Love Finds a Way

Three couples navigate relationships in quarantine

Written and produced by Paige Haehlke

Oceans away

Too excited to sleep or watch a movie, Eleni Tongas spent the seven-hour flight to Dublin, Ireland, staring at the tracker on the seat in front of her as the distance grew shorter and shorter. She landed at 6 a.m. and walked through the empty airport to find her boyfriend, Osgar O’Hoisin, eagerly awaiting her arrival with flowers in hand. After spending four months apart, they finally had four days together in October to celebrate their two-year anniversary. 

The coronavirus pandemic threw a wrench into virtually every aspect of life, and relationships weren’t spared. Some couples were suddenly forced into long-distance relationships, while others had to adjust to a new reality of spending every moment together. For three couples who quarantined and lived together for part or all of the pandemic so far, they have found silver linings in the unexpected circumstances thrown their way. They appreciated the time quarantine allowed them to spend together and the new ways they came to know each other, and they grew stronger as a result.

Osgar, originally from Dublin, Ireland, was on a tennis scholarship at UW–Madison when he met Eleni, a high school classmate of one of his teammates, three years ago during Thanksgiving break. The couple started dating about a year later, in 2018. After Osgar graduated in December 2019, life — and love — got a lot more complicated.

When the coronavirus pandemic worsened in mid-March, Eleni, now 22, was studying abroad in Florence, Italy. Osgar, now 24, was in Mexico, playing tennis professionally. The couple reunited in Brookfield, a suburb of Milwaukee, and quarantined with Eleni’s parents. They spent the next 90 days together before Osgar’s visa expired and he needed to return to Ireland.

Eleni and Osgar passed the time by making TikToks, like one where Osgar used his tennis skills to hit an apple off of Eleni’s head, and binging shows like “Normal People.” When Osgar left for Ireland, they assumed he would be able to come back to America soon after, but it became clear as the coronavirus spread and borders closed that he wouldn’t be able to for quite a while.

“The last two weeks we were so sad,” Eleni says. “I feel like I was crying the whole time. I didn’t think it’d be this long, but [Osgar] having to leave sucked.”

Less than three months after Osgar had to leave the United States, Eleni was set to fly to Ireland to surprise him for his birthday. Her plans fell apart when she woke up to a text from his mother that said he tested positive for COVID-19.

“It was a terrible birthday,” Osgar says. 

When Eleni and Osgar are unable to physically be with each other, they stay connected by texting throughout the day and try to FaceTime daily, but the time difference has proven to be difficult. Sometimes their timing or their moods don’t line up, like when one of them is having a rough day and isn’t in the best mindset.

“When you’re both on completely separate pages and you can only talk over a phone line, then that’s where I feel like you can clash,” Osgar says. “Whereas if we were together, it’s easier to kind of help each other through it or kind of make each other feel better.” 

Being in Madison together used to be their normal, but now they are going through new experiences while separated. Eleni is still in Madison for her senior year, and not having Osgar there with her has been difficult to get used to. But if anything, the challenges they’ve faced instilled a new level of resilience in them. 

“Overall, I would say that our relationship has just gotten stronger, because it’s not an easy thing to do, to be away from someone that you’re in love with for so long,” Osgar says. “And I think it just becomes more clear what you want. It sucks, though, I’m not going to sugarcoat it.” 

Eleni is planning to go back to Dublin during the holiday season, but is only cautiously optimistic since Ireland could close their borders to Americans at any time. Several days after her visit in October, Ireland reinstated strict lockdown measures lasting for six weeks. 

Because of the unpredictability of the pandemic, they don’t know for sure when they’ll see each other again. But they’re committed to each other and view this challenge as a testament to the strength of that bond. However their situation changes in the coming months and years, they’ll take it on together.

“If anything, it just makes you realize that it’s all going to be okay, and even though we haven’t seen each other in four months, we’ve just made it work,” Eleni says.

Upper left: Holding flowers and a sign for Eleni, Osgar poses for a picture after greeting her at the airport in Dublin. Upper middle: From Eleni’s point of view, she and Osgar talk to each other over FaceTime. Upper right: From Osgar’s point of view, he and Eleni talk to each other over FaceTime. Lower left: Osgar and Eleni pose for a photo on Osgar’s graduation day in December 2019. Lower right: Osgar and Eleni stand at the Cliffs of Moher in July 2019. Photos submitted by Eleni Tongas

Blessing in disguise

When Mary Ryan worked as a nurse in Chicago in 1982, the son of one of her patients left a rose and an invitation on her car inviting her out for a glass of wine as a thank you for caring for his father. She has now been happily married to that man, Dennis, for 33 years. 

