Roni Beth Tower
Source: Roni Beth Tower

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:

  1. Not sharing the same context for  daily life—time zones, weather, people, patterns, activities, culture, events.
  2. Logistical challenges—calendar, transportation, communication and paying for it all take on new meaning when geographical distance is involved.
  3. Cultural differences, often accentuated with geographic distance, matters. Decision-making styles are often embedded in culture and can require negotiation.  Similarly, the relative importance of an event or demand that can affect being together can vary with culture.  Fourth of July and Thanksgiving are not holidays in France; three four or five-day weekends in May do not adorn the American calendar.  Many Asian cultures value emotional restraint; many Latin ones prize expression.
  4. When a couple is physically separated, daily life can be sheltered from the demands of the relationship.  There are no dinner plans to coordinate, no conflict when one wants to stay up late to work or read or watch a movie, no necessity to vent about a trivial annoyance whose impact on the bigger picture is negligible.  On the other hand, expectations can introduce new constraints, such as a phone or Skype check-in at an agreed-upon time, and flexibility may be harder to negotiate.
  5. In-person closeness and contact across a distance are not the same.  At a communication level, as Albert Mehrabian has suggested, even if 7% of our communication is in the words and another 38% is tone of voice, accessible through telephone, and even, generously, if another percentage is available through the visuals of Skype, a serious proportion of the information in the communication is missing.  Nuances of body language are unavailable, the energies emitted by emotions are lacking and, to make it worse, chances to adjust perceptions or correct misunderstanding through contact—a pat on the arm, a touch on the cheek, a rub of a shoulder—are not possible.
  6. Separating and reconnecting in real time bring their own demands.  Because of the energy that moves between people, the contagion of happy or sad or fearful emotions, experiences are altered when they are shared.  Distance can amplify the difference between experiencing an emotion alone compared to when with another person.  Partners must adjust to the changes in feedback when a lover moves into and out of his or her orbit.  Learning new strategies for recognizing and dealing with the many ways in which a close relationship affects you by modifying your basic experience can take time.  
  7. In addition, each separation and each reconnection involves loss. A person primed to grieve in the face of loss does not move on as easily as one who can breathe through the appearance and disappearance of one to whom he or she feels profoundly connected with more ease. Another who treasures solitude or who is not in the habit of considering the preferences and choices of another person  is confronted with its disruption when the normally-absent lover returns.
  8. Because of the communication challenges, acknowledging and helping to meet each other’s needs can be harder across a distance.  An immediate need may indeed have nothing at all to do with the lover.  For example, the inevitable traffic jam on the Interstate can lead to annoyance or exhaustion resulting in an irritability that becomes displaced onto the one whose location rarely has the same complications.  A snowstorm that leads to massive rescheduling can be incomprehensible to a lover who lives in a warm, sunny climate.  Without having the clarifying cues available through real contact, the distant lover needs to both not take it personally and to respect the ways the partner says he or she wants to be treated.
  9. Physical wants or needs such as attending an events as a couple or sharing a consultation on a medical matter can become impossible to navigate. And then there is sex.  In a monogamous relationship, managing abstinence can be its own challenge.
  10. Conflicts within the couple can be harder to resolve because of the communication challenges, cultural variations, and the differences in time zones that can render one person sleepy while the other is eager to get to work.  A lack of knowledge of (or appreciation for) the demands of the day ahead (or the one just ended) for the loved one can complicate expectations.
  11. Bumpy relationship dynamics can also be harder to smooth out because of the distance.  The impossibility of comfort from an extended hug, of tolerating breathing together in silence when there is pain, of the unmitigated joy in a triumph or delight in an encounter cannot be shared as viscerally.  Worse, the one who would want to reach out may feel helpless, unsure what the other’s real needs are or how best to meet them.  Thus the separate daily lives may accentuate disconnection while limitations on attempts to reach out inject negative feelings of inadequacy.
  12. How to use the time together becomes its own challenge, because it is such a scarce resource.  For the relationship to last long-term, time together needs to supply far more pleasure than pain.  It also needs to reach beyond the two people themselves to include others who are important to them.  Navigating these waters with restricted resources is not as easy as when a visit to a friend can just as conveniently be delayed until the next week or when evenings available for the simple joys of snuggling are unlimited.  Even more challenging, the sources of pleasure can vary with the location where the couple meet. On one person’s terrain they may have more solitary play dates, hiking or biking or romantic dinners just the two of them, while on the other’s, social interactions are front and center.
  13. Finally, geographical distance increases the complexity in creating a shared identity, a “we” in the eyes of others.  Each person filters perception through their own experiences and each culture subtly (or not so subtly) influences what those experiences may be.

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.

References

Roni Beth Tower (2016) Miracle at Midlife:  A Transatlantic Romance, She Writes Press. Berkeley, CA.

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