfriends and girlfriends join family quarantine bubbles.
Even former President Barack Obama is not immune to these changing societal norms. He revealed on a mid-December episode of “The Bill Simmons Podcast” that his quarantine household included 22-year-old daughter Malia Obama’s boyfriend.
It’s one of the most interesting cultural shifts to happen during the pandemic. Parents are letting their older teens and kids in their early 20s play house with a boyfriend or girlfriend, and surprise – some of these live-in setups are working.
As it turns out, it’s not just hormones that are driving families to expand their social bubbles to include their young adult child’s boyfriend or girlfriend. It’s often a recognition that this is a lonely time and that isolation might make it worse for a couple forced to separate during this long pandemic. And, in the case of one young couple in Ohio, quarantining together may have even led to their engagement this summer.
That was true for Nikkie Weiler, 20, whose then boyfriend ended up moving into the family home in Canal Fulton, Ohio, after her mother, Jada, had to have surgery in April.
“This wasn’t what we planned nor was it in keeping with the values we grew up with,” said Jada Weiler, who works in a car dealership’s accounting department. “We had to make a choice: It was either him joining our pod right away or they would have been apart for months.”
“They supported each other during some really scary stuff,” Weiler said. “The pandemic is scary, my illness was scary because I lost my balance and the ability to speak, and we’ve had people close to us that have been in the ICU and on ventilators.
“Their relationship has really grown in this year that they’ve been together.”
Sleepovers aren’t rare everywhere
Ironically, the pandemic might end up prompting American parents to loosen the rules a little bit when it comes to their older children’s relationships, said Amy Schalet, associate professor of sociology at University of Massachusetts Amherst and author of “Not Under My Roof: Parents, Teens and the Culture of Sex.”
The notion of sleepovers may be foreign to US culture but it’s the norm in other countries, including the Netherlands, which is the focus of Schalet’s book.
The Netherlands in 2008 had a teen pregnancy rate of 14 per 1,000 adolescents, the second lowest in the world, according to a 2015 study. This rate is much lower than the rate in the United States, which reported 57 pregnancies per 1,000 in 2010.
“The pandemic is driving home to everyone how important intimacy is,” Schalet said. “My sense is that this is a moment of conversation in America around a culture that emphasizes this focus on individual pursuits and yet everyone is feeling the intensity of isolation.
“I’m not surprised that American parents want to go against their own cultural training of not ‘under my roof’ and want, instead, for their kids to be happy.”
That’s true for Christine McAndrew of Newtown, Connecticut. A mom of a teen son, 18, and daughter, 16, McAndrew never would have predicted that her son’s girlfriend would be regularly sleeping over at her house.
“We’re very strict about our circle and she’s the only one in it besides us,” McAndrew said of the young couple, who take turns quarantining at her home and her son’s girlfriend’s home. “And yes, we allow sleepovers — he’s 18, she’s 18. They would be in college if it wasn’t for the pandemic.”
“I didn’t think something like this would have happened until he was 25, but this virus has prompted things to accelerate,” McAndrew said.
A young couple finds their way
Sally Bedus, now 20, and Chas Gilman, now 21, met on Tinder in February. By the time the country went into lockdown, the two college students — Bedus attends the Fashion Institute of Technology and Gilman attends New York University — had only known each other for three weeks.
They spent much of the spring on video calls — Bedus from her family’s home just north of New York City and Gilman from his parents’ beach house on the Jersey shore.
When Bedus drove down to Gilman’s beach house early in May with the goal of staying there for a few days, she was nervous.
“It was really scary to live under someone else’s roof,” Bedus said. “It was like ‘nice to meet you, I hope they like me, I hope I don’t get anyone infected.’”
Over the Memorial Day weekend, the couple pitched a plan in which each of them would join the other family’s respective bubble.
“It was a big deal,” Gilman said. “It felt like it took a while to get our plan going. There was a lot of going back and forth with our parents.”
After the ground rules were set — they would only spend time with their immediate family and keep other social interactions outside their newly formed bubble very distant — the couple has been moving between their parents’ homes every four days ever since and, in some ways, have become part of each other’s family.
“It’s kind of like meet the parents but meet them for four days straight,” Bedus said.
Still, nothing remains constant for this couple. Their bubble number has changed over time, for example when Gilman’s sister was away during the early months of the pandemic and is now home. Bedus’ brother was also in and out of their circle. There have been medical procedures for one of the parents and they even had discussions over where to spend Thanksgiving.
And in early December, both Bedus and Gilman tested positive after a family member was exposed. Now both are quarantining separately in their parents’ homes.
“We’re doing OK but this is obviously very disappointing given how hard we worked to keep our pod safe,” Bedus said.
Making an expanded bubble work
If you’re considering adding a boyfriend or girlfriend to your family’s social bubble, communication and boundary setting is key, said Mahtab Jafari, a professor at the University of California, Irvine, who currently teaches Life 101 across the 10 UC campuses.
This is because there are lots of potential leaks and landmines when merging two approaches to Covid-19 risk tolerance.
“If my son wanted to bring his girlfriend into our pod, she would need to follow the same rules we have,” said Jafari, whose course teaches students healthy lifestyle choices. “This includes not socializing with other families or being inside other people’s homes.”
Privacy issues, including where and when sex should occur while in the bubble, should also be talked about openly, however awkward that conversation might be.
“Instead of getting embarrassed, everyone should be open about this but that also means that everyone has to respect the culture of the family,” Jafari said. “So, yes, everyone is under stress and everyone wants to be as happy as possible but that doesn’t mean that you trample on the rights of the parents who are paying the bills and putting the food on the table because you want to be happy.”
One solution: Consider drawing up a short two-page pandemic social bubble contract to prevent any miscommunications.
“In the contract, spell things out specifically, such as ‘we don’t want to hear you having sex,’ ‘we expect you to help with chores,’ ‘we want you to contribute to the grocery bill’ or whatever else you want to emphasize,” Jafari said. “This will help your pod function and avoid causing undue stress.”
In the end, the pandemic may end up reframing how we feel about the relationships our teens are engaging in — and maybe for the better.
“This is a period of real learning for everyone,” Schalet said. “I see this as a period within American culture where we ultimately emphasize the importance of human connection.”
Lambeth Hochwald is a New York City-based writer and adjunct professor at New York University’s Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute who focuses on issues related to health, family and issues of importance to women.