This is what happened to my long-distance relationship in the pandemic

pink map with hearts spanning the Atlantic Ocean

By Lauren Apfel
@laurenapfel

In mid-March, my girlfriend and her daughter flew from Belfast to Glasgow to see my twelve-year-old son act out a very small role in his school’s production of Calamity Jane. He was Rattlesnake, Calamity’s carriage driver, who is also a regular at the local saloon. We watched him that Friday night—faux beard on his face, swigging imaginary beers—aware of just how tightly packed we all were into the small, makeshift auditorium, one ear listening out for dry coughs amidst the chorus’ hearty rendition of The Black Hills of Dakota.

It was to be our last public outing.

A week later the country locked down and, well, my girlfriend and her daughter—they never left.

The decision to come in the first place wasn’t entirely straightforward. The virus was already swirling afoot, but no serious action had yet been taken on a national level. We knew there might be consequences if they travelled, just as there were obstacles: the airline they were meant to use collapsed only the week before. But they bought new tickets all the same, it felt imperative somehow.

I joked beforehand that I didn’t care what happened so long as they Got. On. That. Plane. There must have been a sense of impending doom. If they didn’t come now, how long would it be before we saw each other again? One month, two, six? Our long-distance relationship was strong, it was all we knew, but it wasn’t always easy. Especially for me. I would get antsy after two weeks apart; it was usually three to four between visits, what with the distance and my four kids and her daughter and dog and cat.

The decision for them to stay here was harder. And yet, it also felt right. Her daughter, an only child, would have other children around during a deeply difficult and potentially lonely time. The aging parents she cared for in her hometown would be forced to self-isolate as it was. And us? We were being served up a rare opportunity to spend a prolonged period of time together, to support each other through a crisis no less, after two years of carving out mere snippets.

But oh how I loved those snippets. They were romantic and intense and blissfully free, on the whole, from the slog of domesticity and childcare that seemed to have slowly killed my 19-year marriage. When you only see your partner for weekends at a time, Roxane Gay writes, every night is date night.

My girlfriend and I had talked about living together, but it was one of those hypothetical conversations you have to establish the seriousness of the relationship, to make sure you are on the same page—not because it ever felt like a viable possibility at any point in the near future. At fourteen, both of our oldest children are too old to pull from school. The fathers of both sets of children are still in the respective countries of residence. Lives, friends, tethers to towns. Which of us would ever really be able to move? It would be years. We were to fall indefinitely, it seemed foretold, into the new category of couple known as LAT: living apart together.

As difficult as it can be not to have regular physical contact with a partner, there are things I really liked about its reality. In my calmer moments—the ones where I wasn’t feverish for the little luxuries of a hug in the kitchen or somebody’s steady breath next to me when I woke in the middle of the night—I wondered if it wasn’t the antidote to the marital malaise I saw almost everywhere I looked. So many of my friends, knee deep in 15-plus-year marriages, were itching with boredom, seething with resentment, or suffering from some combination of both.

And I got it. I knew exactly what could happen when you brought babies and small children into a relationship and life all of a sudden became one giant game of Who’s Getting Less Sleep and Who Did the Dishes Last? So too I knew the deleterious effects of time, of how too much of it together can chip away at the erotic connection between two otherwise unsuspecting people. As Esther Perel reminds us over and over again: Love enjoys knowing everything about you; desire needs mystery.

It’s a paradox that all modern relationships must grapple with in one way or another. It’s a paradox that, after my divorce, I became acutely, almost painfully, aware of. Intimacy’s double-edged sword. How do you foster the one kind, the familiarity, the deep understanding and acceptance of a lover’s foibles, their humanity, while at the same time maintaining the other: the romantic spark that tends to bloom best in the soil of distance and novelty and oxytocin?

When my girlfriend first moved in, we were in survival mode. All of a sudden, seven of us in the house and nowhere to go. Our kids had met only a handful of times; we had spent only small swathes of time with each other’s children. But now we were to be living as a family and in uniquely stressful conditions to boot. We got to work and we did it well, the boring things we’d managed previously to avoid. Clearing out cabinets. Organizing rules for the kids’ daily snack boxes. Setting aside actual date nights.

We learned, by trial and error, how to spend time together that wasn’t rushed. How to exist in a space where every moment wasn’t geared toward cultivating our connection or making up for the long, lost weeks apart. We knew we got along brilliantly, in the deep-seated, emotional ways that form the stickiest of glue between people. But this was a new kind of test: of how the differences that pulled us together initially, the ones that look adorable and fascinating from afar, would play out in closer quarters—over a considerable amount of time. It is a truism of love that the things that attract you to a person in the first instance have an uncanny and often cruel way of crystallizing—through constant exposure —into petty frustrations.

As my marriage was falling apart, I became fixated on similarities and differences, on the ‘right’ cocktail of compatibility to make a relationship thrive. Enough in common to forge an air-tight psychological bond, enough difference to inspire excitement and continual growth. And my god my partner and I have a lot of differences, a lot of room for growth. She stays up half the night, I like to go to sleep at 10pm. I am a creature of habit, she changes the configurations of rooms for a hobby. I am obsessed with time and efficiency, she moves to the ticking of a very idiosyncratic clock. She is a champion of animals, a caresser of plants, a wearer of essential oils, an eater of crumbly food in bed. I am none of those things.

But in the past few months, even as we’ve had to contend with all the issues such differences inevitably give rise to, it feels like I’ve found the perfect cocktail—or the closest I will come to that chimera. Because what we agree on, absolutely, whether we are in the same house or not, is the talking and talking and problem-solving our way through them.

Every other article in my Facebook feed right now is predicting a spike in the divorce rate once the pandemic is over. But the effect of this crisis on relationships, the gurus tell us, is twofold. It can act as a destroyer or an accelerator. Unlike the couples who are endlessly searching for ways to keep separate, to make more space from each other in these suffocating circumstances, my partner and I are using this time as a way to shrink the space between us. To move us forward in a new direction. It’s a chance we never thought we’d have.

Lauren Apfel is co-founder and executive editor of Motherwell. She is living in a very full house at the moment (with a dog to boot). Connect with her on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram

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