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Together But Apart


Long-distance relationships are nothing new. A relationship where you are physically separated, but still committed to each other. Maybe you met someone online and your relationship is conducted through technology, with the occasional real-life meet-up thrown in for good measure. Maybe, like Declan, your relationship became long-distance after a life change. Declan and his partner met each other in Belfast last May, but soon after he moved to London for work and they moved to Glasgow for their university degree. This is something they made work, by travelling to-and-fro to see each other often.

A few days ago, Declan made the 10-hour coach trip to Glasgow and couldn’t help but feel anxious about the emerging Coronavirus (COVID19) pandemic. The advice we have been given in the UK is to socially distance, wash your hands often, and self-isolate if you experience even mild symptoms. This is part of a global effort to “flatten the curve” and delay the impact the virus may have on healthcare systems. An often-under-reported side-effect of this community effort is the impact it has on our relationships. How do couples maintain their normal contact in the era of isolation?

For Declan and his partner, this means keeping each other sane through frequent phone calls throughout the day, Skype calls at night, and the prospect of them both travelling back home to Northern Ireland keeping their spirits up. As Declan’s partner ventures home on the ferry, he is hoping and praying that his Saturday morning flight from London is not cancelled and he too can head home.

This experience of long-distance relationships is one that Katie and her partner share. They have been together for three years, and Katie lives in Belfast while her boyfriend is based in Derry. As a way of shielding herself and their daughter from any symptoms, Katie is putting a pause to her visits for a while. However, although this has been difficult, she says they have found solace in technology, particularly in being able to video-call each other.

Many young couples do not live together, with the Office for National Statistics reporting that in 2019, 3.5 million young adults in the UK live at home with their parents. This is compared to 2.4 million living at home in 1999. As a result of this rising trend, young couples tend to have to rely on social excursions to see each other. Whether this is something like going to the cinema, heading out for a few drinks, or even just travelling to each other’s houses – this form of interaction always includes a form of social mingling, and in this time of social distancing, is what we have been told to avoid.

Both Caitlin and her boyfriend live with their parents. She is 38-weeks pregnant, and so has been advised to self-isolate as she is classed as being at ‘high-risk’ to the virus. This self-isolating is doubly important, as her boyfriend works in a local hospital and so may inadvertently be carrying COVID19. In a time where she would wish to be excited about the birth of her child, she is instead staying home to shield herself from a global virus.

Although they live nearby, they have mostly been communicating through FaceTime to see each other often. In the midst of all the negativity we have been seeing in relation to COVID19, Caitlin and her boyfriend were able to meet each other to go for a walk yesterday, all the while making sure to keep their distance.

Technology has been the pillar holding sanity together for many people who have had to go into self-isolation. There have been reports of couples having dinner dates over FaceTime, as well as utilising the Netflix Party extension for Chrome to watch their favourite films and TV shows together in real-time. It is a way of making these abnormal times slightly more normal, helping people stay connected in more inventive ways. This is something that Josh and his girlfriend have come to appreciate in the wake of her self-isolation period that began a week ago.

Josh stressed the importance of keeping up their regular relationship routine in the midst of this. As well as talking a few times a day through FaceTime and over Facebook Messenger, they did their weekly “movie night” through Netflix Party. They also undertook new hobbies together. For instance, they began playing Minecraft together, as Josh says it is the perfect way to “distract each other from the amount of nothing we have to do for another week and have fun at the same time.”

What unites all the tellers of these stories is that they each emphasised to me the importance of keeping up communication. In trying to establish a sense of normalcy in uncertain times. Even if you are physically in isolation, mentally you do not have to be; and the stories of these young Northern Irish couples stresses that point.

In a time where everything feels terrifying, when it seems as though all our news is bad news, when all we want to do is hug our loved ones – we need to focus on the positives. If we are isolating, we need to think of all the lives we are saving. If we are lonely, we need to think of how we can use technology as a way to reach out to the ones we cannot physically hold .


Jane Corscadden is a 22 year-old student currently studying MA Journalism at Ulster University, having previously graduated from Queen's University Belfast with a BA in Politics. Jane is passionate about politics in all forms, with particular experience in covering Northern Irish politics.

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