Loving Long-Distant in a Social Distancing World
Shifting my love language during COVID-19
When my husband and I started living apart four months ago, we did not expect to go months without seeing one another. I scheduled monthly flights from Denver to New York City since he didn’t have vacation days accumulated at his new job. Grownup children, financial means, and job flexibility was the perfect scenario.
The Way We Were
The 21–28 days between visits were already emotionally taxing. My husband and I are still identifying our contact points in our ‘living apart together’ (LAT) relationship. A two-hour time zone difference means that he cannot call me before he goes to work, and I cannot call him before I go to bed. As best we can, we squeeze in afternoon chats during the week. On weekends, we stay connected, sometimes checking in three or four times a day, including video calls.
My love jones adrenaline is driving 80 miles to the airport to catch my monthly flight to see him. But, that won’t happen in Mach. I canceled my trip because I have asthma, considered high-risk for COVID-19.
Happily ever after
Long-term separation wears heavy on lovers’ hearts when all they want is to be in each other’s arms. My relationship is not unique. According to 2019 statistics, over 3 million U.S. married couples defined their relationship as long-distance. On average, all LAT couples live more than 100 miles apart, visit each other less than twice a month, and speak to each other at least every three days.
Long-term separation wears heavy on lovers’ hearts when all they want is to be in each other’s arms.
LAT relationships are as successful as traditional relationships. However, a lack of planning for change is most often the cause of their failure. I’m certain that none of the 3 million couples planned for a social distance crisis.
Lindemann, a researcher, studied couples like my husband and me. The decision to live separately was driven by the desire to have dual careers. Like us, none of the couples in Lindemann’s research preferred living apart. Still, most reported being happy in their marriage despite circumstances.
Circumstances have become unsettling and uncertain. Coronavirus has imposed itself into LAT relationships like a toddler climbing into their parents’ bed. Eliminating uncertainty is a critical factor in successful relationships, according to Lindemann. I wish I could.
The prolonged time without my husband’s touch keeps my heart longing. Many couples stop touching by the time children leave the house. That’s not us. We still hold hands. He opens doors for me. I snuggle under him for 3 minutes each night before a hot flash forces me to release my tight grip and retreat to the coolest edge of the bed.
We spend a lot of time in each other’s presence without talking. Sometimes we watch movies, work on our computers, or drive without conversing much. After 30 years together, there’s not much left to talk about. My husband knows my past, present, and future because he’s in it.
Many couples stop touching by the time children leave the house. That’s not us. We still hold hands. He opens doors for me. I snuggle under him for 3 minutes each night before a hot flash forces me to release my tight grip and retreat to the coolest edge of the bed.
Video chat is a poor understudy for physical presence. When I visit him, we go to shows, hang out at the mall, and plan our next vacation. Then we come home and cuddle up on the couch in his tiny apartment. We won’t do any of that in March.
Instead, we must resort to talking, serious talks. I have to assure my husband that I rescheduled my doctor’s appointment in Colorado to get my prescription filled. I remind him to skip the occasional beer for a while. Alcohol lowers the immune system. He asks if I filled my tank up with gas. I ask if he picked up his clothes from the cleaners. We compare notes on how our workplaces are adjusting to the health crisis. Borrrrrring!
The uncertainty of knowing when I will see my husband again sucks more than the boring conversations. Renowned psychologist Sigmund Freud stated, “We are never so defenseless against suffering as when we love.” I definitely feel defenseless.
According to an article in the New York Post, the first few months of long-distant relationships tend to progress with relative ease. The fourth through eight months prove more challenging. The article was written long before COVID-19. Peculiarly, coronavirus is our conflict impetus to an otherwise seamless 4-month transition. Social distancing should not apply to lifelong partners.
Filling the Void
Since we cannot plan time together, we have to improvise. We take more trips down memory lane. We recommend movies to watch so that we can talk about them. We facetime more often. I have resorted to kissing my phone screen to say goodbye. Yuck! That’s disgusting! unless your long-distant relationship has set you back 28 years to romantic love.
Romantic love is stage one of marriage, also known as the honeymoon phase. All you want is for your partner to know how much you care for them and feel it reciprocated. Many LAT couples revisit this stage. The best part is that we’ve already experienced all five stages. So, there’s no anxiety about moving forward. Returning to romantic love is one of the perks of living apart, but it doesn’t feel good surrounded by uncertainty.
My husband and I have thousands of photos to share and hundreds of stories to retell. Feeling forced to do so will shift the nature of our relationship. We had come to value the quiet spaces between us. It always felt like stillness and acceptance, never neglect. We allowed silence as anticipation, knowing exactly when and how it would end.
Now, the silence between us is loud and ambiguous. It feels like a communication virus. I need more reassurance and reminders of our love. I’m home all day now. He’s still required to go to work as essential personnel. I wait, uneasily, to hear from him each day.
We had come to value the quiet spaces between us. It always felt like stillness and acceptance, never neglect. We allowed silence as anticipation, knowing exactly when and how it would end.
I know I will see him again eventually. But not seeing him now creates a heart void. Worrying about him from such a far distance bothers me. All of our grand plans to survive our LAT relationship have fallen apart.
Language of love
The late James Baldwin was right when he said, “Love does not begin and end the way we seem to think it does. Love is a battle; love is a war; love is a growing up.” Baldwin must have known something particular about LAT relationships.
My LAT relationship plans have fallen apart, but not my love. I have no uncertainty about the way my husband has loved me for the past 30 years. Perhaps my husband and my love languages will have to shift. It wouldn’t be the first shift over the years. Words matter more now than they ever have. Intentionality is super important.
In this vulnerable state, disconnecting may start to feel natural. The mind can defend itself from vulnerability by discontinuing the desire for something that you can’t have. But I embrace the late Aubrey Hepburn’s assertion that “the best thing to hold onto in life is each other.” I will stay tuned-in to love, not fear.
Our new beginning
Each day’s news is worse than the day before, and predictions of normalcy move further into the future. Amidst the global COVID-19 crisis, I am trying to disentangle love from concern. I think friendship lives in the middle of love and concern.
Friendship is one of the stories we will retell. It was our wedding theme, inscribed on every keepsake. “On this day, I will marry my friend.” As my husband and I bear the distance, we will honor the friendship that has carried us for decades.
Bakari, R. (2019). If You Love Someone Let Them Go. Medium. https://medium.com/the-ascent/if-you-love-someone-let-them-go-e34772fb3cbd.
Heart-Walker, M. (2018). Stages of Marriage. Psych Central. https://psychcentral.com/lib/stages-of-marriage/.
Lindemann, D. J. (2019). Commuter spouses: New families in a changing world. Ithaca [New York]: ILR Press, an imprint of Cornell University Press.
Schmall, T. (2018). Long Distant Relationships are More Successful Than You Think. New York Post. https://nypost.com/2018/10/31/long-distance-relationships-are-more-successful-than-you-think/.