“Anyone else breaking up through the pandemic?” reads one subject line. “My [23F] partner [24M] isn’t taking quarantine seriously and keeps making unnecessary trips to see his family,” reads another.
Reddit’s relationship_advice subreddit has always been a melange of the mundane—women fretting over their boyfriends’ porn viewing habits, soliciting the audience on whether partners should know each others’ iPhone passcodes—and the absolutely unforgettable—that brother and sister were definitely fucking, right? But covid-19 has introduced a new dimension to the subreddit boasting 2.8 million subscribers, raising the stakes for every lover’s quarrel. Social distancing mandates have placed extra significance on who one is isolated with—by choice or otherwise—and confined at home there are limited authorities to adjudicate any strife. So people are placing their bets on Reddit users to provide answers to their relationship woes that the CDC and WHO simply do not.
“We’ve seen a stunning number of posts describing scenarios where social distancing was deliberately ignored despite living in countries or jurisdictions where it’s either encouraged or enforced,” Bryant Zadegan, one of the moderators of relationship_advice, wrote in an email. (He specified that his answers apply to other lead moderators as well.) “The result is two polarized groups: one acutely affected by the stresses of isolation, another with not a care in the world about the risks of COVID-19.”
These groups—one obsessively using the Stay Home sticker on Instagram, the other still operating as normal—have forced the subreddit’s moderators to monitor an increasingly chaotic forum during a uniquely chaotic time. Throw in the added stressor of posters alleging abuse, in a moment when exiting a romantic relationship is particularly difficult, and you’ve got a constant stream of concerning content. Anyone hoping to poke around relationship_advice and find funny horror stories of people trapped with their partners who can never find the ketchup will find that the lighthearted content is mixed with anecdote after anecdote of people in desperate situations that covid-19 has only made direr. Moderators and contributors are becoming the people’s therapist when they could likely use some mental TLC of their own.
Reddit has a reputation of being an internet cesspool, where some of the worst men on the planet shitpost as if they alone sustain the internet’s life force, but there are plenty of subreddits where sincerity usually tends to outweigh drama. Relationship_advice is one of those spaces, and perhaps even more so as covid-19 continues to generate chaos. Most of the relationship advice has been doled out the same as it always has, with just an added dose of public safety: Keep self-isolating, be practical, and break up with that asshole already.
It’s difficult to confirm the veracity of any relationship_advice post. Some just sound as if they were designed to bait outrage from so-called SJWs that they come across as phony, while others are so horrific that you hope that they’re fake for the sake of everyone’s sanity (though I very much want to believe the one about the person who, during quarantine, discovered their roommate puts sex toys in the dishwasher). But while there’s a chance that some of the covid-19-related relationship_advice posts that stuck with me might be fabricated, I’m inclined to believe; if there’s anything that will make people across the globe realize how insufferable their partners are, it’s a pandemic that forces them to share space and ration resources with them.
For example, there’s this scenario (emphasis mine):
We’ve been quarantined for days and I’m sick of his mess, I can’t deal with it. Socks and underwear everywhere, hair on the bathroom floor and sink, he literally shit on the toilet seat yesterday and didn’t clean it and had the audacity to say it wasn’t him, he masturbated in the shower and left his evidence on the shower wall. I’m seriously so unattracted to him and I don’t know what to do. Do I make a checklist for him so he doesn’t forget? What the fuck am I supposed to do? I’ve started using the guest bathroom and I am at ease knowing it’s clean and any mess is my own.
In the subreddit, several women complain about the inconsiderate behavior of the men they’re romantically attached to in this pandemic. One woman lamented about her partner ignoring the social distancing suggestions and complained that he was going on bar crawls, booking a roundtrip flight on the cheap, and ignoring her precautions because he believed covid-19 was overhyped. As a hospital employee, the poster was aware the issue was serious, and once she threatened to quit seeing him if he continued to ignore social distancing, he apologized and got the hint. Or so she thought:
He’s still visiting his family. They had a cousin get together today and he went shopping with his dad. He hung out with his brother the other day. His family is pretty big so he’s interacting with a lot of people.
What’s worse is that I was stupid enough to see him last week. He told me that he was taking it seriously and not leaving the house except for groceries or to see me. That was a lie.
And now I’m sick and he potentially spread COVID-19 to his family members including his older father.
The replies were gentle, but firm: This dude sucks. “A breakup while quarantined sounds miserable, but so does resenting someone for the rest of my relationship,” one woman replied. “Good luck sis.”
“Honestly a lot of relationships won’t survive Covid-19,” said another. “You are seeing that your partner is selfish in addition to being foolhardy. He also put you at risk by lying to you. It makes you wonder, are these qualities I want in a partner?”
The feedback helped the original poster make her decision. In an edit, she added, “I have decided that I am 100% not seeing him now at all during this situation. We were debating on quarantining together, but that’s completely off the table.”
In another post, a poster says his girlfriend is threatening to break up with him because he is in quarantine and won’t see her. He insists that he’s just trying to follow guidelines and stay safe upon returning home after studying abroad for the last several months. “I am not even sure if I am going to be able to see her after my quarantine period is over since the state we live in is being put on lockdown,” the poster said.
The responders agreed that this girl was bad news.
