When scrolling through the hashtag #relationshipgoals2022 on Twitter, I was happily surprised at what I found. I expected to see the usual aspirations – you know, big house, nice car, a Molly-24-hours-in-a-day-Mae and Tommy kind of lifestyle. But by far, the most popular theme that continued to pop up was to “normalise living apart from your partner”.
Typically, “relationship goals” in the past have been about achieving a perfect dynamic, being part of a power couple who have attained a happy and healthy relationship, are potentially even married, and have all the material goods on display to prove it. But during the pandemic, the way we navigate relationships has clearly changed a lot. From long-distance, Zoom-based relationships to staying two feet apart in the park and, for some periods, not being able to see each other at all, these dating styles seem to be prompting people to redefine the way we physically live and spend our time together as couples.
When, three years into a relationship, one of you decides to move halfway around the world to South Korea during a pandemic, a lot of people might reconsider just how much they would want to be with that person anymore. But for Jedd, who did exactly that, it was a different story. “I told [my partner] Cat over FaceTime. I was actually upset but they were so happy,” he says. “They were like ‘this is amazing for you, you have to go.’”
Still, long-distance relationships are difficult. For Jedd and Cat, having a regular routine of communication and setting dates to see each other helps keep things going. But with borders closed during peak waves of the pandemic and South Korea being thousands of miles away, how did they keep up the momentum? “We can’t let every interaction be a sad ‘miss you’ vibe,” Jedd explains. “We have to share things we’re excited about, what we did that day and what we’re having for tea. Not everything is about the fact that we’re apart.”
Skype, Zoom and Facetime have played a massive part in how we communicate with people long-distance and, now, even with people we see day-to-day. Seeing and speaking to the person we are apart from makes things feel more real and solid, and forges more closeness. As Jedd explains: “We FaceTime almost every day. It helps me feel like I’m part of their life more. I have a stack of gifts from Korea in my wardrobe, but I can’t keep secrets so I’m constantly revealing them on FaceTime.”
Long-distance relationships are nothing new. We have been communicating with faraway lovers via letters, phone calls, texts and emails for centuries. (Wondering how these couples kept it sexual? Check out James Joyce and his wife Nora Barnacle getting their fart fetish on in their 1909 love letters). But keeping that distance more permanent is considered more unusual. Famously, Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera lived in two separate houses joined together by a bridge. Helena Bonham Carter and Tim Burton also lived in two houses that were connected (although that didn’t work out so well for them). Meanwhile, fitness guru Bethany Meyers and Actor Nico Tortorella have been married for a few years now and live completely apart, FaceTiming every day but loving their own space and seeing each other once a week.
But for some people, living separately yet in close proximity is more of a necessity than a choice. When Nicole* met her now-husband five years ago, she had no plans to move in with him. But she was looking for a place to live and the flat above him was going for cheap – and everyone knows the housing situation in London is like all of Dante’s circles of Hell combined. “I did worry that it might be awkward if things didn’t work out between us,” she says, looking back. “Potentially awkward meetings on the stairs were a risk worth taking to get a reasonably cheap place, so I took the flat”
Ten years previous, Nicole’s now-husband had bought his flat with his ex-partner, but they split up soon after the purchase. With the chokehold that London housing has on everyone, they decided to continue living together as friends. Five years on, and two years of marriage for Nicole, the living situation has stayed the same. “We have now been married for two years, while still living in different flats,” she explains. “Our setup is perfect for me. Who doesn’t want to be in a relationship but still have your own space? I can see him whenever I want as he’s just downstairs, but I can also have whole days where I live like a single person.”
Although Nicole says that their set-up is fine, it’s not completely ideal for the long term. All three people are looking at ways to find a solution that means everyone can live happily. But she’s not put off by what others may think of their situation: “I think if you are in an unusual living arrangement and it works for you, then you should not feel like you shouldn’t be living that way because other people think it’s weird.”
If living in separate countries, cities or even houses feels a bit extreme, you can always try simply venturing across the hallway. During the first lockdown in 2020, after a lot of thinking, I made the decision to have my own bedroom in the house I lived in (and still live in) with my then partner. I’d never had my own space before then, having been in relationships since my late teens. I was able to decorate my room exactly how I liked and each night we decided whether we were going to sleep in the same room or not. It felt revolutionary. I was able to be me, but still in my relationship. Although those circumstances have changed now, I understand the desire and importance for your own space to be yourself in a relationship.
Becky has several chronic illnesses and completely different job hours to her partner, so they started sleeping in different rooms in their two-bedroom flat to accommodate their sleeping patterns. “I’ve got the health of a sickly Victorian child. I’m a terrible sleeper, but also need a lot of rest because of my chronic illnesses,” she explains. “We realised we’re grown-ups in a two double bedroom flat – we can do what the hell we want and that means we can have our own bedrooms.”
Both Becky and her partner now love having their own space, and she no longer feels annoyed about having her disability aids everywhere or getting in the way in her old shared bedroom. “When you’re a kid you hear or see stuff like this and think it’s the death of a relationship,” she explains. “But actually, the thought of sharing a room all the time makes me want to die.
“More people need to get over the stigma of having separate rooms, if it’s an option,” she continues. “I have other friends jumping ship and doing the same after realising it’s actually a really healthy thing to do.”
Carving out a space to be your own person in a relationship, whether that be in your own house, bedroom or country, is important. The pandemic has forced us to change how our relationships work and, as a partner on the receiving end of this, it can feel jarring and a bit like rejection. But you have to remember that this advice applies to both parties.
Distance doesn’t mean apart. Being yourself means being the best you can be and bringing that person to your relationship.
*Name has been changed for anonymity