Four months ago, my best friend was lamenting the fact that she and her partner had little QT together because of their opposite work schedules. Little did she know that come March, she'd be spending 24/7 with him. Quarantine has been a blessing and a curse for couples — while there are endless opportunities for bonding, it's also easy to get irritated when you're stuck at home for an indefinite amount of time. It begs the question: What happens in your brain when you're with your partner all the time? And what effect does that chemistry change have on your relationship and overall well-being?
There's hardly a more knowledgeable expert on the subject than Dr. Helen Fisher, a human behavior researcher, senior research fellow at the Kinsey Institute, and Match's chief scientific adviser. Having spent more than 40 years studying romantic love and the evolution of relationships, Fisher has observed firsthand what love does to the brain — and according to her, quarantine is a totally unprecedented challenge for couples.
“We simply were not built for spending 24/7 with anyone," she tells Elite Daily.
Since it's not exactly natural to live, work, eat, sleep, unwind, and even exercise in the same space as your significant other day after day, Fisher believes quarantine presents a make-or-break situation for couples.
"The extra time could be an opportunity for increased well-being or decreased — depending on how the interactions go," Dr. Joshua Klapow, a clinical psychologist, tells Elite Daily.
Both experts agree that how your brain responds under the circumstances largely depends on your relationship's health and quality coming into quarantine.
"If you’re in a very happy partnership, spending more time with them will drive up the dopamine system, giving you optimism, energy, and motivation, boosting the immune system, and increasing the pain threshold," says Fisher.
Some of these feel-good brain chemicals are actually within your control, too. According to Fisher, physical touch can play a significant role in your brain's response during quarantine. Don't underestimate the power of a simple hug or a kiss — these acts can trigger a release of oxytocin, which results in feelings of deeper attachment to your partner. A Harvard Medical School report notes that oxytocin is responsible for feelings of calmness and security, which are arguably much needed during a global crisis (like a pandemic). BTW — since orgasms cause a flood of oxytocin, Fisher emphasizes that an active sex life during can make a big difference in your contentment during quarantine.
On the other hand, what happens in your brain during quarantine if your relationship is on the rocks looks quite different.
"If you’re trapped in a partnership that doesn’t work, that’s very stressful — and chronic stress drives down the dopamine system, and can make you feel lethargic and depressed and hostile," explains Fisher.
Klapow adds that how you feel about the level of interaction with your partner can come into play as well. If, for example, you become frustrated about constantly spending time together, that may trigger a stress response in the brain, activating the sympathetic nervous system and pumping adrenaline into the bloodstream (also known as the fight-or-flight response).
Given that dopamine's got a solid reputation as the "feel-good" chemical, it makes sense why this neurotransmitter is strongly associated with the endlessly exciting process of falling in love, when your heart races from merely being in the presence of your new partner. When you're first getting to know someone, the dopamine levels are high due to a constant stream of novel experiences — like your first kiss, your first road trip, and those all-night convos that continue to reveal new and interesting information about each other. So, if dopamine levels depend on novelty, what happens to that neurotransmitter when you're stuck at home with your SO day after day?
One might assume that quarantine would be a dopamine killer, but in fact, Fisher explains that it's motivating many people to shake things up. Not only are lots of couples embracing new hobbies, but they're also trying out new recipes in the kitchen, getting creative in bed, and experimenting with new workouts or bonding routines. Since doing something unfamiliar triggers that sought-after dopamine rush associated with romantic love, all of these efforts help to re-ignite that passion that's characteristic of the "honeymoon phase."
“Romantic love is a very sticky, powerful substance,” says Fisher. “And as long as you’re compatible, that can keep blossoming in lockdown.”
Fisher has witnessed the effects of this firsthand. Recently, on her boyfriend's birthday, they made a plan to dress up for his celebratory dinner — and she swooned when he showed up in a full-on tuxedo. This experience of sharing a meal at home in swanky attire was new and different, which is precisely why it was so powerful. Dr. Fisher and her boyfriend have also been playing self-revealing games in quarantine, which keep things interesting by revealing a steady stream of surprising and delightful insights about each other.
As they say, it is possible to have too much of a good thing — and that includes QT with your one and only. So, if you start noticing that every little thing your partner does is driving you up a wall, consider that you may just need to set some healthy boundaries and make time for some solo activities — like going for a walk, meditating, or FaceTiming with a friend.
“Even the closest of partners need individual time,” says Klapow. “It’s critical to the health of the relationship.”
Fisher agrees, adding that she advises carving out a safe space where you can decompress and practice self-care. It doesn't matter if you choose to use that space to read, journal, listen to music, or do something else entirely. Knowing you have a designated location where you can enjoy some uninterrupted alone time may help to relieve some of the pressure on your relationship — especially during a conflict when you need a breather before things escalate.
Spending all this time together can have an undeniable impact on your brain chemistry, but the type of effect it has is determined by how healthy and happy your relationship is. Are you able to maintain some autonomy, or is your SO infringing on your personal space a lot? Have you and your partner found a shared interest or hobby in quarantine, or have you only discovered new differences that are difficult to overcome? Most importantly, it all comes down to how invested you both are in continuing to bond through physical touch, novel experiences, and so on.
"The brain is always changing, and responding to what’s happening in complex ways," says Fisher. "Catastrophes move you to the next step in life. That means quarantine will push you one way or the other — either toward each other or away from each other."
So, which will it be?
Dr. Helen Fisher, biological anthropologist and researcher
Dr. Joshua Klapow, clinical psychologist