“If she doesn’t understand why you can’t see her, I wouldn’t give her a single minute more of your time,” one user said. “There are a lot of red flags here,” said another, launching into every single one. “These are very weird times, but do the right thing, adhere to your local advisories re: travel/quarantine, and perhaps send her a bunch of links about the asymptomatic infecting the vulnerable,” suggested another. “This is a time to put our shit on pause and think about the greater good.”
Others out there really trying to make the best out of lockdown, like the 18-year-old who wanted to know if he should still shoot his shot with a woman he’s was flirting with before the lockdown. There was a woman who asked relationship_advice what she should do about her “FWB” inviting her to move in with him and his son for the lockdown. “My question is, how do I not f’ck this up,” she wrote. “We both agree we’ll either hate each other or fall for each other and I’d prefer it to be the second. Any tips?” Meanwhile, a lovelorn man has a crush on his housemate, and wondered if he should let her know how he feels while they’re in lockdown, even though she has a boyfriend (the general consensus on this one: absolutely fucking not).
I only saw one relationship question that wasn’t riddled with angst or unrequited horniness: A man soliciting suggestions on how best to celebrate his wife’s birthday (“Cook for her make her a home spa day like run a bubble bath with music candles and a glass of wine,” someone replied. “Face mask massage etc if u know how paint her nails”).
The relationship_advice subreddit has always offered a genuine cross-section of humanity with guidance, and it is likely to provide more with millions of people forced to stay inside. But the moderators are braced for the community to become increasingly grim as the covid-19 pandemic continues. Calls to domestic hotlines are up nationwide, and Zadegan said he has noticed an uptick in abuse-related posts on relationship_advice as well.
I emailed Alice M (a pseudonym), professional crisis counselor and relationship_advice contributor, about this phenomenon. Her response was frank. “I fully expect that in the coming weeks this sub will see an increase in posts about domestic violence,” Alice wrote.
On Wednesday, Alice published a post to relationship_advice that provides domestic abuse resources amid the pandemic. It’s currently pinned to the relationship_advice landing page, just below the housekeeping rules.
Long before covid-19, posters regularly came to relationship_advice subreddit seeking answers on domestic and sexual violence. Alice would be alerted once or twice a day by other Reddit users directing her to these posts, where she would offer her advice to whoever needed it. While she hasn’t noticed an uptick in those alerts, she has noticed an increase in people mentioning covid-19 in posts relaying accounts of domestic and sexual abuse.
“There was a post recently in the sub in which a young woman was strangled and suffered an injury that many posters believed to be an indication of a skull fracture,” Alice wrote. “When she called a clinic to describe her situation, she was told the ER was not a safe place for her due to the virus.”
Alice continued: “I’m seeing posters ask about what options they have for ‘managing a partner’s anger’ while stuck at home with them. Another poster several days ago mentioned that his partner had assaulted him and he was considering filing a restraining order against her but was concerned that she had nowhere else to go and could be homeless during the pandemic if she were kicked out.”
And for the moderators—who straddle a confusing space between Reddit employee and volunteer—the bombardment of abuse-heavy topics is fraught. The moderators might act more like referees than therapists, but the content they encounter daily is becoming increasingly taxing. “With the sheer quantity of abuse stories we read comes a psychological toll, and I’ve seen mod after mod burn out on the subreddit, myself included,” Zadegan wrote. “My fear is we might see an uptick in that burnout and psychological toll as people find themselves having nowhere to turn save for communities such as Reddit.”
Reddit provides resources for moderators who deal with crisis management, but the resources aren’t much more than a brief list of tips on communicating with fellow mods and reviewing community rules. At a time when everyone is short on resources and overloaded on anxiety, moderators would benefit from therapy more than suggestions on how to best use sticky posts. Trolls are one thing, keeping an eye on post after post by desperate people who are trapped with their sexually aggressive or physically violent partners during a lethal pandemic is another.
“My main concern is that we do not know how long this pandemic will last,” Alice confessed. “Many posters are saying things like ‘I just need to manage their anger until all this is over,’ but we could be looking at something that’s lasting for months, even a year.” Alice explained that these posters are also trapped in the misconception that domestic violence and abuse is about anger when it’s actually about power and control. “If an abusive family member or partner is feeling powerless during this crisis, I am concerned about what they might do to regain that control,” Alice said.
It’s early days still, with countries, states, and cities varying wildly on how to tackle covid-19 and figuring out what kind of restrictions—if any—to mandate. Likewise, individual behavior still varies wildly: There are single people looking for that special person on a dating app that they’ll be willing to literally risk it all to go fuck. There are couples in the honeymoon period of their social distancing—making sourdough bread together, having Zoom parties with their friends—and those who are on the verge of breaking up if covid-19 uncovers an ugliness in their relationship like it has unearthed the ugliness in just about everything else. Maybe the wisdom of friends and family or an unaffordable therapist won’t cut it, and they’ll turn to miscellaneous strangers for answers to their relationship woes instead. Everyone is making it work as best they can, and with a lack of professional help at most people’s disposal, who can blame those looking for a helping hand from one of the world’s most popular websites?
But after speaking to Zadegan and Alice, it’s evident that the people keeping relationship_advice afloat—the unpaid mods and its regular users—are sitting on a powder keg, one that covid-19 is ready to ignite. They’re not therapists, they’re not robots. They’re people who take time out of their day to help others, and they’re discovering just how fragile their own boundaries can be as this pandemic unfolds.