Three long-distance couples tell us how they manage the time apart during the pandemic

It’s been a beyond rough year to be in a long-distance relationship. Some of us, who had never considered ourselves to live that far from our partners suddenly found them inaccessible due to restrictions. Suddenly living 5km apart from one another became long distance!

But if anything, it's taught us what it takes to survive suddenly being forced into a long-distance relationship in an already really scary time. We interviewed three couple about their experience with long-distance and how they handled all the ups and downs that come with it.

*Sarah and her boyfriend *Jack have been together for almost eight months now and first started dating around October. They knew each other before the pandemic, but only pursued a romantic relationship during the second lockdown, when they were both living in Ireland. Sarah has since moved to the UK for a masters program and Jack has stayed in Ireland to complete his course. They have met up four times since getting together.

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How has it been starting into a new relationship in a pandemic, when you can’t see each other regularly? There must be a lot of challenges in a time when it should be all fairly light and fun.

‘We’ve been together eight months, and we’ve only met in four blocks of time. So we’re still really new to one another. I think the distance makes it harder to get to know a person on a deeper level and that’s something I’m struggling with. Because whenever we are together, it’s like ‘holiday mode’. And it’s ‘happy, happy, happy’ – and you are happy to see them. But it’s not normal to always be that happy in a relationship. You have to see each other on the days when you just do nothing and you’re normal and you’re not feeling great. When you do get to meet them you don’t want to talk about sad things, you want to keep it light and fun. So we’re very much in the honeymoon phase still. Which is good but I feel like we’re kinda lacking in something. And it’s not because of him or me, it’s just the distance.’

How do you find the virtual contact? For a lot of people, that’s the part that gets frustrating – everyone has different phone habits, from how long you use it for during the day to what apps and methods of communication you prefer. And what one person may like, the other person may not. How does that work out for you two?

‘One thing I would say is important is not that you have to always be on your phone, but always being there to reply and not taking ages to reply, I suppose. Like we don’t talk all the time during the day, because we’re both working. But I must say, Jack is extremely good on his phone compared to other people. He’s not on social media really, but on Whatsapp, he’s very good at making an effort and texting me in the morning, for example, just with ‘Good morning, have a nice day’. We don’t facetime every day, we’d facetime maybe two to three times a week. Personally, I really like voice notes. I like that he’d just be walking home from work and he’d be ‘Hey, how are you? I’m walking home and I did ‘this’ today’, so it’s not like committing to a phone call if we’re both busy, but yet you’re hearing the other person’s voice and I feel like that’s really important because otherwise you get a bit detached.

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It can be hard to build up a relationship over a phone. There’s a certain amount of intimacy to it, but do you find it can be hard to develop a deeper communication sometimes?

Well, there’s times when you do need a little attention and TLC and something might be annoying you – but you don’t say it to them – because it’s not a big deal. But you end up being a little short and angry with them because they’re joking around and stuff. Because they haven’t a clue what’s going on in your head. But you don’t want to come across as a psycho because you’re not there in person to properly talk about it.

'It’s not a communication issue as such, you just nearly selectively choose what to talk about sometimes, because it’s not worth it bringing this little thing up so you just let it slide. He can be a real guy, and not want to talk about his feelings some of the time, whereas my guy friends are really in touch with their feminine sides. I’d just like him to talk about his feelings a little bit more. I feel like he has an ‘everything is grand’ attitude even when everything is obviously not grand. So maybe I wish he was a little more verbally romantic. But it’s hard to bring that up when you’re not together.’

What are your top tips for making each other feel connected even when you’re far apart?

‘We haven’t really done much letter writing or anything yet, just because with Brexit it takes so long with cards to come and go. We share music we’ve been listening to, that’s another thing. So if I hear a song I love, I’ll send it to him. Or he’ll send me a podcast – it’s just sharing each other’s little interests that you’ve found during the week. Netflix watch parties as well. When he wasn’t as busy we’d end up doing that as well, just picking a movie and we’d facetime and chat while watching. Overall, it’s not the easiest, but what does help is that when you do have something to look forward to together, when you know you’re going to meet at a certain date, whether it’s a few months down the line or whatever, it’s something to work towards together.’

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*Ailbhe and *Ian have been together for over seven years and were long distance throughout their college years, meeting up in their hometown most weekends. Both now young professionals, they spent the first three months of the pandemic apart as Ailbhe worked as a nurse on the front line.

You had experience of long distance before, but never to this extent. How did it feel knowing that a) you were on the front lines and b) you couldn’t see each other because of that and the other restrictions?

It was very hard going from going to see each other every weekend to not seeing each other for 3 months, I missed him so much. It was definitely a very stressful time in our lives with working in the emergency department and he had his final year exams so we are very happy to have that time behind us and are as close as ever

As seasoned long-distance warriors, what are your top tips for maintaining that connection and love throughout all the challenges that long-distance presents?

We have been calling each other every day for the past 2 years but I think it's important for us, even if it's only 5 minutes, that we get to talk and catch up on our days. Like everyone else we did a lot of video dates and he was very thoughtful to send me flowers too.

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*Cathal and *Eve have been together for four years, mostly long distance. In the last year, they’ve seen each other about five times, and only once in the last nine months due to restrictions. 

With so much time spent apart, can it start to feel a little pointless, or as if there’s no end in sight? You’ve been long distance for so long, there must surely come times when the inconvenience outweighs the plusses?

‘I think long-distance sucks, no matter what spin you put on it, but sometimes you know someone is worth the distance and the effort. I believe that letters, no matter how antiquated they might be, are a great idea. They take a bit of time and effort and show you have been thinking about the other person. When you get them it’s as if they are there with you, if only for a few minutes.’ – Cathal

‘Yeah, I think the letters are a really powerful way to keep in contact. It can sometimes feel a little awkward to talk about the heavier things or more emotional things on a call, but just sitting with a pen and paper and thinking about what you would say if they were there makes it all pour out onto the page. It’s kind of a nice way to emotionally check in with one another. It’s reassuring that they’re thinking of you as much as you are of them.’ – Eve

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What are the most important things you’ve learned about how to make a long-distance relationship thrive, rather than just survive?

‘I think calling as regularly as possible is super important. Doesn’t have to be long calls or very detailed but hearing the other person’s voice is nice after a long day. It’s also important to be flexible. Everyone has their good and bad days. But what’s important is that you’re there for each other. One thing I liked that we did for each other was the parcels or packages we would send each other. It’s nice to come home to a surprise like that.’ – Cathal

‘I used to think that having an end date was really important – a ‘when can we see each other again’ date – and I still do think that’s important because if there’s no realistic end in sight, then it can feel overwhelming. But there were plenty of times this year that there was no end in sight and we’ve still made it through.

‘I think learning each other’s communication patterns and habits is essential. Just because someone says they’re fine, doesn’t necessarily mean they are. When you communicate solely through a phone, it can be hard to pick up on those things. But I think you need to learn your partner’s phone-body language, if that makes sense. And yeah, making that extra effort with things like the packages, celebrating small things, like the flowers he sent me for finishing my degree. Or when Cathal had had a really bad week and I ordered him a takeaway as a surprise – it’s small, but it’s always a nice surprise that someone is thinking of you, making room for you in their day. I think that’s important. Small day-to-day reminders of why you’re doing this, not necessarily the grand gestures.’ – Eve

*Names have been changed for anonymity and answers have been edited for clarity. 

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