Making Distance Work for Your Relationship
Last week, the Washington Post Express had an interesting question for their Baggage Check columnist, Dr. Andrea Bonior.
Do you think a relationship can work as long-distance when it hasn't become serious yet? A guy I've been dating for three months is taking a job transfer to Boston. Part of me is wondering whether I should expend my emotional energy trying to keep something going with him. He talks about how cheap the flights are, but I don't know I'm there yet.
Bonior's answer was fairly straight-forward: if you need a random psychologist on the internet to convince you to give a guy a shot, you're probably not that into him. Great advice, though it got me thinking about long-distance relationships and how difficult they can be to maintain.
Photo by Jordan Vuong. (Flickr)
It's strange -- given how mobile we are these days -- that we're not better equipped to deal with distance, whether it's a long-term separation with no end in sight, or an extended business trip with a glorious homecoming eventually built-in.
By virtue of growing up on an island where everyone was constantly coming and going, I have had more than my fair share of long-distance relationships and learned a great deal of lessons -- the hard way. If you're in the same boat right now, dive in. Distance doesn't have to spell the end of romance. In fact, just the opposite -- if you're willing to step outside the box.
The first and most important thing I learned is to keep living. Nothing can make a relationship more tiring than constraint -- even the constraint of waiting for a phone call. There's nothing wrong with trying to always be available for your partner, but don't let life pass you by! Besides, if you aren't living, what is there to talk about? Hearing someone misses you is nice but if that's the only thing you ever talk about, even longing is likely to get old. And why would you do that to longing -- or, worse yet, yourself?
While I was at university, I had a relationship with someone who lived half a world away from me. During the summer, we spoke on the phone every day and were both losing our minds with separation anxiety. I craved to speak to him all the time, but when the phone rang and we started to talk, we would both find that we had nothing to talk about because we spoke every day and hardly did anything other than mope about when we weren't talking.
Finally, one day, he said, "I don't think we should talk as often as we do." I was crushed, despite the fact that I was wasting away under the weight of this self-imposed confinement. I asked him why and he, in all his European glory, responded, "because I want to miss you. I want to miss you the way I missed you when I said good bye to you at the airport."
It took me years to understand what this 19-year-old seemed to have been born knowing: that missing one another was as crucial to the survival of what we had working to stay connected.
Yes, it ran counter to my love of technology, which has made constant communication easier, and to my nature itself, which craved this individual all the time. But killing the expectation of the daily phone call was the best thing we ever did. We still phoned one another, but at no set time, which enabled us to look to other things to pass the time. We often missed each other when we did phone, but that only made reconnecting and catching up more interesting. Our conversations never felt stale again.
Let them know they're on your mind
Mind you -- there is a difference between living and taking someone for granted. You should be careful not to assume that the relationship will stay sturdy if you check out to have the time of your life while your partner is away. Let them know they're in your thoughts through text, IM, voice mails or e-mail -- I call these non-action items. Your partner doesn't have to respond, but they let him or her know you're there, thinking about them. If your beloved should respond but you're, say, in the middle of a meeting and can't talk, let them know that you'll phone as soon as you have a moment. And that you adore them and hope they're having a wonderful day, of course!
Another non-action item I love are little gifts. The internet has created a playground of possibilities. You can order just about anything there is to be had -- why not put that to use? During a love affair with a man on an opposite coast, I happened to mention that I hadn't had lunch and was craving ceviche. We kept talking, and right after I hung up, about twenty minutes later, there was a knock on the door. Three different kinds of ceviche for me to choose from, delivered.
It's the little things.
That's not to say action items shouldn't be embraced, though. You can definitely still have dates. There's a community on the social network Google Plus that has movie nights every week. They pick something from Netflix Instant and watch it together while they do a webcam-enabled chat called a Hangout, so they can talk about the film as they watch -- or just be together. It's not the same as going to the movies, sure, but it can be an incredible amount of fun.
If you're used to watching a show with your partner over dinner, for example, you can set a date once a week to do this even when you're miles apart.
Things like Hangouts -- and Skype or Facetime, for that matter -- enable one to spend time with someone far away no matter where they are. You can even do it from a gallery opening right on your phone! Imagine receiving an invitation to cam with your partner one Saturday and finding he has taken you to see the Monet garden exhibit at the New York Botanical Gardens?
Need I mention that every communication tool available to us today can double as a sexual aid? There is no greater lesson in eroticism than time apart. You might never have had occasion to "sext" or cyber or get naked on a Skype call, but if any reason for such a thing existed, this is it.
If you feel squeamish about writing naughty things consider what a rich literary tradition it is. Oh, you didn't know? It is! The good old days of romance are as chock full of naughty as the text messages we see from cheating politicians on the pages of the National Enquirer. Of course, you don't have to worry about some nosy journo. You're being naughty with your man or lady, not someone else's!
The key to making sure the fires keep burning while you're apart is creativity. Let longing fuel you, not constrict you. Think about it as an exercise in partial sensory deprivation: you can't touch or taste. But you can do everything else (including smell! Have your partner send you a shirt to wear to bed!). Get creative with what you can do with the other senses. Don't stop having fun together. Don't stop exploring and playing, whether that's strip chess over webcam or a wild night on Second Life.
A separation doesn't have to be a cruel verdict. It's in your power to make it an experience you can both remember -- even fondly!