Mary, 60, and her husband Dennis, 69, live in Madison and both worked from home during the pandemic until the end of September, when Dennis went back to working in-person four days per week as an assistant district attorney for Waushara County. Mary works for Quartz Health Solutions as an RN quality management and population health specialist. They have a 29-year-old daughter, a 21-year-old son and a 6-year-old Bernese Mountain Dog. Their son stayed with them from March through mid-August, but then moved back to college, and their daughter lives with her husband in Madison.

While marriages have been put to the test — divorce rates rose in China after lockdown ended there — Dennis sees being home with his wife as a blessing he’s grateful for. Working from home together for Mary and Dennis allowed them to see each other in new ways — not just as spouses or parents, but as colleagues.

Mary and Dennis Ryan pose in their backyard for a photo taken by their daughter. Photo submitted by Mary Ryan

“It’s allowed me to not just see the person that I visualize as wife, mother; there’s a whole other dimension,” Dennis says. “To see that, and to see how Mary does that — keeps the house going, keeps the family going, and puts herself last — it’s opened me up quite a bit.” 

“He’s just saying that because I made him a peach cake tonight,” Mary says, laughing. 

Married for 33 years, they established long ago how to create space for each other. Mary is more extroverted and social, while Dennis likes to keep to himself. They have learned how to give each other what they need. Now Dennis walks their dog, does the dishes and helps with laundry more than he did before, which Mary appreciates.

“You’ve got to be willing to change, to accommodate, but I think most of all, you have to be sensitive to the needs of that other person,” Dennis says. “Those have to come first. You have to put yourself aside. And I don’t know how much I do that, obviously not a lot since she’s laughing.”

Laughter is an important element of their marriage.

“We laugh at me a lot,” Dennis says. “Which is alright.” 

When Dennis went back to work in person at the end of September, neither of them were thrilled. They came to love their new normal of being together all the time, and Mary didn’t look forward to not having him around during the day to keep her company.

“Dennis is going back, and it’s breaking my heart,” Mary says while tearing up and taking her glasses off to blot her eyes. 

“It’s been a spoiled couple of months,” Dennis says, rubbing Mary’s back to comfort her. “We’ll make it work, and we’ll take advantage of the time that we have and focus on that, not on the difficult things, which is how we got through this situation.” 

Testing the waters

When Anna Kotecki, 21, and Molly Burki, 22, first met in 2018, they didn’t get along. Molly intimidated Anna, and Anna put on a front around her even when Molly tried to pay her compliments. But a mutual friend playing matchmaker put them in a group chat together, and now they’ve been in a relationship for over a year.

Anna and Molly are both seniors at UW–Madison. When classes moved online in mid-March and a state public health order limited nonessential travel and gatherings, Molly’s roommate moved out to quarantine with her family, and Anna moved in. The couple spent the next six months quarantining together — making forts in their living room, rewatching dystopian movie series and choreographing dances — and their relationship flourished.

Eleni and Osgar and Anna and Molly elaborate on how they have and still are overcoming the challenges that the coronavirus pandemic presented them.

“[We found] ways to make life exciting when you can’t go anywhere, like getting dressed up and doing dates in the living room,” Molly says. “I think it was exciting to just figure out what makes the other person excited.” 

In mid-August, Anna and Molly moved into new apartments they signed leases for before the pandemic. They both struggled with living apart after their lives had become so interconnected. Through spending so much time together, they became emotionally dependent on one another and had to relearn how to be alone.

“The few times we were apart over the summer, especially when we were really in the swing of only seeing each other, it really felt like my emotions didn’t know how to regulate on their own,” Anna says. “Not even just because it’s her and we’re in a relationship and we love each other, but just being around someone else all the time, never being alone, the few times then that I was alone, my brain didn’t know how to function.” 

Both Anna and Molly struggle with depression and anxiety, but living together helped them learn how to support one another on bad days.

“When I get really stressed or my anxiety is bad, it’s really easy for [Anna] to calm me down and make me stop catastrophizing everything,” Molly says. “If [she’s] gone I’m just in my head about it.” 

Neither of them expected to be able to live together until after graduation, so the pandemic allowed them to test the waters and preview their life together after college. They both want to pursue arts careers in bigger cities, but they know those dreams might have to wait; the pandemic forced them to talk about their future plans that may have to be put on pause.

“We know now that if we do stay in Madison, if we have to, then we’ll live together, and we’ll make it work,” Anna says. “And if we do move somewhere else, we’ll know that we can live together, and we know that we can handle a pandemic.”

Molly Burki (left) and Anna Kotecki (right) pose for portraits in front of the Majestic Theatre in Madison. Photos by Brian Huynh