When two people who live in distant places meet and want to see more of each other, the seeds of a long-distance romantic relationship are sown. The questions that the new couple asks are not the same as those posed by partners whose life events separate them after they have developed a stable relationship, complete with a shared history and culture, dreams for the future, and a network of friends and family.
Military couples separated by deployment. Student couples, studying at different schools. Couples who are living together when one of them gets a job in a distant location. This article addresses primarily the first kind of long-distance relationship, one about which I speak from firsthand experience (www.miracleatmidlife.com). Its unique challenges include confronting those very tasks of developing patterns, a shared vision, and a communal context, as well as exploring the more critical romantic relationship demands: appreciating how much closeness each person wants or can accept, when that needs to change, and how to change it.
Long-distance relationships are particularly interesting precisely because of the twist that geographical separation inevitably gives to a romantic relationship. Any new love affair raises issues of when to be together, how to be together, why be together, and, naturally, when and how and why to be apart. The tension runs deeper: how much of one’s life does a person want to share with a lover and how much privacy is required? For example, a career that involves confidentiality, like psychotherapy or law or medicine, by definition requires that some degree of concealment be part of any other relationships, in order to protect clients. Or one’s personality may require solitude as a necessary source of energy, the “introversion” Susan Cain so impressively described in her book Quiet. And what about other, pre-existing relationships?
Non-romantic love relationships can create more room for other relationships. For example, parents often discover that having—and loving—a child brings a greater capacity to love, and that capacity keeps growing along with the composition of the family. But romantic love includes a note of possessiveness. It thrives on total attention and the passion that attention can generates.
In a long-distance relationship, availability is, by definition, limited by time and space, thus becoming an important component of how the relationship can evolve and what is necessary to maintain it. With geographic distance in the mix, not only does a couple need to confront how much closeness and how much separation they want, they also need to deal with:
Given these challenges, why would one bother? Perhaps the distance guarantees that some measure of autonomy can be maintained. Perhaps separations reassure partners that they will not become dependent. Perhaps connecting and disconnecting offers practice in tempering fears of mortality, the ultimate loss.
But perhaps, as in my case, the miracle of loving simply makes it all worthwhile. Next week's article suggests tips for dealing with the challenges of a long-distance relationship which you do want to continue nurturing.
Roni Beth Tower (2016) Miracle at Midlife: A Transatlantic Romance, She Writes Press. Berkeley, CA.