Relationships are hard, but they’re doubly hard if you’re an international student, triply so if your partner or spouse travelled across the world to be with you and support you while you study abroad.
I fall into that last category, having been married for nearly half a decade. When I got admitted into my master’s program at Deakin University, it was a no-brainer that my partner would accompany me. There was no way I would subject either of us to the challenges of long-distance relationships. Little did we know then that the move would bring its own set of challenges. Thanks, coronavirus.
It’s no secret that the fallout of the COVID-19 pandemic has upended life for everyone around the world, including Australia. The international student community was hit hard with little to no access to financial support, cut-off from local friendship and family circles back home, and still expected to bring their A-game to challenging university courses.
If that wasn’t stressful enough, both my partner and I got stood down from our jobs. Stress and anxiety spiralled out of control a week into quarantine, and we were a bundle of nerves. Our mental health was deteriorating, uni performance hitting rock bottom and we were both nearing snapping point.
In a moment of clarity, we looked at each other and realised that this was unacceptable. We were doing each other a disservice and losing out on quality time together. In an embarrassingly sitcom-y moment, we blurted out half-formed apologies and immediately got to work on how to make the best of these tough times.
What follows below is a sample of what we did. You don’t have to follow them exactly because each couple has their own dynamics. The general principles will be incredibly helpful, after all, do you really want to let your relationship stagnate?
Fix your routine. ASAP.
If this sounds like quarantine studying advice, you’re not entirely wrong. I am asking you to fix your study routine.
As students, we pride ourselves on being night owls, however, let’s not kid ourselves here, we’re often up but instead of studying we’re going down YouTube or Reddit rabbit-holes. Afterwards, you hop into bed as the sun’s coming up, and your partner wakes up fresh and raring to go only to find you snoring the day away.
Relationships require time spent together, and 3-4 hours in the late afternoon where you are blearily trying to get your bearings while snacking does not count as time spent together. You could suggest to your partner that they sync their sleeping cycle with yours but why destroy and rebuild their circadian rhythm?
Make the most of your mornings
Since the quarantine started, Australians have been flocking to outdoor forms of exercise as a way to get out. If you don’t have access to a backyard gym or bicycles, simply go for a morning walk. Trust me, your partner has secretly been pining for it since lockdown started. Mine did.
Light exercise like morning walks with fresh air and sunlight has a proven, positive impact on your health. Merely 30 minutes into our first morning walk, we felt like new people. There’s a gorgeous little grove of trees and water near our home, and it looked glorious in the early morning light. It’s like a fog had lifted from our brains; colours looked radiant and we could hear birds chirping.
Pretty soon we were smiling and talking together. Some more time later, we were scolding ourselves on not having done this sooner. Even more time later, we were really getting into in the exercise. It was brilliant.
Our morning walks ended with us returning home and cooking breakfast together, then making plans for where we wanted to walk to the next day! It may sound like I’m overselling this, but I cannot stress enough just how invigorating it was to get out of our anxiety-ridden headspaces.
Do things together. Seriously.
This may seem like very common-sense advice, but I’ve discovered that it’s often the obvious things that fall into the cracks.
In our case, our ‘normal’ routines were so busy and fixed between my study and work and my partner’s work that we barely had any time together. This is true for many international students as our time as students is ludicrously busy. When the COVID-19 quarantines started, we were so focused on the fallout that we failed to see the obvious: both of us were focusing so much on the worrying about the negatives when we could have been doing something far more positive.
Here’s what we have done together since that realisation: we’ve played Uno, done a simple jigsaw puzzle (we steer clear of those 1000-piece monstrosities!), dug up my old Nintendo 3DS and challenged each other to finish the original Super Mario Bros, rearranged the furniture in our bedroom (and discovered all the things we ‘lost’ under the bed), filled in a colouring book and discovered a mutual interest in Farsi poetry.
So, go on, do things together. You’ll have a blast. Just don’t ‘accidentally’ reset the Nintendo because you were unable to best your partner’s time in Super Mario…
Remember how I mentioned earlier that both my partner and I had been spending time together but remained locked away in the prison of our own minds? Do you want to know whose prison was worse? My partner’s. No competition. And it will be the case for every international student and their long-time partner or spouse.
A surprising amount of Australia’s international students, specifically those doing postgraduate and PhD degrees, have been in long-term relationships or even married (like me!) and their partners often move to Australia with them.
They put their own careers on hold, leave their families and friends just to be with them and support their partner’s education, and a lot of them don't account for just how little time they may get to spend with their studying spouse or partner.
Even before the pandemic struck, this was something my partner and I had identified and attempted to rectify but failed. An unfortunate consequence of balancing studying and working are the long hours spent in the library, commuting, in class, which really messed with the quality of our conversations. Most of the time our messages to each other would be limited to the following exchange:
“Stop xyz. What about you?”
“Library. Won’t be back till late, have a work shift after I’m done here. Talk later.”
“Okay, I’ll leave dinner out.”
I didn’t have to scroll far to find an exchange like this, and on further scrolling I found a depressing amount of similar conversations. Ugh. It is what it is. Not great, but, well, what can you do?
Here’s one thing you can do. Understand that your partner sacrificed a lot to be here with you. You came here to study, but they came here for you. The least you can do is use this time afforded to you by a global pandemic to talk and listen to your partner.
Make them feel seen and heard. Catch up on years’ worth of hardships they’ve experienced in a foreign country and share gossip and news from back home. Find out if their dreams and ambitions have changed, talk about what they want to do after your course is completed and how you can support them. Talk. Listen. Communicate.
Obligatory <streaming service> and chill
Look, what works, works. No need to reinvent the wheel. Grab some popcorn, crisps or whatever your snack of choice is, bundle up in a blanket and start burning through that to-watch list! It would help if you sometimes let your partner choose the film or series, there’s only so many times one person can watch the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
There is no playbook for a situation like this. No one in our generation has lived through a pandemic, we’re all making it up as we go along, and it is only with the support of our loved ones that we’ll get through this. Your partner has been your rock through your study, and now you can be their support through these turbulent times. Turn the oppressive, overwhelming claustrophobia of quarantine into something warm and amiable.
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