- These couples’ readiness to wed can attest to the intuitive reality that when placed in the refining fire of hardship and uncertain circumstances, people are prone to hold close to their loved ones and establish strong marital ties. Tweet This
- "With COVID…it was so easy to have the small wedding that we both wanted without hurting a lot of people’s feelings." Tweet This
- The confined nature of pandemic relationships may have created a unique bonding experience that provided couples the opportunity to learn how to communicate with depth and maturity. Tweet This
Young men and women who are part of Generation Z present an interesting case study for marriage, fertility, and lifestyle trends, given that our introduction to adulthood has been irrevocably marked by a global pandemic. Like millions of my peers, I came of age in 2018—the year that is on record for the lowest number of marriages in recent history. As I graduated college in 2021, I was greeted by the fertility crisis. Nonetheless, I am hopeful that the pandemic created an opportunity to restore these dismal trends by the corrective reaction of at least the more conservative part of my generation.
In the days leading up to March 2020, I began dating a debonair man who attended another university. Despite living 12 hours apart, we managed to forge a rich relationship unlike anything we had ever experienced. Unrivaled amounts of time and energy, thanks to COVID-19 lockdowns, quickly progressed our relationship beyond surface-level exchanges. Central to the relationship was our shared faith and the recognition that unless the “Lord builds the house, the laborers work in vain” (Psalm 127:1). Within a few short months, we were deeply in love and looking forward to getting married.
Upon returning to my university in the fall of 2020, I realized that my experience is far from unique. In one 30-person course alone, over a third of the students were recently engaged or married (or would be over the course of the academic year).1
Intrigued, I decided to interview fellow Gen Z couples who identified as Christian from across the South/Southeast. I limited the conversations to people who either began dating in/around March 2020 and/or those who were engaged during the pandemic. I found 27, newly-dating couples who either have gotten married or engaged since March 2020. Of these couples, all were self-professing Christians and the majority considered themselves conservative.2
Interestingly, these couples’ interest in forming strong marriages (at a relatively early stage of life)—despite a global pandemic—corresponds positively with the findings of a recent study from the Institute for Family Studies: The Divided State of Our Unions: Family Formation in (Post-) COVID-19 America. It found that marriage and fertility trends are further diverging along religious, political, and financial measures with those who are either religious, Republican, or rich eagerly pursuing marriage and children despite the pandemic.
Based on the stories I heard from the religious/conservative couples I spoke to, four central lessons about forging marriage-oriented relationships amidst an international crisis emerged.
1. A Sobering Reality Check
When what my peers wanted “now” was taken away, each began to think about what they wanted “most.” For my religious, generally conservative peers, this meant a desire to form something that lasts: a close, intimate bond through marriage.
Sam’s relationship largely began in February 2020, when he was 21 years old, and quickly progressed with an engagement and marriage by December 2020. He reflected on the resilience of their relationship:
We kept reminding ourselves, we were going about dating the hardest way possible. We aren’t going to face a situation and think, ‘Oh, I can’t do that’ because our baseline dating was during one of the most difficult seasons. Our relationship was built on God, overcoming hardship, and relying on each other. Dating is never easy, but if we can handle building a healthy relationship during a pandemic, then we can handle anything!
The pandemic also served as a natural make or break test for many of the couples I spoke to. Either they were unable or uninterested in pursuing the relationship given the imposed challenges, or the pandemic forced them to exhibit greater agency and responsibility for the progress of their relationship. Heightened nerves, a desire for closer bonds, and primarily virtual communication meant that casual dating took a backseat as relationships tended towards an all in or all out mentality.
As George, age 20, who got engaged January 2021, shared:
There was no reason for us to fake a relationship during quarantine… If our families were not comfortable with us traveling to see each other, we had to ask the hard question of ‘how long are you willing to wait on me?’ Because if this thing doesn't end for three months, and you're not interested in me anymore, I will still need to honor my parents and not see you.
And Savannah, age 23, engaged to Marcus, said,
I had this realization of ‘oh, I'm going to commit to this person and stay with them for the rest of my life. And my floor might always be dirty.' But all of those little things that you have to adjust to paled in comparison to the safety that the relationship made me feel when everything around me was crazy.
