In early March, James and Julia, a long-distance couple in their 30s, switched on FaceTime to plan their next meetup. United by Bumble but divided by 300 miles of Interstate 5, the two had only met in person three times, and were hoping to score their fourth.
They were looking for somewhere to spend a weekend together, maybe Joshua Tree or San Luis Obispo, the geographical halfway point between her home in San Francisco and his in L.A. Though where they met up didn’t really matter, he says over Instagram DM — any accessible bedroom with privacy curtains and a “Do Not Disturb” sign would do.
Two days into their travel scheming, the news that coronavirus was spreading stateside began to hit. Quarantines looked imminent, and whispers of travel bans began to circulate among nervous Californians who weren’t sure just how far the whole “lockdown thing” would go. That made planning tough, and the fact that no testing was available to confirm each other’s health gave their attempts to do so an uncomfortably risky spin. Within a few days, it became clear that the situation was devolving so quickly and unpredictably in both their cities that meeting wouldn’t only be unsafe, but impossible.
“When will I see you again?” she wrote to him after learning that San Francisco had ordered its citizens to shelter-in-place.
It took him a long time for him to respond. He hadn’t seen her for months already, and the prospect of adding an indefinite waiting period on top of that filled him with such a heaviness that he spent a day or two questioning if the pain of distance was even worth it in the first place. But then, perusing the annals of Reddit and Twitter for some sort of social-media based solidarity, he had a realization: Under coronavirus, everyone is in a long-distance relationship. Whether couples live five minutes or 500 miles away is suddenly irrelevant; if they aren’t cohabitating, they’re quarantining in pandemic purgatory, no more or less able to meet than he and Julia.
“I don’t know,” he replied a few days later. “But we’re going to need one of those Netflix Party things.”
Before the virus, the proliferation of increased globalization, travel opportunities and digital communication platforms was in the process of transforming the once-pesky long-distance relationship into an increasingly common and well-tolerated arrangement. Chief complaints included the obvious lack of sex and the high cost of travel, but other than that, some long-distance couples appeared to be just as — if not more — functional and intimate than those in proximate relationships. One 2007 study found that couples with some miles between them reported more idealism, positive reminisces, perceived agreement, communication quality and even romantic love than people who lived four feet from their partner’s face. Another survey, conducted by the highly scientific sex-toy company KIIRO, found that 58 percent of long-distance relationships “work out” in the long run (though, your guess what “working out” means is as good as mine).
Thing is, those couples chose to be in long-distance relationships. Under coronavirus, distance is a dictum, and because of this, humanity has just been plunged into what might be the biggest, most unwitting relationship experiment the world has ever seen. What effects this will have on couples and relationships remains to be seen, but so far, it appears that some people have already sprouted a number of, er, resourceful digital adaptations to bridge the gap. Such as…
Cringeworthy long-distance dinner dates:
Others have gone above the call of duty by making unfathomably cringy online albums for Reddit to sob to, putting their nimble fingers to work sewing face masks for underserved medical professionals, and you know, getting married online. There’s also a whole world of couples gaming together online: Words with Friends has never been so popular between quarantined lovers and more than a few have gotten weirdly good at arguing.
All of this would be semi-tolerable if there wasn’t a virulent microbe ravaging the earth, but now that there is, the stakes are different than they were before — people aren’t just unsure when they’ll see their partners again; they’re unsure if they will. With travel bans and lockdowns looming into what could easily be the summer and beyond, that morbid and demoralizing reality has plenty of couples questioning if their forced separation might be causing more pain than it’s worth. This is to be expected — the same 2007 study mentioned earlier found that people who were uncertain when they’d see their partner again or if they’d ever live in the same city were “significantly more distressed, less satisfied and rated communication coping strategies as less helpful than those who felt more certain about reunion.”
