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Long-distancing relationships: Meet the couples kept apart by the coronavirus

As the oldest in our society are forced to cocoon during lockdown, Amy O'Connor talks to loved ones who have had to separate indefinitely for fear of being exposed to Covid-19

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Aoife O’Sullivan and Colm Spillane, who live 70km apart, don’t know when they’ll see each other again

Aoife O’Sullivan and Colm Spillane, who live 70km apart, don’t know when they’ll see each other again

Aoife O’Sullivan and Colm Spillane, who live 70km apart, don’t know when they’ll see each other again

Paul Bowler helped his wife Paula Dennan and their dog move out of their home in Lixnaw, Co Kerry, last weekend. The couple have taken the decision to stay apart in an effort to minimise Dennan's chances of catching coronavirus. She is immunocompromised as a result of the medication she takes to treat her arthritis. However, Bowler (45) is a social care worker and runs the risk of being exposed to the virus at work.

As a result, Dennan will stay with her parents-in-law for the foreseeable future while Bowler remains at their home three kilometres away. The only time they will see each other in person is when Bowler drops off the shopping and can wave at her through the window.

It was a move they had been bracing themselves for. In the weeks leading up to it, they hadn't so much as exchanged a hug. But while Bowler is relieved that his wife is safe, the prospect of not being able to see her weighs heavily.

"We all have vulnerable people who belong to us," he says. "But when you have to keep the vulnerable people away from the non-vulnerable people… the stress is not there, but the sadness increases. We haven't even contemplated how long this could be for. It could be for a lot longer than they're saying. She's never not going to be immunocompromised and I'm never not going to be in a job that's high risk.

"The fact that it might stretch out into the future, that's another bridge I haven't crossed yet emotionally."

Bowler and Dennan are one of countless couples around Ireland who have been forced apart due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. At a time when our instinct is to surround ourselves with loved ones, many are unable to be with their partners or spouses.

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Catherine Nee with her partner Arthur, who lives in the UK

Catherine Nee with her partner Arthur, who lives in the UK

Catherine Nee with her partner Arthur, who lives in the UK

The reasons for these enforced separations are myriad. Some couples are in long-distance relationships and are now unable to make the trek to see one another. Some do not live together and cannot see each other lest they put family members or housemates at risk. Some couples have taken the decision to spend time apart due to one, the other or both having a frontline job, an underlying health condition or family obligations. So what is it like being apart from your other half at the moment?

Like many young couples their age, Aoife O'Sullivan (25) and Colm Spillane (26)have been unable to see each other since the government implemented strict social distancing measures.

The couple have been together for three years and both work as teachers. Additionally, O'Sullivan is a former Miss Ireland, while Spillane plays hurling with Cork. The couple live 70km apart, with O'Sullivan living with her family in Ballinadee near Kinsale and Spillane living in Fermoy. On a typical week, they usually see each other once during the week and again at the weekend. "Now we don't know when we're going to see each other next and we don't have anything to look forward to," says O'Sullivan.

Last weekend, O'Sullivan celebrated her 25th birthday at home. The couple had originally planned to mark it with a weekend away, but the current circumstances meant the celebrations ended up being much more low-key.

"I downloaded the Houseparty app and we logged on to that," she says. "We had a drink and a little virtual cheers up to the camera for an hour and just chatted.

"We're lucky because we have social media. With Snapchat and video calling, it's not that bad. When you're not busy, it's harder. We're both independent and used to working a lot. It is hard."

That there is no end in sight makes the situation that much harder.

"It's quite likely that [the restrictions] could get extended, so I don't want to get my hopes up and think, 'Oh well, I'll get to see you on this date'," she says.

Still, she is quick to count her blessings.

"Nobody could have predicted this," says O'Sullivan. "Obviously, it would have been nicer if we were living together or had a place. But we're both lucky that we're with our families and they're all healthy."

Catherine Nee (51) has been in a long-distance relationship with her partner Arthur for three years. Originally from the UK, the mother-of-three owns and manages Marty's Mussels in Connemara. Nee was widowed in 2016 when her husband died in a tragic accident. The following year, she was introduced to Arthur (50) through her sister. Like Nee, he had also been widowed the previous year.

When they first spoke, Nee was recovering from back surgery in South Africa. A medical professional, Arthur had been enlisted to offer his advice.

"When I was lying on my back with tubes coming out of me and probably quite a lot of morphine involved, he was put on the phone to me," says Nee. "I say it wasn't love at first sight, it was love at first sound."

With Nee based in Connemara and Arthur based in London, the two have been in a long-distance relationship for the duration of their time together.

"We see each other as much as we possibly can," says Nee. "Usually about every two to three weeks, and then longer periods when he gets leave. It's all been going very well."

Recently, however, their situation has been further complicated. Five weeks ago, Nee was diagnosed with breast cancer. After having surgery, she is due to start treatment soon. Meanwhile, Arthur will be working on the frontline with the NHS as the UK grapples with the crisis.

"He is exposed and at-risk, so he can't come here," says Nee. "If I'm starting chemotherapy, obviously it would be too risky for me to travel. So I don't know when we're going to see each other again.

"There is so much uncertainty about what's going to happen in terms of the restrictions and then there's the uncertainty of what will my full treatment involve. When do I start? What do I expect? When will he feel that he's not putting me at risk? I mean, if he could come on a plane tomorrow, he would come. But because he knows it would put me at risk until he knows his status, he can't do it."

It is undeniably hard, but Nee is taking the situation one day at a time and living in the moment. Thanks to WhatsApp, the couple can communicate all day long. What does she miss the most?

"You miss the touch the most, without a doubt. I would just love to be held and to be able to hold each other, but it's not going to be possible for the moment. I just hope that as soon as he can, he can come over."

Irish Independent