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Long-distance couples struggle amid pandemic, but remain optimistic

By NIKI KOTTMANN | (Cheyenne) Wyoming Tribune-Eagle | Published: April 26, 2020

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CHEYENNE, Wyo. (Tribune News Service) — Taylor Davis had a different last name six weeks ago — and a life that looked different.

Before March 16, she saw her then-long-distance boyfriend, Brady, every weekend. He’s a specialist in the U.S. Army, stationed at Fort Carson near Colorado Springs, Colo., and she’s an airman first class stationed at F.E. Warren Air Force Base. Six weeks ago, they were engaged, trying to start a family and in the process of buying their first home in Cheyenne, where he planned to move at the end of his service in April.

But when COVID-19 got in the way of those plans (and his service was extended to October), they decided to have an earlier wedding at the courthouse in Colorado Springs. The morning after their March 16 ceremony, which only her parents were able to attend, the couple parted ways by order of their respective military branches. The newlyweds have been forbidden to see each other ever since, and Davis has learned since that she’s pregnant.

“I had to tell him the news over the phone, and he’s been unable to come to any of my appointments,” Davis said. “And he might not be able to come until I’m 20-plus weeks.”

Davis and her husband are part of a subsection of the population experiencing a unique struggle during the pandemic: long-distance relationships. While the entire country and most of the world are being told to practice social distancing, those with significant others who doesn’t live in the same cities are grappling with the uncertainty of when they’ll be able to travel again.

Another in this situation is Sara DiRienzo, a public information officer at the Wyoming Game and Fish Department. Her partner, Josh Jagles, is a fish hatchery biologist at Farlington Fish Hatchery in Farlington, Kan.

The pair – just like the Davis family – have lived apart their entire relationship. But this is the first time they’ve had no idea when they’ll be able to reunite safely.

“That’s been really difficult because when you’re in a long-distance relationship, one of the things you look forward to is that next time you’re going to see each other, and before, we always had an idea of what that time was going to be,” DiRienzo said.

“The way we interact hasn’t changed; we still talk on the webcam everyday for a couple (of) hours … but what is different is the content of our lives. Because we’re both government employees, we’re still working for the state and trying to maintain those essential services in both places,” DiRienzo said.

Davis can relate to being an essential worker right now. She’s a public health technician at the on-base clinic, so she’s needed on the “front lines” of the pandemic.

Even on her weeks off, she isn’t allowed to leave Cheyenne, as ordered by the military. If she were to leave, she could face a reduction in pay — or even jail time.

What gets her through, she said, is having a positive outlook and maintaining consistent contact with her new husband over the phone. They spend a lot of time playing games, watching movies and “making dinner” together via Facetime.

“We remind ourselves often that it’s temporary and it’ll make us stronger,” Davis said. “What keeps me going is that he’s just a phone call away … we’re very lucky in this generation to have technology like we do. This would be way different if we didn’t have access to that.”

DiRienzo and her partner also rely on the phone to stay connected — but the interesting thing, she said, has been observing how different their conversations are now that they’re not hanging out with friends or chatting with coworkers in the office. Instead of talking about other interactions or how other people in their respective lives are doing, a lot of their conversations are about their daily life at home, which always seem to circle back to the pandemic.

The one silver lining, she said, is this situation has led them to find more creative activities to do over the phone both to enjoy quality time and to try to get their minds off of the anxiety everyone is feeling right now.

“Once a week, we try to find a yoga class online that we do together on the webcam, and we’re watching more Netflix together on Netflix Party,” DiRienzo said. “And we try to play games. He has two kids who are 15 and 13, so we’re just trying to do stuff over webcam as a family unit, (such as) playing games or having conversations so everyone still feels like things are a little bit normal.”

Both women said their respective relationships actually haven’t changed — if anything, they’re particularly strong because they’re leaning on their partners even more — but the feeling of loneliness that comes from living alone, several hours away from their significant others, is exacerbated during this pandemic.

Still, Davis said she continues to look to the future for solace. She knows that one day, the military travel ban will be lifted, and she and her husband will have plenty to catch up on (not to mention, she’ll have some ultrasound photos to share). In the meantime, she’s staying focused on her job and her baby, while also supporting those around her.

“I have a friend who is in Wisconsin, in my hometown, and her boyfriend is in Germany,” Davis said. “I always say, ‘You just have to remember that the days are long, but the years go by fast. If you both want it enough, distance isn’t going to tear you apart, and trust and communication is everything. If you don’t have that trust built, and you have doubts, your mind is going to wander, and you’ll dig yourself into a dark hole.’”

It’s a good time to test relationships, Davis added, because couples who can’t get through this aren’t on the same page.

The timing of COVID-19 has been particularly hard on DiRienzo because her most cherished tradition with her boyfriend, their annual spring turkey hunt, always falls during April. Having to cancel that trip crushed her, but she’s choosing to focus on the fact that she has someone to make such lasting memories with, rather than the fact that they missed out on making new memories this April.

“We’re very fortunate to still have each other ... and I think it has forced us to deepen our relationship,” she said. “Those skills you have in a long-distance relationship, a lot of other couples don’t have because they rely on a lot of things that are nonverbal.”

And when she really thinks about what matters, DiRienzo said she’s just happy that both of their families are healthy and safe. Avoiding travel for now is worth it if it means helping other people stay well.

“This is just a temporary sacrifice that’s for the greater good of society,” she said.

©2020 Wyoming Tribune-Eagle (Cheyenne, Wyo.)
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