Quarantine love stories are emerging as a romance trope

Many people in the US have now entered their second full week of staying indoors, as part of regional lockdowns in attempts to ward off the coronavirus. And for a lot of these people, being shut inside all day is a drastically new lifestyle — one where you have to make the most of seclusion and confinement, either alone or alongside any family and friends that might be stuck inside with you.

In this strange new environment, a new type of relationship for those longing for companionship was bound to blossom. And a very of-the-moment romance trope has emerged virtually overnight: the couple brought together by quarantine.

Apparently a number of people out there are very into the idea that following Covid-19 precautions can double as a way of bringing them closer together — much, much closer. Since having sex with anyone who’s not already living with you seems to be a big no-no for “flattening the curve,” there’s a whole new appeal in being confined together with someone who’s, well, conveniently located. Perhaps you’ve been secretly crushing on your roommate all this time; perhaps this sudden proximity means you’ve started seeing them in a new light. Whatever your circumstance, congratulations! The cultural zeitgeist is rooting for you.

Roommate romance is nothing new

Shipping roommates together is nothing new. Never let us forget the immortal 2014 vine “And They Were Roommates (Oh My God, They Were Roommates),” the stuff of instant meme legend. If you’ve never seen it, please, allow us to embed:

We’ll probably never know what was up with those two particular roommates (come forward, Leggings Girl! We need you now, more than ever!), but on the internet, the conclusion is obvious. “OMG they were roommates” feels like a reverse-engineered twist: Where normally the surprise would be two roommates falling in love and deepening their relationship, here, that twist is taken for granted, and the surprise is that our presumed lovers were roommates all along!

As anyone who’s ever read a romance where two roommates fall in love can tell you, the roommates meme captures the heady feeling of experiencing a plot trope you already know backwards and forwards, but enjoying it just as much as if you never saw it coming. Like so:

The Vine spawned a separate meme that’s attached itself to hundreds of fanfics about roommates falling in love. Currently the most-kudoed fic that references “and they were roommates” on the massive fanfiction catalog Archive of Our Own (AO3) is one based on the Chinese drama Untamed. It comes with the accompanying tags “Friends With Benefits,” “Misunderstandings,” “Oblivious Pining,” Mutual Pining,” “Love Confessions,” “Sharing a Bed,” and, of course, “Roommates.”

Those tags provide a thorough glimpse into this trope’s appeal. The dilemma of realizing someone could be more than a friend, while being afraid of upsetting a delicate platonic balance, is often a relatable experience. There’s usually a lot of yearning involved, and there’s something thrilling about two oblivious soulmates finally having their respective epiphanies that they might be perfect for each other. The roommates trope allows them to have that epiphany while being super domestic and acting as if they’re already married, resulting in a heady bouquet of confusion, sexual tension, gratuitous touching, and any number of sweet romantic moments that ratchet up the excitement.

The trope’s popularity indicates that there’s something soothing about the idea of a relationship forming between roommates who already know and accept each other’s domestic quirks and habits. The stage of learning those things is often the point where other relationships things fall apart. But the roommates trope allows friends — or frenemies — to skip that awkwardness and move right to the “living happily ever after” part, because they’ve already been living happily together (more or less) up until this point.

There’s also a scientific justification for the trope, something known as the law of propinquity, or basically: closeness. Social psychologists believe that physical and/or psychological proximity increases the likelihood of two people enjoying one another’s company, and of finding each other attractive. In a 1950 study known as the Westgate Study, MIT researchers examined the layout of a dorm and determined that students who resided in dorm rooms next to each other developed closer friendships than people who resided further down the hall.

Not only that, but the longer you’re exposed to someone in close range, the more likable or attractive you’re likely to find them. It’s a bit like undergoing Stockholm Syndrome by slow degrees, hopefully in very small and non-dysfunctional doses.

And that might be what many of us are feeling now as you’re experiencing the effects of quarantine with our own roommates. So … bring on the romance!

Quarantine romance is trending across the internet

The first time I ran across the quarantine romance trope was on Tumblr late last week, when an author I follow wrote a short fic by request about two characters getting quarantined together on their mostly empty college campus. Part of the prompt was that “eventually,” the two characters “open their doors, tape out the space of 6 feet, & sit in their doorways swapping songs + bonding.” In the fic, stuck across the hall from one another for fourteen days straight, they quickly develop mutual crushes, until finally, this happens:

“Hey Lan Zhan,” Wei Wuxian says, completely oblivious to Lan Wangji’s internal conflict. “What’s the first thing you’re going to do once we’re allowed outside?”

