As I discussed in my last post, developing a long-distance romantic relationship brings both challenges and opportunities. In my own transatlantic romance, which began 20 years ago and has seen 16 years of married joy, I initially worried that I was doing it all wrong, continuing to do it all wrong, and incapable of doing it right.
A book offering guidance to single women, The Rules, was published shortly after David and I began our love affair. Constitutionally incapable of manipulating or lying, I wondered if my precious new relationship was in danger of imminent collapse due to insufficient drama and mystery. Luckily, the straightforward route that we took led to firm foundations, sanity, and safety.
Based on my experience, here are 10 tips for making a long-distance relationship work.
1. Appreciate that your individual reactions differ.
Any two people have different levels of comfort with emotional and geographical closeness—and distance. Observe what experiences amplify or dilute those feelings for each of you, and how you respond to varying thresholds and triggers. Even more useful, learn to appreciate the ways in which your respective coping styles are different. One person may want to deny and distract, pretending that the limitations imposed by distance are illusory or at least easily transcended through phone or electronic contact. The other may need to analyze, label, and discuss the thoughts and feelings associated with separation and reconnection.
2. Distinguish among different kinds of closeness—mental, emotional, cultural, spiritual, as well as physical—and explore ways to increase each of them.
While physical contact may be the cement of the relationship, it is simply not available when you are apart. Try sharing a book or movie or solving a puzzle together (mental), reacting to the events of your days or those coming up in the future (emotional), discussing current events in your respective locations (cultural), or sharing the seemingly strange synchronistic things that happen to each of you during the course of a the time when you are apart, permitting opportunities for gratitude, generosity, and making the world a better place (spiritual).
3. Recognize and then tune into moments during separations that bring positive emotions—a welcome surprise, a feeling of delight, a warm smile, the tingle of excitement, or the release of laughter.
Keep ways to foster these moments on your radar, imagining your lover’s reactions when you share them through phone or electronic means. Trust the impact of an unexpected pleasure arriving by snail mail and use it to contact each other from time to time. Affixing an interesting stamp can add to the pleasure.
4. Appreciate the benefits of different time zones.
They can strengthen the positive aspects of anticipation and can bring reassurance that one can indeed delay gratification. Thus the difference in time zones can help you develop patience and perspective, limit impulsivity and an unnecessary sense of urgency, and thus fortify reflection and foster deliberate choices.
5. Trusting each other during separations becomes critical.
Agreements about what behaviors are and are not OK when personal contact is not possible for extended periods need to be worked out. And those agreements need to be honored, with concerns about them ironed out as each agreement becomes explicit. Each of you must be aware that violating an agreement has consequences for the integrity of the relationship, and that violations require repairs.
6. Rituals can help in disconnecting and reconnecting.
Pretending that leaving one another is easy (or hard) injects a note of dishonesty into the relationship—and the foundation of trust built on honesty is particularly important in long-distance romantic relationships. Simple—but meaningful—ways of saying “goodbye” and “hello again” can help ease the transition between together and separate time. Rituals can comfort. Even my dog, Luke, understood that as soon as he saw my husband, David, again, a long walk on the beach was on the near horizon. (Luke also understood that luggage meant David was leaving. With each departure Luke became more and more depressed.)
7. Recognize crises and the fact that they call for a different style of response.
At the same time, be wary of cries of “wolf.” Ideally, a need to feel closer can be acknowledged in words and talked about, rather than acted out through creation of an urgency that does not really exist. While a “calamity” may require an appropriate emergency response, those events that can be addressed more leisurely, reflectively, should be dealt with calmly and creatively. In other words, do not manipulate; speak up instead.
8. Create a “couple” identity.
Because both partners are embedded in different cultures, the third identity—that of the couple—becomes essential both internally, as psychic space is created to acknowledge that the couple itself needs some domains of priority, and externally, to help friends and family accept the expansion of their loved one’s world. Lovers need to develop interests and activities that can nourish the relationship as well as each other, both when they are together and when they are apart. This requires time, experimentation, and clocking time together doing them. Initially, the young “we” can feel like a greedy monster, eager to suck any bit of history or childhood pleasure into its orb. Gradually, however, people sort out what feeds the relationship going forward, fostering the development and pursuit of shared dreams and helping meet the needs of the couple. Only with a common identity can the couple, together, ask what is best for the relationship rather than tussle about what might be preferred by one or the other.
As joint passions emerge, they can be shared by reading the same books, watching the same movie in a similar timeframe, sharing stories of local celebrations that you would have attended together if you could have, or discussing news about friends who are now common to you both. Exchanging smiles through humor or familiar music, learning more about a partner’s interest that had become your own, and honoring the intimacy of daily events can all help create a shared identity.
9. Appreciate differences in cultural contexts.
Where people live, where they spend much of their time, and the people, places and activities that fill their lives are meaningful and important. The surroundings in which we are embedded create unconscious forces that define everything from “acceptable” to “forbidden,” “success” to “failure,” “always” to “never.” The nudges created by these invisible forces can be as simple as an enhanced acceptance of sexuality in a culture that features provocative lingerie ads in bus stops to a restriction on expressing physical affection in an airport that has laws against it. Be mindful of cultural differences and respectful of them.
10. Appreciate the unreliability of communication across distance.
Check and recheck the meaning of words to the other when you need to rely exclusively on words. Messages that are quickly typed, texted, left on an answering machine, or even carefully handwritten, still contain only words. Making assumptions about meaning can be dangerous, especially when a new partner assumes that he or she understands what the other intends. That expectation can miss the mark by miles. Until each member of the couple is certain that he or she is reliably understood, pause and remind yourself that you don’t necessarily understand and then check, check, and recheck. Asking, even more than once, is safer than assuming and getting it wrong.
For me, the blessings of the long-distance years far outweighed their annoyances. Because we were inevitably immersed in the current moment when we were together, the time apart allowed us to reflect upon who we were, both separately and as a couple, how we were, where we seemed to be headed, and where we might want to go.
The time apart forced us to fine-tune our patience and gratitude muscles and to look at ourselves and at each other, not only as we were in each other’s eyes, but as we appeared in our own. Best of all, it reminded us that the reason we were together was because we loved being with each other. The content of the time we spent together might evolve, definitions of “play” changing along with our capabilities, preferences and resources, but our commitment to bringing as much joy as possible to each other has sustained us through the years.
Compassion, concrete help, understanding, appreciation, and the pleasures of learning and doing together have watered and fertilized our fledging seeds and now sustain us. We rarely miss an opportunity to watch a sunset, enjoy Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, savor whatever either of us has come up with for dinner, smile at a grandchild’s discovery (or one of our own), or touch each other in reassuring ways. Without the distance, our romance might have imploded with its own intensity, consumed in flames like the final scene in Like Water for Chocolate. The external regulation imposed by living an ocean apart helped us lay firm foundations, enabling us to discover each other along with ways to love and be loved.
Wishing you bon voyage.
Copyright 2016 Roni Beth Tower
Roni beth Tower (2016) Miracle at Midlife: A Transatlantic Romance. She Writes Press, Berkeley, CA.