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How to maintain long-distance relationships, friendships during COVID-19

Maintaining long-distance relationships and friendships requires creativity.
Long Distance Connection Issue
"As humans, we are built biologically with the need to connect to others," said Hillary Schoninger, a psychotherapist based in Chicago.TODAY Illustration / Getty Images / Samuel F. B. Morse / The Met
/ Source: TMRW

Human connection has been a challenge during the COVID-19 pandemic, but couples in long-distance relationships and friends who live far away from each other are finding creative ways to feel together from afar.

Brittany Russo, who lives in Washington state, hasn't seen her boyfriend, Paddy Meade, since last summer when the travel restrictions were temporarily eased and she was able to quarantine with him in Ireland.

A typical day apart for the couple involves plenty of calls and FaceTime chats — sometimes even putting each other on video and silently working "together" — and a few surprises, such as occasionally ordering each other lunch.

"We also have date nights where we either go to the store together or schedule time where we eat meals together," Russo said. "One time I took him 'to the mall' in Seattle and we shopped for Christmas gifts together. We're just trying our best to find some normalcy."

Paddy Meade lives in Ireland and his girlfriend, Brittany Russo, lives in Washington.Paddy Meade

Hillary Schoninger, a psychotherapist based in Chicago, told TMRW that creative approaches like these are key to nourishing the human need for connection that so many are missing right now.

"As humans, we are built biologically with the need to connect to others," she said. "Connecting to others helps to inform our social cues while enhancing our mental and physical health. When we connect to others, we can better our health while also improving the health of who we are connecting with."

Cass Hirsch lives in New York City, while her boyfriend of two years, Alex Field, lives in London. The couple were apart for eight months due to the pandemic until Field planned a way to come to the United States. He flew to Croatia, one of the countries that wasn't on the travel ban list, and spent two weeks there staying with an aunt before he went on to Istanbul, Turkey, and caught a direct flight to the United States.

"It was a long, stressful journey, plagued by the fear that after all this time, effort and money I’d invested in this plan, the customs agent on the other side would find some reason to not let me in. Fortunately, all went well and I spent a wonderful three months with Cass," he said.

Cass Hirsch lives in New York City and her boyfriend, Alex Field, lives in London.Alex Field and Cass Hirsch

Field returned to London last month, but the couple is still finding ways to do quarantine activities together, including binge-watching Netflix shows.

"We make dinner together over Zoom, watch a lot of synced up television together and sometimes play video games. During the first lockdown we went on Animal Crossing dates," Hirsch said, referring to the Nintendo game. "We often will watch shows together — recently we’re obsessed with 'The Crown.'"

Having a sense of routine, such as recurring Zoom dinner dates or FaceTime calls, is one important tip for keeping connection strong and boosting mental health during the pandemic, said Jessica Senick, a psychotherapist in Red Bank, New Jersey.

"Routine is so important right now. We do better with structure, even though we resist it," she said. "Decide something, such as every Thursday at 3 I'll FaceTime my girlfriend or sibling. Have them be routine so you won't blow it off."

It's not just romantic couples who are feeling the strain of being apart.

Before the pandemic, Barry-John Leahy, a podcaster who lives in Dublin, Ireland, loved going to New York City for long weekends to hang out with Brett Moscati, a former colleague who has become one of his best friends. He optimistically booked a couple trips last year, but had to cancel them.

"Brett and I stay in touch mostly through WhatsApp video calls every week. I am hoping to see him soon, but I also decided to turn this into a bit of a personal challenge to do during lockdown," he said. "I have bet with a lot of my friends that if I can stay off the drink for a year, they have to pay for my flights and accommodation, going to New York City and staying at the Standard Hotel. And you know what, I want to make a holiday of it!"

Leahy is currently going strong six months into the bet and said he hopes the travel restrictions ease by the end of the summer so he can get his well-earned trip to New York City and reunite in person with Moscati.

Barry-John Leahy, who lives in Dublin, and his friend Brett Moscati, who lives in New York City, hanging out before the pandemic.talkofshamepod / Instagram

In the fall of 2013, Christina Harman studied abroad in London where she made lifelong friends who she has visited at least once a year since she graduated. Harman had to cancel her annual trip last May due to the pandemic, and said she's not expecting to be able to travel this year either.

"We’ve been sending each other postcards back and forth in addition to FaceTiming," she said. "It helped me appreciate their friendship through all of this. It’s still great to know they’re there for me."

Christina Harman lives in New York and can't visit her friends in London, so instead they've been sending each other postcards.Killian Abuan

Senick said postcards and handwritten notes are a great way to foster another form of connection.

"I think it is a time when we can get creative with new ideas and bring back some of the old ones," she said. "Before technology, letters and cards were it. It’s something to look forward to. It's a connection."