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Going the Distance: A Few Thoughts on Long-Distance-Relationships

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When my partner and I first got together, I was in my first year of University in Germany and he was in the middle of his master's degree in the States. We had known each other online for a while through mutual friends, but had never met in person. Though we'd hit it off right away and spent hours chatting on MSN, we'd decided that a long-distance-relationship was more trouble than it was worth. Our resolve went right out the window when we were finally face to face. That was nearly four years ago now, and since then we've been trying, with varying degrees of success, to keep our relationship going despite the ocean that's still in between.

Over time, I've learned a lot about the do's and dont's of an LDR. Since we often get queries on Scarleteen regarding long-distance relationships, I'm going to talk about some of those things I've learned, in hopes that they can help you figure out whether you're ready to have an LDR and how you can work it best.

Do I want to have an LDR?

There are a few ways in which LDRs can happen. One is when a couple that's been together for a while is faced with the prospect of one of the partners having to move away for a while. Around the boards, we most often see this happening with people graduating from high school and going off to different colleges. Another situation is when people from vastly different locations meet by chance and decide to build a relationship despite the distance.

One of the biggest differences between the more common in-person relationships and LDRs is that, by definition, the planning tends to be more long-term. Part of an LDR is always having an eye to the future: planning the next phone-date or the next in-person meeting and talking about ways to manage living in the same place (if and when that becomes an option). Those things are common topics of conversation and talking about and having those times together are very important for sustaining the relationship. Someone who's not ready for that level of commitment, who doesn't want to sacrifice that free weekend or those savings, and who doesn't want to (or simply cannot) look that far into the future, may not be the right person for this relationship model.

In most other regards, LDRs are not so different from more constant, in-person relationships. The basics that are important for sustaining a relationship with a partner who is far away are also important for a relationship in which you see each other every day. Those key components are honesty, an ability to communicate well, and being open about your thoughts and emotions. In an LDR, communication becomes especially important as you'll be using words to express sentiments or thoughts you'd otherwise express with a gesture or a look. Some people are just naturally adept at verbal communication, others struggle with it, but it is something that can be learned with a little bit of effort and patience.

So how do I make it work?

Like any other relationship, finding out what works for you, specifically, is a good place to start. Relationships are made up of individuals and there's no one-size-fits all guideline for a functional relationship.

One very important component is communication, and specifically being able to agree on how to handle the difficulties that an LDR inherently brings with it. Namely: how to bridge the distance.

How often can we/do we want to meet? How do we divvy up the costs of visits? How often do we get in touch via phone/e-mail/letter? How involved do we get in each other's lives? All of those are things that need to be negotiated in an LDR, and they're based entirely on personal preference. While my partner and I like to start our day with a five-minute IM conversation before heading off to work, a friend of mine sends text messages back and forth with his LDR girlfriend throughout the day, and another friend only checks in with her partner during lengthy weekend phone conversations. As long as both partners feel comfortable with the level of contact, anything goes. If you find that you and your partner have different expectations (you would prefer daily phone calls while your partner is okay with quick e-mails, for example) and you cannot reach a compromise, then maybe an LDR is not the right relationship model for you.

Something else that you may want to discuss at some point is The Future. Do you want to plan for a future together, or are you happy keeping the relationship long-distance? If you do want to move closer together, can either of you realistically expect to be able to do so? If so, is there a timeframe for this (for example, once you finish college/get the chance to transfer within your job/etc)? Which partner wants to move, or benefits more from a move? This can be a touchy subject. No matter how much you might value a relationship, moving is always a big step to take. Leaving behind family and friends, a familiar environment, your workplace – that's a huge change and not everyone is equipped to deal with that. Nor is it always possible: moving is expensive, finding a new job can be difficult, and for many people moving very far from their family is just not an option. That's not a bad thing, nor does it mean that you do not love your partner enough to make that sacrifice. But whether or not you would want to move closer together eventually is something you'll want to think about before you get too involved or committed, as it will likely become a topic should the relationship become long-term.

Aside from those big negotiations, there will always be smaller things that come up in an LDR that would not in a regular relationship. What's always bothered me most in my LDR is that there is never enough time: There are so many things in the course of the day that have me thinking “Oh! I want to share this with my partner!” and when we get the chance to talk I will forget half of it, or not get to mention something because my partner is also bursting to tell me something.

