How couples are navigating long-distance relationships in Australia in the time of Covid-19

In 1755, Frances Boscawen was eagerly awaiting her naval officer husband’s return from North America when a fever spread through his squadron and delayed his ship.

She poured out her anguish in a letter: “A month more seems an age, and to pass it here I cannot … for here is the sea, and here are ships; and men of war come in daily, but not the ship which my eyes have ached in looking for every day.”

Boscawen was one of hundreds of “shore wives” who navigated lengthy separations from their husbands, often requiring a vast knowledge of winds and geography for messages to reach their lovers.

Hundreds of years later, space and time has been condensed by aeroplanes, phones and wifi.

But in the age of the pandemic, living apart has taken on a new complexity.

For some, it’s meant endless Zoom screens and late-night phone calls, while for others, the rush to escape lockdowns has propelled relationships faster than either had planned.

For Rylae Kirby, an ambitious plan for her partner Luna Roldan to relocate from Spain to Melbourne in March 2020 was upended when Australia’s borders shut to international arrivals.

The pair met volunteering at a refugee camp in Greece in a hot, pre-pandemic summer, and had just four weeks together before Luna returned to Spain for teaching. Head-over-heels, Rylae followed her to Barcelona, until her visa expired.

A few months later, Luna came and stayed with Rylae at her Brunswick share-house.

“Australia for her wasn’t even on the map, it was this far-off land that didn’t really exist,” Rylae says. “But it was amazing, over three months we knew we wanted to be together.”

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Luna returned with a plan to secure a working holiday visa and move to Australia for good. But two weeks before her mid-March trip – “Covid started to feel very real”. Then, the border closed.

“We thought maybe this will last a month, so we’d just wait it out and she’d be over soon,” Rylae says.

“The hardest part was not knowing when we were going to see each other. Hope can get you through a lot of things but it’s not the same as having a date,” Rylae says.

“It felt so overwhelming. We were really good at communicating … a lot of deep conversations, a lot of tears … but it was a complete shit show.”

In June, the couple applied for a travel exemption to prove they were in a de-facto relationship – that would be rejected 11 times before they finally received the green light.

“It felt so painful having to try and prove your relationship, and someone else having the power to choose whether you’re worth being together,” Rylae says. “As a queer couple that brings its complexities, you start to question who’s reading it, whether they value it as much as a heterosexual couple.”

The next issue became finding a flight.

“The day we got the acceptance, there wasn’t a single flight available for three months, I remember calling one of the airlines and they said ‘we’ve got one next week, it’s $11,000’,” Rylae says.

Eventually, Luna booked a flight to Sydney, and flew out of Spain the day the country went back into lockdown.

“She did two weeks hotel quarantine, which was hard. But she got through it and flew to Melbourne where I was anxiously waiting at the airport,” Rylae says.

“Then finally she walks down the stairs, it was like this big moment, and both of us, masked, rip off the masks, and I give her a big kiss.”

Since then, the couple have spent months meandering in a camper-van to their new home in Alice Springs.

“Even if there are lockdowns, we’re together, everything seems much more doable,” Rylae says.

For Keelin O’Reilly and Teagan Goh, lockdowns were the trigger that forced the couple to pull the pin on long distance.

They first met on Tinder the week after Melbourne emerged from lockdown last year.

Keelin wasn’t looking to commit – she had plans to move to Sydney for university.

But the pair fell in love, and by late January, they decided to give long distance a go. In February, Keelin jetted off to Sydney.

The first time Covid cases emerged, Teagan happened to be visiting Keelin in Sydney and stayed a few days longer than planned. But the second time was hard.

“Teagan lives by herself, she was finding it really difficult being in lockdown,” Keelin says.

They got through it with hours of Facetime, and in June, Keelin booked tickets to visit Melbourne on the brink of a growing outbreak in Sydney.

“I planned to stay for six days … but the outbreak got progressively worse … and now I’ve been here for three months.”

“Literally everything” Keelin owns remains in a rental in Sydney, while she waits out the pandemic from Teagan’s one-bedroom apartment in Melbourne’s east.

“I came with two pairs of pants because I thought it doesn’t matter if I wear the same thing,” she laughs.

“If I wasn’t in a long-distance relationship I would have gone back, but I don’t want to be separated from her for that long – it feels too risky when we don’t know when the borders will open.”

Sophie Raynor and Felix Maia
Sophie Raynor and Felix Maia. Sophie is living in Melbourne and Felix is in Dili, Timor-Leste. Photograph: Supplied

Sophie Raynor and Felix Maia have been making long distance work since they first met, over beers at a pub in Dili, Timor-Leste in 2016.

Sophie was visiting for a short work trip, and left three weeks later thinking “that’s a really nice place, I wonder if I’ll ever go back there”.

A year later, she returned on a volunteer program and saw Felix on her first week back. They’ve been together ever since.

They lived together for a year in Timor in 2018, before Felix was accepted for an Australian Awards Scholarship program, moving to Melbourne in January 2019. Sophie returned to her family in Perth in April.

For nine months, the pair visited each other once every month or so. Then, in January 2020, Sophie joined Felix in Melbourne, just weeks before Australia’s first Covid-19 case was confirmed.

“It was difficult to have so many changes happen in such a short space of time, and such consequential changes … studying from home, in a one-bedroom flat in Carlton, was exactly the opposite of doing long distance across two continents,” she says.

“But the silver lining of lockdown was we made up for so much lost time … it was a catch up year for all the distance we had in 2019.”

Both knew, though, a condition of his visa was the revoking of Felix’s working rights in Australia for two years after graduating from his program.

“What we didn’t predict was his return would happen during a pandemic.”

Felix didn’t make it home until February this year – his flights were cancelled or rescheduled six times. But Sophie remained optimistic – the TGA had just approved vaccines, and she could see a “clear pathway” to reuniting with Felix.

Now fully vaccinated, she’s only able to laugh when asked about future plans.

“As soon as they ease the international border I’ll have a lot more mobility and flexibility and won’t have to pack up my whole life to see him,” she says.

“Once I could book a flight ten days out and my only consideration was how many sandals I needed to pack. There’s a lot more administration to this relationship than there was in the past.”

For Alex Gleeson and Ruby Syme, dating in a pandemic has been an experience of acceleration rather than administration.

A music booker in New York, Alex only returned to Melbourne when the pandemic kicked off, and always knew he would be heading back at the end of July. Meeting Ruby during Melbourne’s first iteration of lockdown picnics last year came as a surprise.

“There’s so much I’m grateful for in my relationship that was caused by the pandemic – every other part has been shit but it’s sped up things,” he says.

“But life slowed down and gave us a chance to spend this quality time together. It was a good way to eliminate the bullshit.”

“Pretty early on,” the couple decided they’d continue to see each other when Alex moved back to the states – which took the weight off, but also sped things up.

Now six weeks into long distance, Ruby says they’re still finding their feet.

“It’s different being in lockdown here, there’s a lot less to distract myself with,” she says.

“It’s a weird time to be doing it, we’d probably be meeting every few months if we weren’t in the middle of a pandemic. But we’re developing a story that’s going to be exciting to tell one day.”


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