In the four years my girlfriend and I have been together she has lived in three countries, and I in just one. By next autumn she will have upped her tally to four and I will be moving abroad for the first time, though not to the same country she is moving to.
We are both moving away from South Africa to take up new jobs and, for the first time, we have no clear idea when we are likely to once again reside in the same country. As we prepare to shift into long-distance mode yet again, I have the following thoughts on the subject. These mightn’t be the excessively romantic things that I regularly see in articles on long distance relationships all over the web, but they are worth having a good hard think about.
It’s not the definitive sign of true love
When I told my sister that my girlfriend had taken a job in Country B, and I was still going to that job in Country A, she hesitated for a moment. When I assured her that we were not planning to break up over it she gushed ‘See? You guys give me faith in true love!’.
It’s not an uncommon reaction – people seem to think that love which spans large geographical distances is somehow greater, deeper, purer. In reality it’s just a relationship with a lot of air miles, no better nor worse than it would be if you lived in the same town.
Staying together when distance is an issue simply means you’d rather stay together than break up, same as staying together in any other situation. It’s nice to think that your relationship is rose-coloured and full of sparkles but don’t let other people’s ideals of long-distance relationships actually muddy your vision of what’s going on or you’ll be in for some nasty shocks in the long run.
Relationships are not a competitive sport
Long distance relationships (when they’re going well, at least) can make you feel smug. Smugness is dangerous and you should guard against becoming the person who laughs inwardly at at the poor sap that complains she only sees her girlfriend once a week.
Likewise do not feel that you struggling with your distance (be it a hundred miles or a thousand) is a sign of inadequacy just because you know relationships spanning greater distances.
I, personally, can think of three sets of people we know who have done ‘greater’ long distances than we have (and hopefully ever will), but just because our friend Zippy (not a real person) holds together their marriage while spending 5 year terms on a rock in the middle of an Australian desert does not mean I’m going to soften my requirements for seriously good internet connections at all times, and at least four visits a year. All relationships have hard and easy aspects (at least, all healthy relationships), yours does not have to do better, or go further, than others.
Your relationship is not what will happen later, it’s what’s happening now
This possibly doesn’t apply if you’re doing the long distance thing for a short, unavoidable, defined period of time and after that never again the two of you shall part. For the rest of us: If your long-distance relationship is not a good relationship to be in, your relationship is not a good relationship to be in.
Resist the urge to value your relationship and its sticking power based on how things were when you were close together, how it is when you visit, or (worst of all) how it might be in some happy future time when you live near each other once again. If 80% of your relationship is spent with thousands of miles between you, that 80% better be a the kind of relationship you want for yourself. Otherwise you are indulging in a large-scale two-person fantasy about a relationship you don’t actually have.
Acknowledge the priorities you demonstrate
Even though my girlfriend and I have remarked we’d rather live together but this is ‘how it is’, this really isn’t just ‘how it is’ but rather what we’ve chosen.
We’re white, educated and middle-class: in terms of privilege, power and self-determination we must come in the global top zero point nothing per cent. If you and your partner choose to live in difference places – and it probably is a choice you are making, no matter how many times you tell yourself there is no other real option – you would do well to acknowledge that you do not place your relationship very high on your personal life priority list right now.
This doesn’t mean you don’t love and care for each other, nor does it mean that you don’t value the relationship and want to make it work. But it does mean that spending time with and being (physically) close to your partner is falling below a variety of other things (commonly work, study, family, a sense of home etc) in terms of how you structure your life. Acknowledge your agency.
Of course, humans are not rational creatures so, having acknowledged all of the above, be prepared for the fact that even though you’re aware that you’ve made the choice not to prioritise your partner to the extent that it determines your place of residence, it’ll probably sting a little that they didn’t prioritise you to that extent either.
Skype/Facetime/Medium Of Choice is a two-edge sword
The Internet can really take the edge off distance. Provided you don’t have a 12-hour time difference between you, the existence of so many ‘free’ video messaging, text messaging and calling services means that you can waste hours talking to your partner over the little trivial things you’d probably fritter away time on at home.
If anything can recreate that sense of normality it’s the fact that your Medium Of Choice, with a little practice, can go a long way towards facilitating most indoor dates – dinner, tea, film nights etc.
Over the years though, however, I’ve definitely noticed that this almost-real way of spending time together changes in some subtle but essential way the communication between you – it makes it harsher, sharper. We’re a million, billion times more likely to get ratty with each other over Skype than in person. Perhaps it’s partially the frustration of an almost-real situation, perhaps it’s the fact that you never quite have 100% of the other persons attention when you’re on a screen that also houses email, facebook, stupid online games, endless pictures and a clock.
Don’t relax around your digital communication medium of choice or there is a serious chance it will stab you in the back. Use it excessively by all means, we certainly do, but be prepared to put in a teeny tiny bit more effort to compensate for a medium that isn’t a perfect substitute for what I believe people traditionally referred to as ‘real life’.
It helps if you have an extremely low libido. I’m just saying, it would help.