Faith Bonds was going to have the best semester yet. She was spending the semester studying abroad in France, where she’d met her long-distance boyfriend last year on a Maymester. After seven months of WhatsApp dates, they would finally get to close the 4,000-mile gap and reunite in-person.
“I didn’t think it was going to last beyond my little stay in Paris [during the Maymester]. But then, when I was at the airport, and I was leaving, he called me,” Bonds, a sophomore majoring in public relations and French, said. “I got home and he was still calling me.”
Although they had only gone on a few dates during her short stay in Paris, the couple made the decision to continue their relationship, counting on Bonds’ semester abroad to bring them back together.
But the world had other plans. At the beginning of March, the coronavirus was declared a pandemic and President Donald Trump announced a ban on travel from most European countries.
Just two months into her time abroad, Bonds awoke to an email from the USC Office of Overseas Studies. She was being sent home.
“My heart sank into my stomach,” Bonds said. “I was trying to find any loophole not to come home because I wanted to stay. There was no reason that I wanted to come home.”
On top of this sudden change, Bonds had a midterm scheduled for later that day. She told her professor she was too stressed to take it, and immediately after reading the email, Bonds headed over to her boyfriend’s apartment.
“We just sobbed together for hours,” Bonds said. “It wasn’t fair.”
Although the couple had talked about the possibility that Bonds would be sent home early, they weren’t prepared for the reality of the situation.
“I was really depressed and sad,” Bonds said. “I didn’t eat for three days, and it’s not like me to do that… it seems dramatic now, but I was just so upset and felt so robbed that I just didn’t even know what to do.”
Bonds and her boyfriend had planned a trip to Barcelona for the weekend to celebrate his birthday. That was canceled. Their spring break plans in Italy fell through, too. Instead, she booked the next flight back to her hometown of Chicago.
“It was hard enough for me, but I can only imagine it was hard for him,” Bonds said. “But despite that, he was not selfish at all, and he just helped me get out.” After three canceled flights, Bonds finally made it home and began to self-quarantine for two weeks.
Although they had been through long-distance before, this time it was harder. “The thing that helps the most is staying busy and keeping your mind off it,” Bonds said. “But when you’re stuck in your house, it’s pretty much impossible.”
As much as she tried to focus on her online classes, she found herself missing him all over again. “[When I was studying abroad] he would come after I was done with school, he would come almost every day, and we would go get coffee or go get food and just walk and discover things in Paris together. And now it’s just gone,” Bonds said.
Mary Andres, an associate professor of clinical education at USC Rossier and an expert on couples’ counseling, said that it is common for students to feel overwhelmed during this time. “Grief, loss and disappointment are three of the [psychological effects] we are facing from the coronavirus,” Andres said. “There’s an uncertainty to the unknown, not knowing how long we’re going to be under these kinds of conditions.”
This overlying anxiety of the unknown can affect romantic relationships drastically. But Andres says fear can be managed by focusing on what is within your control. “There’s a sense of helplessness in wanting to comfort someone who is far away in a city by themselves, but we need to first take care of ourselves,” Andres said.
All around the world, couples are finding ways to feel connected, even while social distancing apart from each other. Some couples fall asleep on FaceTime together, while others have virtual dinner dates. Basically, they’re “trying to have some of the same kinds of experiences that you might have had when you were together,” Andres explained.
At the same time, some people feel that forming online connections is almost too accessible. “Some people have been overcorrecting, and they’re now pulling back from a lot of the kinds of connections and what they’re finding is that they don’t want superficial connections. They want to have real intimacy,” Andres said.
Intimacy isn’t just a physical connection. In fact, couples that are long-distance often deepen their relationships in other ways. To build a successful relationship, Andres suggested John Gottman’s 5-to-1 ratio of compliments-to-constructive criticism. ”Look for the things that are strengths you notice in your partner and really be able to just appreciate that, and you’ll be in a much more generous mood,” Andres said.
Having been through long-distance before, Bonds has come to the same conclusion. “I try to look at it in a positive way of testing the strength of my relationship,” Bonds said. “There are a lot of tough roadblocks and situations in relationships, and this is just one of them.”
Other relationships have been pushed to different extremes because of coronavirus. Amy Huang, a junior studying computational linguistics and applied and computational mathematics, moved in with her boyfriend of just four months to self-isolate together.
“It was kind of like a trial run,” Huang explained, since she has already signed a lease to move into a separate room in his townhouse for the fall semester. At first, she felt “claustrophobic,” because they were sharing a small room and she had brought her corgi, Bella, with her. “It did make me doubt, like is this going to get better with more room, or am I just fundamentally not prepared to move in with this guy?”
Huang had originally planned to stay with her boyfriend during spring break so they could spend time together. But once safer-at-home measures were set in place, Huang had to choose between staying in her on-campus single or moving in with her boyfriend. “A lot of people don’t have a choice,” Huang acknowledged.
Living together brought other struggles. At first, Huang had to persuade her boyfriend to take precautions against COVID-19. “When your partner isn’t on the same page as you about preventive measures, it is super stressful,” Huang said. “It created tension and strain in our relationship until I effectively kept nagging… and then he was like ‘this was a lot more serious than I thought.’”
Huang has started subleasing her boyfriend’s housemate’s room so they can have separate study spaces and the entire second floor of the townhouse.
For others who might not have the option of adding more physical space, there are still ways to alleviate cabin fever. “You’re not doing everything together, but really carving out things that you want to do by yourself,” Andres said. “It lets the other person have downtime. Even if you’re doing something in the apartment and you have your earbuds in, then the other person can just feel relaxed.”
Going on physically distant and socially responsible walks is a good way to get out of the house, Andres said. “Part of that is just the sense of, we’re together, and we’re in space. There’s a spaciousness around us,” Andres said.
Furthermore, talking in an open space makes having challenging conversations easier. “You just talk about different things when you’re walking, and part of that is because as your body is moving, your blood flow is different. Your brain is just working in a much more open way than it does when you’re sitting still,” she said.
Whether together or apart, “Work with what you’ve got,” Andres advised. Dating, celebrating relationship milestones and love have changed because of the coronavirus. “This is where just being creative really makes a difference.”
Every relationship is different, and ultimately depends on the choices individuals make to take care of themselves, Andres said. “Not every relationship is going to survive this, but it’s not COVID that’s going to end the relationships, it’s going to be how we manage ourselves — our own feelings — that make this not work out.”