For most of human history, long-distance relationships have been impossible to sustain due to travel reasons alone. The internet age has made it much more feasible, but as I found out with my girlfriend, romance and relationships are a different beast when thousands of kilometres separate you.
As we’ve discussed before, failure sometimes is the best way to learn. My girlfriend and I are on our second try now after the intial attempt at long-distance went awry. As it turns out, it’s possible to bridge the gap, both physically and figuratively, but not without major changes to our behaviour. The first attempt didn’t end well, but after learning several important lessons, we managed to move into a normal, ridiculous, local relationship. I won’t be able to tell you how to be happy forever or find the secret to a 50-year marriage. Far from it. Hopefully, this can at least help deal with the problems of being apart.
The Physical Aspect Matters More than You Think
It doesn’t take an eight-year psychology degree to realise that hugs are great. However, you’ll start to miss them after six months of being away from your partner. It’s not just physical affection that gets lost with the distance either. Chances are that even the most tech-savvy couples will communicate primarily via text, voice and occasionally video chat sessions. If you’ve ever spent time talking to a person face-to-face, this is a huge step down.
During most of your conversations, there are whole swaths of human interaction you’re not privvy to. You don’t get to see them smile. You don’t get to sit next to them on the couch. You can’t tell that their body language is different when they’re upset. In fact, if you don’t talk to them via phone or video, you can’t know if they’re upset at all unless they volunteer that info.
This inherently puts more pressure on verbal communication. A lot more than we’re used to, in fact. If you were to walk into a room and see your partner crying on the couch, it would be insensitive to shove a video of a cat playing with boxes in front of his or her face. However, if your primary method of communication is via IM or text message, you can do exactly this without ever realising it.
As in most situations, the key to overcoming this problem is communication, but this type might not come naturally. In this case, making use of your imaginary audience can be helpful. Internet culture has a way of bringing out the egotist in us all. It’s the reason we share things like what food we’re eating or what movie we’re watching. If you catch yourself wanting to share something with that perceived audience of people that may be of relevance to your partner (i.e. “I’ve had a bad day”), share it with them instead of Twitter.
Your Partner Will Spend a Lot of Time With Other People
It sounds obvious, but if you’re not living in the same area, your partner will have to get his or her socialisation fix somewhere else. Most people will tell you that spending time together is key to keeping a relationship alive. When you’re separated by hundreds of kilometres though, your primary method for accomplishing this is by spending a lot of face time with a cold, digital display.
This doesn’t mean you can’t have meaningful interaction. Skype and Hangouts provide great opportunities to spend quality time with your partner both alone and with others. However, they’re no substitute for getting out of the house. If your significant other is going to a concert, a movie or out to dinner, they’re going without you and probably with others.
If you’re the jealous type — and it’s hard not to be in a long-distance relationship — this is especially problematic. You’ll wish you could be there, but you can’t. This causes tension. It also breeds paranoia (which we’ll talk more about in a bit). It may be possible to overcome this by setting aside time to spend together and by reassuring each other that if you could, you’d be doing activities together. However, you can never fully change the fact that when your partner is out having fun and you’re home alone, it will almost always feel just a little bit like rejection.
In this case, a little overcompensation can do a world of good. Chances are that if you’re living in the same town, it would seem overly mushy if your partner texted you to say “I wish you were here!” every time she went to dinner. When you’re a thousand miles away, though, this kind of reminder matters a lot more. You let your loved one know that this situation isn’t optimal. You assure them that if you could be part of their outing, you would be. It won’t fix the fact that they haven’t seen you in months, but it will be a small comfort at a time when every comfort counts.
You can also alleviate your own worries by filling up your time with activities of your own. We all have our own ways of recharging and every night your partner is out of communication is a chance to do things that benefit you. Read a book. Go to a party. Build something. Find something to invest your time in and relax while your significant other is out doing the same.
Time Differences Skew Perspectives
If your long distance relationship is spanning multiple time zones, things are going to get tougher. Relationships are built on shared experiences, which are tough enough when you’re separated by an ocean. If you’re on the West coast and she’s on the East coast, then your “bed time” is her “middle of the night”. Your “first thing in the morning” is her “been at work for an hour and a half”.
If you want to get a sense of how much this matters, try showing up to your next dinner engagement three hours late (or more if your partner is on another continent). You will probably find some miffed guests who have already eaten and moved on from the restaurant.
If you’re separated by so much space that you’re more than an hour or two out of sync, set a schedule. Try to find routines that match up with each other. If you don’t have any, make some. Pick a day every week to spend the evening together. Talk every day for at least a little while. This is one way that long distance relationships don’t differ much from short-distance ones, but it takes extra effort to reach the baseline, so it can’t be neglected.
You Need an End Game Plan
All your precautions and communication won’t mean much if nothing ever changes. It’s possible to maintain your situation on a temporary basis, but it’s not a permanent solution. Long-distance relationships that don’t have a goal to work towards — a vacation, the next meetup, or a permanent relocation — are relationships that will create their own expiration date.
Goals give you a target, something to justify the stress of being apart. Imagine working an internship for several years without any indication of when you might be moved up to having a proper job or even getting paid. That’s what long-distance relationships without any set of goals are. They’re in a state of unsustainable limbo until you close the distance.
The catch 22 is that depending on where you’re at in a relationship, talking about plans to move to be together may be premature and put unnecessary pressure on you both. There’s no formula for avoiding this problem, unfortunately.
If you can’t make plans to pick up and move across the state or country just yet, at least plan your next meetup before the current one ends. You don’t need to make travel arrangements necessarily (that can be incredibly expensive to begin with), but having a target to look forward to can help alleviate some of the stress of seeing your loved one go.
Long-Distance Relationships Are 90% Promises
When I got started in my first major long-distance relationship, I had the good fortune to have a friend tell me something that helped frame most of our issues in the right light. She told me: “A long-distance relationship isn’t really a relationship. It’s just the promise of one.” Now, I should note that this is not something I fully agree with. I think it trivialises what are some very real connections. I’m currently very happy with my girlfriend that began as a long-distance relationship, despite some initial rockiness.
However, we’re very much the exception. While the warning may not be universally accurate, the truth is, when you’re in a long-distance relationship, you make a lot of promises. “Things will be different when we’re together.” “When we live in the same town, we’ll do a bunch of fun stuff.” “I wish I were there so I could bring you food/take care of you while you’re sick/do things I’m not allowed to publish on Lifehacker.” You may be the most sincere person on the planet, but that doesn’t change the fact that you’re racking up a bunch of promises that you’ll have to deliver on later, or shatter the illusion.
If your relationship begins locally and then moves to long-distance, it might be easier to get an idea of what you’re reaching towards. But if you’ve never met someone, or you reach a point where you’ve spent more time apart than together, you have to keep your illusions in check. It’s so easy for us to picture how perfect things will be and then discover that life is more complicated. It can be done. Absolutely. But it takes an element of sober self-assessment.
Like I said at the beginning of this piece, I can’t tell you how to have a perfect or perpetually happy relationship. I can’t even guarantee that this will help with the distance problem. I can say, however, that it’s a problem that can be overcome. It takes a lot of work and not everyone will pull it off, but it is possible that you can get out of the long-distance situation and have a regular, chaotic, messy local relationship just like everyone else.