Long-Distance to Quarantine: 5 Surprisingly Similar Relationship Lessons

My boyfriend and I had been long-distance for three years when my master’s program went remote in March 2020 due to COVID-19. We decided to accelerate our original timeline and get an apartment together in March, though we knew it would mean sheltering-in-place.

We got a lot of questions about transitioning from long-distance to self-quarantine (we are in Boston, so we have been self-isolating since mid-March). But as it turns out, the rules that support a happy, healthy relationship in quarantine have a lot in common with the rules that support a happy, healthy long-distance relationship.

Here are some of the surprisingly similar relationship lessons I learned both while being long-distance, and while self-isolating with my significant other.

1. Intentional communication

Communication is obviously critical in a long-distance relationship. When you’re apart, your communication is the only thing holding the relationship together. But it’s not enough just to remember to text someone “good morning” and “good night.” You need to set aside time to meaningfully engage with what is going on in their life. You learn to listen attentively, to actively ask questions, and to follow up, all things that are easier when you are sitting face-to-face or seeing someone every evening.

What I didn’t expect in quarantine is that just because communication is now easier, it doesn't mean you have to be any less intentional. When we first started quarantining, I think my partner and I just sort of assumed that the conversations we used to have so intentionally would just happen organically. But then we started going days without having intentional reflections with one another on our work or our feelings. We might be talking throughout the day, but we weren’t communicating. And we both ended up feeling like there was a distance that hadn’t existed when we were being intentional.

Now we know that quarantine, like long-distance, may require you to put a one-hour hold in your calendar to sit down and communicate intentionally with your partner. While it sounds like overkill, setting time aside in person is as critical to your in-person relationship as scheduling Skype calls was when you are apart.

2. Everyone needs space

After a few weeks of quarantine, it was easy to forget how not normal it is to spend 24/7 with a single other person, no matter how much we may love them. When my partner and I first moved in together, we took all of our daily walks together, ate lunch at the same time, and would always put away work for dinner.

While these moments were lovely, it created pressure on both of us. Sometimes I wanted to take a walk alone so I could give my parents a call. Sometimes my partner wanted to work through lunch or play video games in the evening. The combination of suddenly not being long-distance and the desire to be together and the sense of obligation to entertain each other ended up making us both feel like we couldn’t find alone time.

It reminded me of the many long-distance relationships I’d seen in which couples were constantly in contact. It was as if they were trying to compensate for the physical distance by literally always texting, having calls, or making plans to FaceTime. These were the relationships for which your friend was always turning down evening plans with you so she could go call her boyfriend. Every once in a while, that choice is respectful and admirable; but when it’s every evening, you aren’t doing your relationships any favors.

Part of loving and respecting your partner is knowing when to leave them alone.

That can be hard when you already miss them because of physical distance, or it can be hard because you are literally confined to an apartment with few other social outlets. Either way, learning to not be offended when your partner says they want to be alone (or do something else without you) is critical to both of your’ emotional wellbeing.

3. You cannot be all things to your partner

One of the things you quickly get comfortable with in long-distance relationships (if they are going to last) is the fact that your partner has a life very separate from you. There are people they see frequently that you maybe have never met; they occupy spaces you haven’t seen; and they maintain a vibrant social life that is (hopefully!) fulfilling and exciting, even if you are not a part of it most of the time.

When quarantining during COVID-19, both my partner and I reached emotional low points. Being separated from our family and friends was depressing. And while we may have wanted to believe that being together was enough--wouldn’t that be romantic?--in order to support one another, we had to be comfortable acknowledging that we weren’t, in fact, enough. We were mostly enough, were mostly content: but he and I are both part of complex social networks supported by individuals we love and who love us, and being separated from them was devastating.

If we weren’t able to embrace the fact that we weren’t, in fact, totally enough, resentment could have arisen when one partner expressed frustration or loneliness. It’s healthy to know how critical you are to your partner’s social fulfillment while realizing there is more outside of you that is also critical.

4. Live in the moment

One of the nice things about long-distance is that it truly teaches you to live in the moment. When you have gone weeks without seeing someone and finally get a weekend to spend with them, you can’t spend the weekend thinking about how sad you are that you are going to have to say goodbye again. You embrace the time you have for all it’s worth, and shove away the inevitable sadness until you have to deal with it.

During quarantine, some of our greatest moments of stress relief occurred when we similarly lived in the moment. On our three year anniversary, which passed during COVID-19, we took a bottle of wine to the river a few blocks from our apartment and watched the sunset. Sitting outside for a wonderful hour, it was like nothing had really changed. We’ve experienced similar moments of joy when we play our favorite music on Sunday night and dance around the apartment in a ten-minute burst of energy, or when we devastate the kitchen trying to make a birthday cake.

By imitating the mental block I once used to ignore the impending sadness when seeing my partner for an all-too-brief weekend, I was able to find occasional relief from all the craziness of the recent world by living in those moments of joy.

Your relationship can be a safe harbor and a source of light in the darkness. Get out of your head every once in a while and embrace it.

5. Assume the best

Finally, while this is true in all relationships, not just in long-distance or quarantine, assuming the best is always great practice.

Maybe your partner forgot that you wanted Zoom tonight because they don’t respect or value you enough--but more realistically, they probably had a really busy day at work and have been stressing about a deliverable, and they’ll feel terrible when they realize they missed your date.

Maybe your partner isn’t doing their part to keep the apartment clean the way you want it during quarantine because they are lazy and don’t notice your effort--or, maybe they’re struggling with the social isolation and not feeling their best, and they honestly haven’t noticed how it affects your perception of the space. [My boyfriend asked me to put a disclaimer here to note that he is, in fact, an extremely cleanly roommate, and this is purely a hypothetical example.]

A bad move doesn’t make a bad person; more often than not, it’s just a mistake. And we could all use a little more patience in these trying times.

Maybe my boyfriend and I took a risk by moving in together during quarantine after only ever having been long-distance. Or maybe our long-distance relationship actually prepared us better than we might have been had we been in the same place for the last three years. These lessons, while consistent across all relationships, seem particularly critical in these two extreme forms of a relationship.

Let’s just hope it lasts when we finally date like normal!

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Sonja K. Eliason

April 22, 2020