The Pandemic Has Normalized Long-Distance Relationships—Here’s Why That’s a Good Thing
"We're all realizing that distance is not as large of an obstacle as it used to be."
Linnea, a 26-year-old engineer in Iowa, met her boyfriend in late 2019 and then spent four months apart from him, talking only on the phone, when the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic hit. “By the time we could see each other again, we knew each other much more deeply,” she says. “Talking on the phone is so intimate that I would say stuff on my mind or be goofy in ways that I would feel self-conscious about in person.”
Kira Jones, a 36-year-old data manager in Atlanta, was already long-distance with her partner of three years before the pandemic began, and they haven’t seen each other in a year and a half because of it. “I think that it has definitely made us work on our communication,” she says. “We’ve figured out better ways to negotiate boundaries and be clear about expectations.”
Jones and her partner have also gotten better at requesting and planning quality time together. “We’re stuck at home, we need to do something to feel like a couple, so more date nights happen,” she says. “Before, there was a lot of anxiety about infringing on time.”
While COVID-19 may have forced some couples into quarantine together, it’s created distance between others—and forced some people to enter into relationships that are long-distance from the get-go.
According to a 2020 OKCupid study of its users, connections and conversations across state and country borders on the app went up nearly 50 percent during the pandemic. And a 2020 study conducted by the Kinsey Institute found that at the beginning of the pandemic, 16 percent of dating app users changed their filters (including distance filters) to match with more people.
“In the new normal, we’re all realizing that distance is not as large of an obstacle as it used to be,” says Meredith Prescott, LCSW, psychotherapist and owner of Prescott Psychotherapy + Wellness. “The world is functioning, even flourishing, in a remote environment where so much is possible.”
In fact, though, being separated has created difficulties for many couples, and actually motivated some to create closer, healthier relationships than they would have otherwise.
Ali Smith, a 32-year-old puppy development expert and founder of Rebarkable—who finally moved to Baltimore from the UK late last year to be with her partner after COVID-19 prevented them from moving in together—describes long-distance relationships as “kind of a modern Jane Austen-style relationship where emotion and friendship come before the physical.”
Long-distance relationships can allow for a stronger friendship and chance to strengthen the emotional component of the relationship first, says Prescott.
“Since there is physical distance, it requires an added layer of effective communication and trust that is necessary for all relationships but even more so in this dynamic.”
“The lack of proximity lends itself to creating a relationship based on trust,” Smith agrees from her own experience. “The distance forces you to consider your actions and to devote time and attention to your long-distance partner. It takes a lot more preparation than your average date. It takes much more [energy] to keep a long-distance relationship alive and thriving, which is fantastic preparation for when you are together.”
Long-distance relationships also allow people to have more independence and individuality while they’re in a relationship, Prescott adds, since it’s necessary for both people to find happiness in their lives outside their partners.
Even when people have not met yet, starting off talking from a distance before you meet in person has its advantages. “People are having more intimate conversations now than they were before,” says Justin Lehmiller, a social psychologist and research fellow at the Kinsey Institute.
“In the past, people were quick to meet when they were talking to someone online,” Lehmiller explains. “But now, they’re taking a slower approach to love where they’re using this time to build a connection with somebody. That may actually make their relationship stronger in the end if they’re taking the time to really build this emotional and intimate bond.”
Now that meeting in person is becoming less risky because of the release of COVID vaccines, being long-distance is no longer necessary for as many people.
However, being open to meeting people in all different locations has a simple statistical advantage: you’re more likely to find someone who’s a true match for you if you expand your options.
“Many individuals have long wondered whether or not they would fare better in other geographic locales,” sociologist Dr. Jess Carbino, tells HelloGiggles. “Individuals who are seeking partners who share a less common demographic characteristic, such as ethnicity or religion, may be able to find more compatible partners if their geographic requirements are relaxed.” So, people might consider expanding the geographical radius of the people they’re shown on dating apps if they’re open to meeting people in different locations even now.
And even those living in close proximity to their partners can still take some of the lessons learned during the pandemic and apply them to their own relationships. For instance, people can make a point to get to know their dates and have meaningful conversations before taking things to the next level. They can also make a point to have active lives outside their relationships, whether that’s with friends, family, hobbies, or their work.
Another lesson learned from long-distance relationships during the pandemic is having consistent communication. Long-distance couples need to be scrupulous about communicating their needs to each other, checking in on each other, establishing expectations around how often and how they want to talk, and discussing problems before they escalate, says Prescott—and everyone could benefit from doing that.
Good communication also means, above all, letting your partner know how much you care about them. “Tell your partner how you’re feeling,” Prescott advises. “Let them know how much you appreciate their support and your relationship. Think about how it would feel to be reassured that your partner appreciates your relationship as much as you do.” At the end of the day, it’s about providing support for your partner whether you’re near or far—and if this past year provided more ways to connect, then why not keep it up?