COVID-19 has made long-distance dating the new norm for many young couples. Experts share their tips on making relationships work in the time of corona.
A mural of lovers embracing whilst wearing face masks, London, 7 April 2020 (AP Photo/Matt Dunham)
Sacha Edwards, 17, and Kaleigh Lewis, 18, live only a few minutes away from each other in their hometown of Ottawa, Canada. Like many young couples, they used to see each other every day after school. They would watch movies, go out to eat or, as Edwards said, “Just hang out.”
When COVID-19 hit, the 15-minute walk that separated Edwards and Lewis was replaced by an invisible but mighty barrier. “We don’t see each other on a regular basis anymore,” Lewis said. “When we do, it’s for a short amount of time. We go on walks, but we’re not allowed to be at each other’s houses.”
Edwards and Lewis are not alone. The pandemic has transformed dating for many young people, turning many couples’ easy, local relationships into difficult, long-distance ones.
Grounded: from free to forced long-distance
When the government implemented social distancing restrictions, both Lewis’s and Edwards’s parents imposed dating restrictions that led to tension between them as a couple as well as with their parents.
“We try our best, but it’s hard to be a calm person,” Lewis said, referring to the challenges of being quarantined with her family. “We’re just figuring out how to live with each other 24/7, and all do our part to keep everyone sane.”
Erika Boissiere, a San Francisco marriage and family therapist, sympathizes with young people like Edwards and Lewis. “Every time you hoist off really specific rules, people are going to have a reaction.”
“Whether it’s being controlled by parents or government, the reaction is ‘I don’t want to be controlled,’ especially for young people who have newfound freedom, whether it’s getting a car or going off to college,” Boissiere said. “When they’re being thrust back into a lifestyle where they’re being told what to do — it’s safe, but it’s hard.”
Virtual communication vital for long-distance dating during COVID-19
Like most people, Edwards and Lewis have come to rely on virtual communication: video-chatting, talking on the phone and texting.
But it’s not the same as seeing each other in the flesh. When asked if they missed each other, Lewis piped up: “For sure we miss each other!”
While Gen Z is really good at using technology to communicate with others, meeting face-to-face and physical touch are still very important for human connection, said Wendy Walsh, a relationship expert based in Los Angeles, California. “This is also the age where hormones are running the highest and love feels as big as you can imagine, so there are huge feelings of loss,” she adds.
Couples can develop creative ways of connecting with each other, Boissiere suggested. They can send a voice text or handwritten letter, drop off a care package or do activities together while on video-chat — like watching the same show or having a glass of wine.
Melanie Spiegel, 23, a production assistant who lives in New York City, moved back to her parents’ home on Long Island, New York when the outbreak hit the city. Her boyfriend, Arjun Peruvenba, 25, continues to work for a family business from his home in the neighboring state of New Jersey.
Before COVID-19, Spiegel and Peruvenba spent time together every weekend. Now, the couple hasn’t seen each other in person in six weeks and is trying to make long-distance work. In addition to regular phone calls and text messages, Spiegel and Peruvenba have decided to go about their Saturday date nights as usual — only virtually. Spiegel got a Nintendo Switch so they can play the Mario Kart game with each other.
The unique challenge of dating during COVID-19
One of the factors that makes long-distance dating during COVID-19 so challenging is the uncertainty over how long the social distancing measures will last.
“A huge part of our psychology is built around looking out and wanting to grasp some sort of a timetable,” said Boissiere. “The brain goes, ‘I want to know when this is going to end.’”
“We’re good at communicating, but it’s hard and upsetting when you don’t know when you’re going to see your partner again,” Spiegel noted. When Spiegel and Peruvenba were in a long-distance relationship in school, “we knew there would be a date when we would see each other again. We had plans. Now it’s just kind of waiting to see what happens.”
Learning to take things day by day is essential, Boissiere said. “It’s a recalibration of the brain, to be comfortable with the uncomfortable.”
Walsh also recommends forward-thinking. “Talk about the future and plans. Live in the place of hopes and dreams in your mind.”
Light at the end of the tunnel
While uncertainty weighs on many young couples, there is light at the end of the tunnel. Many governments are starting to debate when to start relaxing stringent social distancing measures, which may soon render long-distance dating for many unnecessary.
And families are adapting. Recently, Edwards’s and Lewis’s parents relaxed rules for the young couple. They were satisfied that, after six weeks of self-isolation, both households are healthy. The young couple can now see each other in person so long as they continue to socially distance from people outside of their homes.
“Yesterday was our first night together since this started. We got to sleep over,” said Edwards in a telephone interview on April 22.
“Quarantine is a great litmus test to see if this is true love,” Walsh noted. “If someone hangs in, marry them fast.”
Josephine Wong is a fellow in the University of Toronto’s global journalism program and has written for the Canadian Press and Postmedia. Josephine has a law degree from the University of Toronto and currently practices civil litigation in Vancouver.