2. Resilience and Creativity in Dating
The pandemic posed new challenges in how to date well when students were long-distance or unable to interact in traditional, public places. It also seemed to imbue each relationship with a deeply rooted confidence beyond material circumstance. Without imbedded social interaction, couples had to find creative ways to foster their relationship and infuse it with creativity.
“Normally, one day I would see [her] at Starbucks and then the following day we’d go to the basketball game,” Sam shared. “Next week we would go to dinner with friends. During the pandemic, I was not able to see [her] for six weeks at a time. We had to completely rethink the way we dated”
To this end, Rachel, Sam’s now-wife, age 22, added, “since it was not safe to go into public, we went on hiking dates every weekend where we would literally chase waterfalls.”
These dates were centered around daily, simple tasks but enjoyed with a new appreciation that allowed them to understand their relationship as a part of the daily mundane tasks rather than despite them.
3. Focused Bonding Experiences
One couple described their experience of dating and engagement during the pandemic as the death blow to “soulmate marriage.” Rather than relying on an emotional, romantic connection to sustain the relationship, many couples forged a deeper bond amidst seemingly mundane tasks. Couples discovered a deeper commitment that does not rely on an emotional, romantic connection to sustain the relationship.
At-home dates integrated with the responsibilities of daily life reinforced the character traits necessary for a holistic, healthy marriage. The insular nature of these dates, however, is also one of the drawbacks.
“One weakness,” Immanuel, age 23, admitted, “was that we didn't get to develop our relationship with our friends or our families like we normally would.”
Even so, the confined nature of pandemic relationships created a unique bonding experience that provided these couples the opportunity to learn how to communicate with depth and maturity. Fewer places to go and more time available meant that couples (in person or virtually) were more likely to directly address disagreement, conflict, or critically assess the differing values that emerged from their conversations—something many couples fail to do until many years down the road.
“We had deeper conversations because we were spending more time alone together. I had a lot of insecurity issues,” Ryan, age 22, shared. “[Because of the pandemic] we finally had a chance to really sit down and address those things.”
“Once we started having those conversations, it made our whole relationship a lot easier,” he said. “It was nice to know someone had time to fully listen to me without having to run off to the next thing.” In large part due to this, Ryan proposed to his fiancé, Leah, in October 2020, and they were married this past summer.
4. Permission to Say No to a Big Wedding
Every couple who has been married, or is in the process of planning their wedding, can attest to the awkward conversations about the guest list and budget. From the pressure to invite entire social circles, great-aunt-so-and-so who you haven’t seen in years, or your parents’ long-time friends, the cost of the wedding can quickly multiply.
“This was the aspect of a COVID wedding that I was really thankful for. There are a lot of expectations about who should be invited to your wedding,” noted Savannah. “But with COVID…it was so easy to have the small wedding that we both wanted without hurting a lot of people’s feelings.”
Given that these couples are either still in college, or recently graduated, the pandemic provided a permission slip for couples with less financial flexibility to confidentially host the wedding that they wanted.
The Future is Family
These couples’ readiness to wed can attest to the intuitive reality that when placed in the refining fire of hardship and uncertain circumstances, people are prone to hold close to their loved ones and establish strong marital ties. This is a profoundly powerful message against a dominant culture that would promote self-love, individual autonomy, and the prolongment of singleness over marriage and children. In many ways, the couples I spoke to for this article were already more likely to marry young (exemplified by the “ring by spring” trope each are all too familiar with). Congruent with the new IFS study’s findings, the pandemic appears to have further encouraged an active interest in marriage among religious conservatives, even in the younger Gen Z demographic, creating a further divide between them and their non-religious, more progressive peers.
If the pandemic has taught us anything, the future is family.
Oh, and remember that debonair man I mentioned earlier? He proposed, and we will be tying the knot this January!
Emma Posey is a Coalitions and Personnel Manager at American Moment.
*The opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or views of the Institute for Family Studies.
1. The university I attended for my undergraduate degree is a Christian, liberal arts school whose leadership and values remain largely conservative.
2. For this article, I drew from interviews with eleven couples. Two couples became engaged early on during the pandemic, one couple was already engaged (November 2019) and continued ahead with their wedding plans in summer 2020, and the remaining eight couples began dating and are now engaged/married as of November 2021.