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Tech + Life

I was in a socially-distant relationship for seven years. Here’s what I learned.

A trans-Atlantic romance gave me some technological tools for surviving a pandemic.

By Lian Parsons-Thomason

Social distancing measures to curb the COVID-19 pandemic have separated millions of people from loved ones, including romantic partners. For many of my friends, the prospect of being apart from a significant other for months — let alone finding love anew — seems unimaginable.

But not to me. My now-husband and I met online, and were in a long-distance relationship for seven-and-a-half years. For the majority of our courtship, we lived 3,000 miles and a five-hour time difference apart.

Igniting, and then tending to, a committed relationship under those circumstances was one of the most challenging things I’ve done in my life. We saw each other in person once or twice a year, for a few weeks at a time. We once went a year and a half without visiting one another. In some ways, however, the distance made our growing bond more resilient. And if we could do it in 2012, it’s certainly achievable in 2020, when couples have a wider variety of ways to spark up a romance and stay connected emotionally, if not physically.

When my husband and I first met through mutual internet friends, I was 16 and living in Boston; he was in his first year of university in Northern England. We had a shared interest in writing. I thought he was funny and intelligent, and the accent certainly didn’t hurt.

We got creative with activities we could do together virtually — an occasionally frustrating endeavor.

We didn’t meet in person at all for the first year. Instead, we communicated daily with whatever voice, video, or text chat was available to us, and eight years ago, that wasn’t much. For video chats, I used Skype on my iPhone 4, which I propped up against a book on my bedside table. When I eventually got a desktop computer, the modem would whirr loudly, often drowning me out mid-sentence. As the technology improved, we expanded to group chat rooms, Facebook Messenger, and Discord, an app for streaming video games together.

We gradually got to know each other by talking constantly throughout the day — about funny things that happened in class, family problems, “Breaking Bad” theories. It took plenty of trial and error to figure out how best to communicate without body language and physical contact to guide us. It’s hard to read tone over text. Spotty internet connections would cut us off during important conversations. I learned how to be as precise, direct, and clear with my language as possible: “It made me angry when you said…,” “I felt sad when this happened because…” We tried hard to remove any ambiguity so we could work issues together. This still serves us well, and it makes our arguments shorter.

Because traditional date ideas were out the window, we got creative with activities we could do together virtually — an occasionally frustrating endeavor. We’d try to watch movies, counting down from 3 and pressing “play” on our respective Netflix screens, but inevitably we’d end up a little bit off. (The big twist isn’t so big when you can hear the other person gasp 30 seconds before.) We also tried a few early versions of couples’ apps for long-distance partners. One, called “Couple,” which I can no longer find in the Apple Store, let us privately share photos, videos, digital drawings, and play a “mini game”: if we both put our thumbs on our screens at the same time, they would buzz and light up.

It’s a lot easier to hang out together virtually these days. The couples’ apps industry is booming, with myriad ways to check in with your partner. “Between” allows partners to chat, track important anniversaries, share photos and videos, and coordinate schedules. Love Nudge is based on the concept of the 5 love languages and allows users to track relationship goals, such as spending more time together after work.

It’s also easier than ever to stream a movie or TV show together, play a multiplayer video game like Animal Crossing, or have a board game night with friends online. We’ve done this regularly during the quarantine; our mainstays are Uno and the Jackbox Games party packs. My husband also plays Dungeons and Dragons a couple of nights per week with the assistance of the virtual tabletop service Roll 20.

Still, I know from experience that the unpredictability, especially right now, is the hardest part. It’s painful not being with the person you care about, and not knowing when the separation will end (or when you can start dating without screens) can make it even more stressful.

But take heart: Like the long-distance aspect of my relationship, all of this is temporary. There will be a day when we can go to the movies, go on an overnight trip, hang out with friends at a party, or go to that new ramen restaurant we’ve been desperate to try out. That’s vital to keep in mind, because making future plans together will remind you that there is a future to look forward to.

When it’s behind you, you may also find that you have a much greater appreciation for your partner and your relationship — and that getting through the time apart gives you a strong foundation to build on. I do not take a single day for granted with my husband in our one-bedroom, 425-square-foot apartment. Now, all we have to do is stay at home together.

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Lian Parsons-Thomason is a writer based in Boston.

Illustration by Martin Elfman

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