Opinion: Social distancing or physical distancing and social connecting?

“When I am in a bad mood, he asks me the details, because he knows it makes me feel better to talk about it – it helps. It is almost as if he is there,” says Lena, 31, about Pedro, 39, her LATT (Living Apart Together Transnational) partner.

Social distancing is a term we hear almost all the time during these COVID-19 pandemic days as a strategy for reducing the spread of the virus; countries are either adapting it in different forms or rejecting it. However, this term is rather unfortunate as it implies only distance between people, without implying the necessary connections between them.

Lockdown implying ‘social distancing’ measures  in a number of countries has led to involuntary distance between family members, among others, creating distance between intimate couples due to travel restrictions, as well as between grandparents and grandchildren due to the fear of the virus spreading from low-risk groups (children and young adults) to high-risk groups (over-65s).

However, what is truly needed to combat the coronavirus pandemic is a physical distancing accompanied by social connections between people.

Intimate in spite of distance
Living apart together (LAT) is usually an intimate relationship between partners who have their own separate addresses, while a long distance relationship (LDR) normally applies to romantically-involved partners living geographically far away from each other – maybe in the same country or in separate countries. An advancement of LAT and LDR is LATT, an acronym I have created to cover the phenomenon of couples in intimate relationships, though living in two different countries.

Naming the phenomenon brings attention to an academically under-researched practice, thus contributing to the mental health and well-being of such couples, as the research considers how intimacy is impacted by various virtual technologies despite  a great physical distance between them.

My ongoing study of 20 LATT couples, mostly (at least one partner) living in Scandinavia for periods varying between one and 15 years, has revealed that intimate relationships are not based on physical daily proximity but span a patchwork of feelings, emotions, everyday practices, technologies and societal structures.

Emotional reflexivity – understood as the capacity to interpret one’s own and others’ feelings, along with acting on them – is significant for connecting across geographical distance.

Sundays, Skype and sexting
A young academic couple living in different time zones (Denmark and East Coast USA, which is a six-hour gap) have maintained their deep emotional connection through a planned, systematic manner.  Their strategy is to connect via texting, and regularly write an email on Sundays about their past week and own reflections. The American partner explained jokingly: “For some reason we decided that on Sundays we had Pizzas or Sunday Zaas. Therefore, I coined the ‘Sunday Inzights’.”  At times, they had meals together virtually; in this case, it would mostly be lunch in the USA and dinner in Denmark.

A couple married for three decades, but continents apart communicate through intense, frequent exchanges via Skype calls/video calls in the morning and at lunchtime. They limit their talks to ten minutes.

Another LATT couple, who are academics and have been together 15 years, have a similar strategy. They agree that each exchange should begin with one of them speaking and the other listening with no comments, before they swap roles. They find that the sharing of everyday life routines, joys, sorrows and spirituality works well.

Finally, a young couple favour ‘sexting’ – digital communication focused on creating intimacy through words and sexualised visuals as a resource.  The couple, who met as trainees in international jobs, use the sexting as a substitute for direct physical intimacy. However, over the course of the study it emerged that some couples avoid sexting due to their suspicion of social media.

There’s a sucker born every minute (image: Amphiggins)

Inspiration for others
These real life narratives about LATT couples sustaining intimacy across countries provide inspiration for anyone experiencing physical distancing who is in need of some social connection during the coronavirus pandemic. However, the temporal uncertainty about the ending of this pandemic, and consequent lack of possibility for ‘offline’ meeting, adds to the complexity of the situation.

Yet there are ways of sustaining the relationships over distance, without physical proximity. Emotional reflexivity – grasping of one’s own and other people’s emotions and acting on them – is vital.  Thus emotional closeness entails the frequent and systematic sharing of everyday life, joys and sorrows through written words or a verbal exchange, for some, while sexting is the way forward for others.

Moreover, concrete methods such as the virtual sharing of meals or films across distance, even involving extended family or larger networks, may mitigate feelings of loneliness, existential anxiety and uncertainty to some extent.  Sustainable social connecting is a definite way of combating the negative mental health related-outcomes of the coronavirus pandemic for those facing physical distancing from their dear ones.