Four sets of couples talk about how they kept their romance thriving amid the unique challenges the coronavirus posed — and what the pandemic has taught them about their relationship
‘It’s like we’ve done five years’ worth of marriage in a few months’
Kate & Ciara: Got engaged in lockdown
After meeting online in October 2019, Kate Brennan-Harding, radio/podcast producer, DJ and writer, got engaged to her fiancée Ciara, a youth and adult education worker. They both live in Loughrea, Galway with Ciara’s seven-year-old son Iarla.
When the two women met, the connection was instant: “We locked eyes and smiled and we loved that moment,” Ciara recalls. In fact, the two were so smitten that on their second date, Kate met all of Ciara’s friends. “She told me, ‘I’m going to a friend’s party and I’d love you to come’,” Kate recalls, laughing.
“We were pretty inseparable after that. I was infatuated. We spent Christmas together, and I met Ciara’s parents and her son Iarla.”
So far, so great… except that the news headlines in January and February surrounding the coronavirus soon gave Kate pause for concern.
“I remember saying to Ciara, ‘they way they kept reporting on it, I think we’ll be in trouble’,” recalls Kate. “I can’t remember which one of us said, ‘look, I want to be with you’. We knew we wanted to spend lockdown together, no matter what.”
Kate and Ciara got engaged on February 16, and for the new family unit, there was plenty of adjusting yet to happen.
“It was an adjustment for Iarla — he wasn’t used to sharing his mum — and I had to get used to life in Galway and getting up in the mornings,” says Kate. “I was definitely more used to working late nights. I did struggle with the mornings. I’d imagine Ciara would tell you I’m pretty grumpy in the mornings.”
“The other challenge was moving to Loughrea and not having any of my own friends there,” Kate adds. “I’m very sociable, so to get around that I took up remote walking and I’d call my friends. Fortunately, Ciara’s friends are fabulous and they’ve adopted me. It’s been life-saving in many ways.”
“It’s only after a few months that I realised how much of a change it was for her,” admits Ciara.
“For the first round of lockdown, we both knew there was this deep trust and love, so we knew we were grand,” Kate notes. “It’s like we’ve done five years’ worth of marriage in a few months, and I mean that in the nicest way possible. We know each other in a way that it would have taken years to build up otherwise.”
Kate notes that they learned to communicate in the first lockdown, and are bringing those lessons into the current lockdown. “We have a very good way of communicating with each other now,” explains Kate. “That’s not to say we’ve had a few arguments where we were both devastatingly upset and frustrated with each other. I’ll struggle to communicate, and she will withdraw, where I have to try and talk everything out. It’s been a real learning curve.
Ciara is in agreement: “We’ve had to have a few conversations about carving out space and our own time, which is something I’ve not been good at.
“My friends have commented, ‘it’s like you went off into a cave’, but I’ve never felt stuck or trapped. It came down to having trust and respect and honest conversations. Kate is also really romantic, which really helps to keep the connection there.”
“We’ve had to remember to do things with love,” Kate says. “This is how we started off and I’m not letting go of it.”
‘We appreciate each other even more, we cherish our time together’
Bronagh & Karl: Living apart during lockdown
Bronagh Lyons (founder of the Epic Hearts Club coaching service) from Laois and Karl Davidson, a businessman from Kildare, were living in China and holidaying in Ireland, when news of the pandemic broke. Unable to return to China, the married couple were forced to live much of 2020 in their respective family homes in Ireland. They are currently living together in the Netherlands.
After meeting online and having their first face-to-face meeting in Dublin airport’s purple car park, the couple married in 2017.
“Karl and I moved to China in April 2018 and spent almost two years practically always together on the other side of the world,” Bronagh explains. “Life was fantastic, we had lots of quality time together plus travelling and exploring around Asia. We had planned to leave China at the end of May so were excited to spend our last five months there ticking off all the things we hadn’t done yet. We didn’t even see the Great Wall.”
Coming home to Ireland for Chinese New Year in January, the couple decided to stay on in Ireland.
“It was really stressful as not only did we not have our own space, we also had only packed suitcases for 10 days,” Bronagh recalls. “All of our belongings were sitting in an apartment the other side of the world. We had to work on cancelling everything, arrange for movers to go into our apartment and box up all of our things and to hand the apartment back to the landlord over the phone. There was a huge delay on this in China — due to Covid you could not enter an apartment compound unless you lived there.”
The two were grateful to be able to live in their family homes, but the separation wasn’t without its difficulties.
“I know personally whenever I’m around Karl life is just better, so dealing with so much without him by my side has been difficult,” Bronagh admits. “Being restricted within a 5km radius was tough on us mentally.
A family illness compounded the pair’s stress: “One close family member was in hospital for months after a serious surgery and no one could visit them due to Covid,” explains Bronagh. “We didn’t know how he was or have much indication of what to expect. Another close family member passed away. We have lots of elderly family members to stress over.”
“As a couple however, all scenarios bring us closer together,” Bronagh adds.
“We appreciate each other even more, we cherish our time together, we learn more about each other, we dream about what the future will hold when all of these life restrictions are lifted. We’ve learned not to take time and experiences for granted.”
Adds Karl: “There are times when the whole pandemic situation is hard on the mental health and Bronagh might not be there for a shoulder to cry on or just a listening ear. Phone and video calls are great, but they are just not the same as a physical presence.”