“That’s why coronavirus is such a mind-fuck,” says James. “It’s really hard to be away from her [Julia], but when there’s been a date or some sort of end in sight, it’s motivated me to keep going. Right now, though, there’s nothing telling me when this will end. I don’t know if I can take it as seriously or give it as much of my time and energy if the waiting period is indefinite.” One redditor agrees: “I have never been in a long-distance relationship before, they don’t really make a whole lot of sense to me. Yes there’s video calls, and things of that nature, but it’s really so much different from being with someone physically, being able to hold them, see them, hear them, all that jazz.”
The economic fallout of coronavirus is also a looming problem for people like Kendra, a 34-year-old in central Texas whose boyfriend of eight months lives in London. “Any relationship problems we have are now unable to be resolved due to being quarantined,” she says. “Distance worked fine for us before because we both had flexible work schedules and could travel, but we’re both working artists, and now we’re both unemployed. That adds a new level of financial constraint we didn’t have before.”
She’s certain they’d be able to work on their relationship in person where their communication was closer and more regular, but from a distance, she’s not so sure. “I don’t think we’ll ever get back to ‘normal’ after this,’” she says. “I know everyone is going through this right now but that doesn’t make it any less hard.”
Nor would it if he were a mile away — when you’re in quarantine, you’re in quarantine.
On a more morbid level, there’s also a worst-case scenario each person in a long-distance relationship has to consider: What if one person gets sick, and there’s nothing the other can do?
“That keeps me up at night,” says James. “I keep thinking about what would happen if she told me she was sick, and then things got progressively worse. It would kill me to know that was happening to her and that I couldn’t be there.” Even if he could, he says, it would be a bad idea to see her and risk getting infected himself. “I’d do it in a heartbeat, but she’d never let me,” he tells me. Worse, if she had to be hospitalized, they’d never allow him near her (or anyone else, for that matter).
Having that talk with Julia was uncomfortable, to say the least. As a long-distance pair who acknowledge their whopping three-time in-person track record doesn’t exactly qualify as a foothold for the future, both are unprepared to go so deep so quickly. “Just a few days after all this happened, we were discussing which friends or family members should alert us if one of us dies,” he says. “At the time, it felt dire and sort of necessary to say those things to each other, but I’ve also never had to speak so seriously about death and dying with someone I’ve been dating before.” It puts a certain weight on their relationship, he says. Things feel heavy. They feel, as one redditor puts it, like “the world doesn’t want anyone together.”
And while a nightmarish situation like that isn’t limited to couples — anyone who doesn’t already live with a friend, family member or partner would have difficulty caring for them while they were ill or saying goodbye if their condition deteriorated — it’s them who have the choice to decide whether they want to end things before that becomes an issue or stick around to see the light at the end of the tunnel. That’s a major departure from pre-virus breakup trends, and one that deserves a note in the history books. In the old days (see: three weeks ago), couples would separate if they fell out of love, if one of them cheated or if their astrology signs went together like orange juice and toothpaste. But now, some couples are considering ending things because they’ll never see each other again, or they can’t help each other as they’re dying. If that’s not an ominous sign of the times, what is?
This early on, most couples are still giving it the old college try, but as the KIIRO survey revealed, things tend to get particularly hard at around the fourth month of not seeing each other. At that point, it starts to feel like there’s no end in sight, and some people start seriously questioning why they’re spending so much of their time and energy on someone who only exists on a screen. “I have no idea if Julia and I will survive this,” says James. “I think relationships are going to have a higher mortality rate than the virus.”
Even if they do survive — which is likely, of course — 26-year-old Ben, an ex-barista from Seattle, wonders what’s waiting for him and his husband on the other side. “He’s stuck in Barcelona with his family,” he says. “It’s hell there right now, and it probably will be everywhere after this is all over. I’m running out of money over here and I can’t imagine that when the dust settles that life, or our relationship, will look the same. Is there room for each other in the new world order?”
Time will tell, but for couples whose love — or thirst — crosses the borders of property, states and continents, the only thing to do is wait.