Similarly, but on a more serious note, it can be hard to fight across the distance. Often, when something bothers me, I find myself wondering whether I should bring it up at all and risk 'ruining' our time together with a discussion. Fighting is a skill that can be learned, however, and it is a skill that one needs to learn in an LDR. If you're fighting over the phone or IM, you cannot simply pout, or run out and slam the door. Nor is it productive to turn to passive-aggressive behaviour and get snarky in hopes your partner divines that you're angry about something. The best course of action is to calmly bring up whatever it is you're unhappy with, and discuss it. Sure, it might not make for the lovey-dovey conversation you'd much rather have had, but this way you can clear the air and end on a happy note, rather than swallowing it down and brooding over it.

One thing to also keep in mind in LDRs is that it is important to have a life outside of the LDR. It can be easy to make everything about your partner and that next phone call or that next visit and to postpone your life to “when we can be together”.

But it's never healthy to make a partner the center of your universe, whether you're in-person or long-distance. Instead, use the time you have to yourself to focus on YOU: hang out with your friends and family, take up a new hobby, devote your time to studying for school, volunteer in your community, etc: the possibilities are endless. No one is served if you sit around sulking and pining for your partner. And well-rounded, balanced individuals with varied interests and social contacts make for good partners in a relationship. Bonus: you'll have little time to miss your partner if you're busy practicing for that drama recital or watching a movie with your friends.

But won't my partner be more likely to cheat if we're never together?

If you are in a monogamous relationship, not being able to see your partner on a regular basis and not always knowing what they're up to can make it easy to wonder whether they're staying faithful to you. However, it might help to remember that people who are going to cheat will do so, regardless of how often they see their partner. If you have a partner who respects you and wants to treat you well, not being able to see you very often isn't going to be the deciding factor in whether they will cheat on you. And in fact, according to an article on LDRs I stumbled across a few years ago (in a 2006 edition of NEON magazine), people in LDRs tend to be less likely to cheat: it takes a certain level of willingness to commit and a certain amount of patience and determination to consider entering an LDR to begin with. Someone who is not ready to deal with the sort of challenges that an LDR brings with it is likely to opt out altogether.

So, no, being in an LDR doesn't automatically make it more likely that a partner will be unfaithful. It just can make it a little easier to get worried.

So what if I like the distance?

It seems to be an easy assumption to make that people involved in an LDR are invariably planning to move in together at some point in the future. But in fact, not all of them are, and for many it might even be convenient to live a little further away from their partner.

If you have a demanding job, are very involved socially or working hard towards a degree (or heck, doing all three!), it can be difficult to make time for a relationship. Or maybe you're just not the type for 24/7 lovey-doveyness and hanging with your partner once every couple of weeks or so is all you want and need as far as romance is concerned. Being in a distance relationship might give you the option to be emotionally involved without feeling pressured to set time aside for your partner every day. If you plan regular time together where you get to focus on each other and otherwise each do your own thing, it can even help to make that together-time more relaxed and valuable for everyone involved.

Those, too, are all perfectly valid relationship models. After all, it is the people in the relationship that get to decide what they want and what works best for them. The only thing to make sure of is, as always, that you and your partner are on the same page and one isn't expecting more or less than the other.

Do you have some other Tips?

I sure do.

If you want to surprise your partner with a visit, make sure they actually want to be surprised. Get a friend involved or subtly ask about their plans so you can avoid showing up the day before a big final or the night after a double shift at work.

“Safer” surprises can include cute postcards, creative care packages, mix CDs, etc. The postal service is your friend. Nothing beats finding a thoughtful little gift in your mailbox (well, I can think of a few things, but you know what I mean). It doesn't have to be expensive at all: something as simple as a long letter or poem can make your partner's day.

Keep each other up to date on your lives. Not only can it make you feel closer to know what your partner is up to, it'll also cut down on needless worrying: If you let your partner know you're working late that night, they won't wind up wondering whether something happened to you when you don't pick up the phone.

Don't jam-pack your in-person time together with tons of activities. While it's tempting to introduce your partner to all your friends, or do all those couple things you never usually get to do, it can be just as nice (if not nicer) to just cuddle up on the couch or stay up talking an entire night.

And most importantly...

Do have a good time. That's what relationships are supposed to be about, after all!

written 16 May 2008 . updated 18 May 2014

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