"You’ve changed." It’s a phrase that often comes with undertones of frustration and judgement; an implicit mourning of the person you once were and a suggestion that the new version of yourself is essentially worse. It's something I've said to myself quite a lot recently.
The pandemic has accelerated change for many of us, often brought on through reasons or things outside our control: loss, work insecurity, illness, grief. According to a July 2021 report conducted by the think tank Global Future, just under one in 10 Brits had considered breaking up with their partner or starting a new relationship. "In many ways the pandemic has created the perfect psychological conditions to reconsider our lives," the report reads, describing the pandemic as a "sudden shock" necessary to jolt us out of routine.
In 2020, a study on the impacts of Covid-19 by Relationships Australia found that 42% of people had experienced a negative change in their relationship, and that 55% of people reported feeling challenged by their living arrangements during this time.
We're navigating a period of extended pressure to continually evolve, question our values, have a lockdown glow-up, do something 'big', all of which breeds an undercurrent of continual uncertainty. It's difficult enough to maintain a sense of our own identity at the moment without trying to maintain the identity of a relationship, too.
I got engaged in early 2019 and, like many, had countless wedding plans changed by the pandemic. We even gave up on the idea altogether before finally going ahead and getting something booked for August 2022. Today, with my purse in my lap and about to pay a deposit for a wedding band, I am a totally different person from the one bending down on one knee in 2019. I have a new job and have transformed my prior unhealthy relationship with work (more free time to overthink everything — yay!). I even look like a different person — I stopped dyeing my hair, grew it out, gained weight and therefore have a whole new wardrobe. He's different, too. He stopped drinking (which formed the fabric of both of our social lives pre-pandemic) and has decided on a whole new career in a new industry. The way we relate to each other has subtly shifted, too. We're more insular, quieter, less ambitious, dependent.
At this point, we’ve heard and reheard love stories of pandemic proposals, and also many tales of heartbreak. According to a poll of 400 Brits conducted by Stowe Family Law, around 75% of couples who separated or got divorced during the pandemic say they had no tensions before the pandemic began. This is enough to give anyone cold feet, especially those of us hanging out in the not-quite-married-phase. What happens if a long engagement, mixed with personal changes to yourself and your partner triggered by the global crisis, has you wanting to pull a season one Rachel Green?
A long engagement "can be anxiety-inducing" at the best of times, says Rachel Vanderbilt, host of the Relationship Doctor podcast. She quotes Pam and Roy from The Office (US), whose long engagement leads to dissatisfaction and, ultimately, a breakup. She adds: "There is not some standard which says you can only be engaged for so many years, but you can enhance your likelihood of relationship success by setting a wedding date and sticking to it." Obviously this has been impossible of late.
According to one 2018 US study, which polled 1,000 people, 20% of engagements get called off before the wedding. The longer you're engaged, the more time there is for this to happen — which is perhaps for the best. In 2020 it was guesstimated that 64% of all weddings in the UK would be postponed or cancelled altogether. Separate studies suggest that most marriages which fail do so within the first two years. Arguably, it is better that the relationship fails before you go to the trouble, expense and rigmarole of marriage. Allison Raskin, 33, has been open online about her distrust of long engagements after a bad experience with her own. "Having my fiancé abruptly walk out on me six months into our engagement completely changed my view of engagements," she says, before quipping: "I am willing to get engaged again, but that person will have to marry me the next day."
According to licensed family and marriage counsellor Amie Harwick, questioning your relationship during an engagement is to be expected, and encouraged. "If you didn't question your engagement, that could actually be more of an issue," she told R29 in 2017. "It's important to say to yourself, 'Is this something I want? Have we talked about this enough? Is it consistent with both of our individual goals?'"
My concern is that a long engagement could extend and protract the anxiety around these questions to the point where you go over and over and over them, unproductively, start to question things unnecessarily and find fault that isn't there. "Long engagements are a symptom of the pandemic," relationship therapist Charisse Cooke tells R29. "This has caused upset and disappointment for couples, and also significant financial stress, which has added to the difficulty." She adds: "If there are no time restrictions, long engagements can be a special time. A time when couples feel secure within their partnership so can enjoy each other and have no insecurities about the future."
Sounds lovely. How does one go about achieving this seemingly elusive secure engagement? Charisse recommends being curious about the change developing in your partner, even if you are feeling overwhelmed about your own sense of personal evolution. "We are going to change throughout our lives — and so will our partners," she says. "While change can feel frightening, it is also something that can be embraced. Maintaining openness to what our partners do and what we feel drawn to do can keep things interesting and allow our love for each other to be expressed in different ways."
We may have had our fill of change of late but Charisse often sees couples disconnect due to a lack of change. "When couples begin to disconnect it’s often due to things being very comfortable, but predictable," she says. "Complacency and lethargy can set in within the relationship. Reconnecting doesn’t have to be a major change but rather a return to some of the effort and playfulness that is generally evident at the start of a relationship."
Pre-pandemic, I was afraid to embrace personal evolution because comments like "you've changed" made me feel like I was supposed to have it perfect to begin with. But actually, staying the same — especially when the whole world is flipped upside down — is often the trickier thing to achieve. What I’ve realised is that when you commit to loving someone forever by marrying them, you’re not committing to loving the person you're standing with at the altar, or even the person they were when you met, but the person they will end up being, and all the versions of them that grow and fade in between.