Next year is set to bring yet more uncertainty for the couple. “Karl is scheduled to spend a considerable amount of 2021 in Taiwan,” Bronagh explains. “Due to strict Covid restrictions in Taiwan, it is very unlikely I will be able to visit him while he is there. This means that not only will we be separated, we will be in completely different time zones and schedules.
“There will be an end of the tunnel at some point, even if we are not sure what that is. And we are both certain that the end of the tunnel has a lot of light!” Bronagh adds. “My biggest lesson was to stay positive and optimistic, know it won’t last forever, and that eventually we will be back together in our own space.”
‘We do yoga every morning, play cards... cooking’
Jennifer & Raymond: The future planners
Jennifer Haskins is founder/owner of Two’s Company dating agency (twoscompany.ie), and lives in Dun Laoghaire with her partner Raymond Rieke, a company director who is originally from Stuttgart.
The couple met three and a half years ago in the Royal Marine Hotel in Dublin: “After chatting for a couples of minutes, he said he was going to take a stroll along the pier and asked if I’d like to join him,” Jennifer recalls. “I decided to take the plunge. After all, he seemed like a nice friendly guy and I reckoned I’d nothing to lose.”
The pandemic, Raymond notes, has ‘strengthened’ their relationship, and they feel closer than ever. “The partnership made it much easier to distance ourselves from the uncertainties of the pandemic,” he reveals.
“We’re doing a lot more together — yoga every morning, some card games, cooking together — healthier options, and an evening walk, weather permitting.
“The biggest challenge, if I can call it that at all, was to decide every day what we should eat or cook,” admits Raymond.
“We came up with a weekly diary, with future planning/ aspirations and goals, zoom calls with family and friends, adding some nice touches to our home, learning new things like new card games,” Jennifer adds.
“We also make sure to carve out personal time, then the time we spend doing things together is so much more rewarding,” Raymond notes.
The couple’s adult children (from previous relationships) are all grown up and live away, meaning they don’t get to see them when they might like.
“I miss my two grandchildren, they’re only two and four years old and growing up so fast,” reflects Jennifer. “I get regular WhatsApp video calls and that’s great, but it’s no replacement for real physical hugs and kisses.”
As to what he learned about himself and his relationship during lockdown, Raymond reflects: “I learned that it is not important to go shopping or eating out, it does not matter if you are not constantly entertained. You also don’t have to be on the road all the time. And above all, you should not let yourself be driven crazy. My lesson from the lockdown is to keep calm, not to be afraid or scared and to take care of your loved ones. This is the way to survive almost any pandemic.”
In her professional life, Jennifer has come up against several clients who are reappraising their personal relationships in the wake of the pandemic.
“People have realised how important it is to have someone by their side through these difficult times,” she observes. “People are now prioritising personal relationships. They’re realising that being alone is extremely challenging. Some would have used work or career as a distraction and now that distraction is gone, the obvious gaps in life are appearing.
“The fundamental things are still important: honesty, kindness, strength of character but there is more mention of financial stability. Ultimately, when someone comes to a dating agency they are looking for honest, authentic, and meaningful long-term relationships, the kind that’ll get you through all the ups and downs in life, including pandemics.”
‘We’re as thick as thieves but after 40 years we love to separate, too’
Valerie & Paul Barry: The empty-nesters
Valerie Barry, an agency healthcare assistant, and her husband Paul, who works in the building industry, live in Dunmore East. They married in 1980.
Their family, Paul notes, has ‘doubled’ in the last three years. Their son Peter has a little boy Liam, now aged two, while their daughter Kate had a little girl, Pia-Rose, five months ago.
The couple are used to financial challenges, and previous experience has helped greatly amid employment uncertainty this year.
“We lost everything in the crash in 2008,” Valerie recalls. “We then moved to our family home in Dunmore East in 2010. Paul was away for much of the time working in Qatar, but we both moved here permanently in 2014.”
“I needed a job and qualified as a healthcare assistant, and discovered I should have been doing it my whole life,” Valerie notes. “When the lockdown happened my agency work dried up, and Paul was working from home.”
Adds Paul: “We’re thick as thieves. We’ve had ups and downs, especially with the business, but we would tough things out. A problem shared is a problem halved. Valerie worked with me for 20 years, and occasionally I would take my anger and frustration at the business out on her.
With both Paul and Valerie in close quarters in lockdown, they initially tackled their interiors projects.
“We had these pine doors, so we decided to paint them — then we started on the skirting boards, and found we couldn’t stop,” Valerie laughs.
The chief reason that their relationship has thrived even in lockdown is that they, as Valerie notes, ‘love to separate’.
“When we moved down here, I didn’t leave my book club in Dublin,” she explains.
“Paul loves walking and loves music. We take time out from each other. After 40 years, we’ve been there and done that with most things.
“Small town living is actually perfect for a lockdown situation,” notes Paul. “We are near the sea and can walk around the village, so it didn’t feel oppressive.”
Still, being separated from family, and especially from young grandchildren, has been heartbreaking.
“That was a difficult one all right,” reflects Paul. “We’ve met the baby (granddaughter) on the phone, and she knows how to look into the phone and everything when we are talking. The kids and grandkids are healthy, and there’s an awful lot to be grateful for.”
When asked for advice on how to keep a long-time relationship harmonious under challenging circumstances, Valerie notes: “You can never blow your top so much that you can’t come back from it. Be very measured in what you say, but if you’re angry, try to avoid verbal nastiness. It’s just not going to work.”