One Year Later: How Couples Separated by the Pandemic Have Made It Work

This time last year, there was enormous uncertainty about COVID-19—specifically, what could be done to contain it. Governments raced to seal their borders and implement lockdowns, catching many unwitting travelers by surprise. We interviewed seven couples whose relationships were impacted by the sudden closures: One husband was away on business when his home country locked up; another couple, already months into a long-distance relationship, had to scrap their future get-togethers. The pairs spoke candidly about how they were handling the separation, and shared creative tips for making the most of their long-distance situations. Nearly 12 months later, we checked in again with three sets of partners to see how their relationships evolved during this rollercoaster of a year.

David and Vanessa

Vanessa, a 30-year-old American working in human resources, met David, a 30-year-old British creative director, on Tinder a year and a half ago. They were living together in Brooklyn when David flew to England to visit family and renew his U.S. visa. Within hours of his departure, however, Trump announced the U.K. ban. With David stranded in London, Vanessa flew to Los Angeles to hole up with her family.

The couple tried to make things feel “as normal as possible” by sharing recipes, doing mundane things like working out and brushing their teeth together, and day-dreaming about future trips. But the period from mid-March to June was difficult, Vanessa admits. “Not knowing when David could come back, constantly checking the news for immigration and travel updates—it was tough,” she says. “We were both committed to making our relationship work, but maintaining it long-distance was definitely taxing.”

Vanessa made plans to visit David in London in June. But with rumblings of another travel ban on the horizon, she pushed up her flight, double masking for the transatlantic crossing. David picked her up at Heathrow and they went straight into quarantine in a friend’s empty flat. “The first time we reunited was surreal,” says Vanessa. “After all the stress of the prior few months, it took a minute for us to fully grasp that we were actually together.”

The couple emerged from quarantine right as England started loosening its restrictions, allowing them to meet up with friends and dine outdoors. “We had a lot of fun together in our little bubble,” she says. “We went on a road trip, David showed me his London spots, and we covered a lot of ground on foot and bike. We were really grateful that we were able to be together.”

What was supposed to be a six-week trip lasted five months. Vanessa flew back to the U.S. shortly after Thanksgiving, while David remained in London in full lockdown as the virus began to surge again. Over the holidays, both Vanessa and her father tested positive for COVID-19. Their cases were mild but that experience “made the distance feel even more painful,” says David.

There has been some progress with David’s visa, and the couple remains cautiously optimistic that he can return to the U.S. soon. “If this past year has taught us anything, it’s that even the best laid plans can quickly go awry,” says Vanessa. “We’re taking it day-by-day with a lot of FaceTimes to hold us over. Being in London really solidified our relationship and commitment to getting through this together.”

Brian and Lorinda

Lorinda, a 47-year-old social worker and registrar, and Brian, a 47-year-old artist and the chair of a university art and design department, are an American couple based in Beirut. Brian was en route to Casablanca to work on a mural project when the World Health Organization declared the coronavirus a pandemic on March 11, 2020. Beirut announced its airport would close to all flights on March 18. Thinking he could finish the project in Morocco and fly back before then, Brian stayed. But the next day, without warning, Morocco shuttered its land, sea, and air borders, stranding thousands.

Lorinda, who was alone in Beirut with two cats, had no idea when her partner of nearly 25 years would return. The Lebanese government ordered everyone to stay at home and instituted a nightly curfew. At the time, the couple’s college-aged children were also away, with one daughter in Nebraska and a son in Doha. The family leaned heavily on Facebook and WhatsApp to stay in touch, and Brian painted pictures for Lorinda each afternoon. The couple also agreed to order a plant for every week they were separated.

The hardest part of being separated, says Lorinda, was “the need for physical touch and only having felines to ‘talk to in real time.’” On the plus side, she says, “We learned that we are stronger together, but resilient when we need to be on our own. 

After three months in Morocco, Brian was able to board an evacuation flight for Lebanese citizens. Their son eventually returned to Lebanon too, and continued his schooling online. “I am missing buying plants,” says Lorinda, “but would much rather have my partner home with me.”

The family remains in lockdown in Beirut, unable to leave their apartment without a government-issued pass. To keep busy, they’re watching TV, baking bread, and experimenting with foods (pierogis, butter tarts) from their cultural past. “It has been a time of self reflection, re-prioritizing what is important in our lives, and learning to struggle together,” says Lorinda. The couple even made a journal with pictures of the plants, drawings, and emails exchanged during their time apart. “Someday our grandkids will read about it and hopefully be inspired that hard times can bring stronger relationships.”

Megan and Angel

Megan, a 35-year-old U.S. life/business coach and semi-professional dancer, and Angel, a 26-year-old Dominican systems engineer and dance instructor, met at a nightclub in 2015. They began dating in 2017 and lived together in Santo Domingo until Megan moved to Atlanta for work. Megan’s plans to visit him in April 2020 were foiled by the pandemic. Assuming they might not see one another for at least three months, they stayed connected by planning elaborate virtual dates and listening to bachata and salsa music together.

Prior to the pandemic, Angel hoped to find work in the U.S. But after the death of George Floyd, he changed his mind. “We had had discussions about racism in the U.S. many times leading up to this,” says Megan. “I respected his decision. As a white American, I know I can never fully understand the perspective of a Black Dominican.” Beyond the race issues, Angel was distressed by how poorly the U.S. was handling the coronavirus. The couple discussed moving to Europe, weighing potential opportunities in Germany, Sweden, and Switzerland. But with such a rocky global economy, it made more sense for Angel to seek work at home.

After not seeing one another for nine months, Megan and Angel made the mutual decision to break up. “It wasn’t so much the COVID quarantining that ended our relationship as the realization that a future with us together in the same location would not be feasible for another three to five years,” Megan says. “Not being able to picture ourselves together in the future made it much more difficult to have fun date nights. Since physical touch is our number one love language, it was more difficult to comfort each other and find resilience after challenging conversations.”

Megan and Angel still talk regularly but are just friends now. Seeing an online couples therapist during the pandemic was one of the best things they did, she says. “The work that we did to become better people—and better partners for whoever we date next—will have enduring benefits,” Megan reflects. “It will also make us better friends, who can remind each other of what we truly want and deserve.”

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