He’s chewing on the ends of his chopsticks, lips pursed in thought and Lan Wangji is transfixed. He barely even registers the question before his mind supplies the answer.

I’m going to kiss you.

The author, Tumblr user besanii, is a longtime member of fandom who told me she went with two weeks as her time frame, because that’s the recommended quarantine period in her native Australia. She told me she thought a surge in quarantine romance as a trend was “inevitable.”

“It’s a mix of the ‘omg they were roommates’ and the ‘stuck in an elevator’ trope, with an ‘end of the world’ kind of twist,“ she said.

Besanii wasn’t wrong. As this tweet’s speculation about popular self-publishing platform Wattpad attests, something’s in the air, and it’s not just the virus:

Just in the period of writing this piece, I’ve seen the number of fics tagged “quarantine” and “social distancing” on AO3 balloon. One such tagged fic, for the anime YuYu Hakusho, invites the reader to imagine:

You’ve only been living in your condo for two months, but you have yet to meet your neighbor. When you’re sentenced to working from home due to the recent COVID-19 virus, you step onto your shared balcony for the first time. You meet Shuichi and really like him. The only problem? You have to stay six feet apart.

The author, known as Penguiduck, added in a note. “This one-shot is not meant to make light of recent events,” they wrote. “It is my sincere desire to educate and provide a little bit of peace during these tumultuous times. There is a light at the end of the tunnel, perhaps even a very happy ending.”

This type of fiction, then, isn’t just about mining a situation for romance — it’s also a way of spreading joy and keeping spirits up.

That’s probably why the idea of quarantine romance is also having a major moment on social media, where it’s become a recurring reference:

Easily the most viral example of the quarantine romance in recent days has come from a widely shared r/Relationships post on Reddit, where a user posting under the throwaway handle “husbandhelpneededpls” spun a tale that should be very familiar to anyone who’s been paying attention to all of those fanfiction tropes we’ve been discussing.

The poster, a self-described “gay man … from a traditional Asian family,” claimed to have entered into an ostensibly heterosexual cisgender marriage of convenience with a trans man who wasn’t out to his family. The two married and moved in together rather quickly to pull “a giant scam” on their family, but then, of course, true feelings started to grow. “Now we are in self-isolation together and you can cut the sexual? romantic? tension in this house with a knife since we’re constantly together,” he wrote.

Although the original post was removed, and the user banned from r/relationships — likely because the moderators suspected them of trolling or faking the story — screengrabs of it went massively viral on Twitter, and spawned people across the internet comparing the user’s situation to a romance novel or a soapy TV drama. (The user did not respond to a request for comment.)

After both the original post and the viral Twitter repost of it were flooded with comments and support, the user made multiple updates — including the most important one, in which he and his husband supposedly got their happy ending. And there was much, much, much rejoicing.

While many Twitter users completely embraced the story, many others alternately criticized and defended its similarity to Asian drama and fanfiction tropes. But just as with the fanfiction examples, the “Reddit husbands,” as they quickly became known, served a broader purpose: to distract and delight people, and give them hope.

On the surface, the quarantine romance trope might seem like an obvious way of responding to a situation where a huge part of the population is locked indoors for the foreseeable future. After all, if you’re stuck with one person round the clock, then as the saying goes, love the one you’re with. But the trend of finding a lovelorn angle to self-isolation is also yet another example of how our human impulse is to create opportunities for more love and connection during crisis.

Of course, it warrants noting that this trope also contains a hefty dose of escapism. There’s a built-in assumption here that everyone involved is safe, healthy, and out of danger, and that the spread of Covid-19 is less a major destabilizing force in their lives than it is a minor inconvenience that serves to push two lovebirds together. In this respect, the trope has quite a bit in common with the use of school shooting drills as a romance trope on Wattpad — a way of turning a potentially overwhelming, scary phenomenon into an ironically escapist cliché.

But even if it’s a romance cliché, finding love and affection amid quarantine is also an idea that clearly appeals to many people. “It’s a really ‘you and me against the world’ feeling,” besanii told me. The world is all stuck battling the same enemy together during the Covid-19 pandemic, so that spirit of standing united is one many people are experiencing together. Love amid the darkness becomes, well, a universal desire — a trope we can all relate to, unite around, and root for.

And that’s, perhaps, even bigger and better than true love.

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