Relationships

How To Make Long Distance Relationships Work

Recently, a friend asked if I could write about long distance relationships. “Why?” I asked.

“Because I’m about to be in one,” she said.

It took me a while to start writing this post. Cumulatively, I’ve been in over five years of medium-to-long distance relationships, so I’ve got a lot of thoughts about how they function, why they work, and why they fail. But it’s a lot to sort through, and I didn’t know where to start. As I sat down to organize my thoughts, years and years of memories flooded back to me: emails from partners, fights over the phone, flowers in the mail, plane rides, train rights, car rides…

[Animation: No Face from "Spirited Away" being overtaken by a wave covered in the word "feels"]

Ouch, right in the feels.

The memory that struck me most, however, was the time I decided not to be in a long distance relationship.

It happened like this: About two years ago, when I was living in New Hampshire, I met a boy who was about to move to California. We had six weeks together, and they were six of the best weeks of my life. He taught me how to love others, and (more importantly) he taught me how to love myself. The time we spent together marked the first time I’d ever felt that a relationship was truly healthy for me. And then he moved.

A few weeks after he relocated, we spoke on the phone about what a long distance relationship might look like. I was so tempted. His departure had devastated me, even though I knew it was was coming. Hearing his voice on the other side of the phone made me think, “Maybe this could work. Maybe we could find a way to stay together.” But here’s the thing: We were a healthy couple because we didn’t do anything that was unhealthy for us as individuals. And both of us knew that long distance wouldn’t be healthy for us as individuals.

Long distance relationships are… difficult. They require discipline, independence, sacrifice, and expert communication. They demand self-esteem, kindness, and open-mindedness. They are not for the weak of heart. And they almost always end in one of two major, destabilizing life events: a breakup or a geographic relocation. We had not sufficiently developed the qualities required for long distance and neither of us was ready for another destabilizing life event, so we could not be healthy in a long distance relationship. It was sad, because we loved each other, but it was also simple.

A few months after making this decision, I met somebody who lived 90 miles away from me. I’ve been dating him for nearly a year and a half now, and it’s been the best relationship of my life. What changed? Well, there’s a big difference between 90 miles and 3,000 miles. Just as importantly, though, I recognized that I probably couldn’t be in a healthy short distance relationship if I didn’t work on the qualities that were required of me in a long distance one. That litany of qualities required for good long distance relationships – discipline, independence, sacrifice, communication, self-esteem, kindness, and open-mindedness – those are things that make you a better person, and if you treat your relationship as a training ground for those qualities, you can have a good relationship at any distance.

So – how do you develop these qualities in a long distance relationship? I’ll go item-by-item and explain why each trait is important to long-distance relationships and how to work on it.

1. Discipline

Long distance relationships involve planning; there’s no way around that. How you communicate, when you communicate, and how long you can go between seeing each other are all important factors in the success of your relationship, and it takes practice to reach a healthy balance with each of these things. In other words, you have to commit to remembering to call or text your partner. You have to commit to not calling or texting your partner at times that are inconvenient for them (except in emergencies!). You have to commit to keeping certain hours or days or weeks open for traveling or skyping or emailing.

Partnership doesn’t always require this much rigor, but it’s actually great practice to set up – and follow through with – behaviors that establish a good basis for affection and independence. My sense of things is that people lack discipline in one of two categories: either they struggle to follow through with communication and emotional support, or they struggle to maintain independence and self-sufficiency throughout the partnership.

[Characters from "Boy Meets World" lingering on the phone]

“No, I miss YOU more!”

If you’re someone who struggles to follow through with communication and emotional support, you may want to start setting reminders for yourself to send affectionate messages to your partner. You may want to block of certain weekends to go and visit them. On the other hand, if you struggle to maintain independence, it might help to purchase a “worry stone” (or pick one up from the beach), snap a rubber band, or practice mindful breathing to help you get through periods of low communication without demanding too much of your partner. It can be hard to go long periods of time without hearing from the person you love most, but you ultimately do damage to the relationship by over-relying on somebody who can’t always be there for you. Which brings me to…

2. Independence

Fire needs air,” says the famous sex therapist Esther Perel. What she means is that relationships falter – both in sex and affection – if the people in the relationships don’t have their own, unique lives. Think about it like this: what did you initially find attractive enough about your partner to want to date them? In all likelihood, they had interests and qualities that you found compelling, intriguing, beautiful, mysterious. And they didn’t develop these interests by devoting all of their time and energy to another person – they did so by following their own desires.

Long distance relationships are perfect for teaching partners to maintain individuality, because there’s only so long you can talk on the phone or skype before you run out of things to say. Make sure that you take full advantage of the time you spend away from your partner by seeking out new friendships, pursuing your interests vivaciously and excitedly, and learning to live alone successfully. It might feel lonely – at times, it certainly will – but it will also feel empowering. And it will keep your relationship alive.

3. Sacrifice

If you want to be in a healthy relationship, you have to be willing to give as much as you take. In long distance relationships, the sacrifices are a bit more abstract (because you’re not negotiating living in the same space), but they’re just as real. For instance, I leave my city about two weekends per month in order to visit my partner, and the result of this is that it’s take a lot longer to build friendships and relationships where I live than it would have been if I were single. On my partner’s side of things, he’s had to sacrifice a level of closeness to his city, which he’s been living in for five years, in order to visit me. Both of us have had to sacrifice some of our money so that we can transport ourselves to each other.

An important distinction here is that sacrifices should never come at the cost of independence: you shouldn’t ever have to wholesale sacrifice friendships, comfort, or safety for romance. You should never spend so much money on the relationship that you can’t afford to live, eat, and have some fun. You should never give up social or bodily autonomy. But you might have to negotiate these things a little more carefully than you would if you were in a short-distance relationship or single. Being realistic about these sacrifices allows you to evaluate them more objectively: what are you willing to give up? What sacrifices would be hard for you to make or put stress on the relationship?

The ultimate sacrifice in a long-distance relationship, of course, is moving. Is that something you’re willing to do? Do you think it’s something you’re willing to do in the future? If not, you might want to start talking about what your one, two, or three-year plans are. Which leads me to…

4. Communication

Maybe you’re used to ignoring your problems until they go away (or until they get so big that you can’t ignore them). Or maybe you’re used to solving issues by snuggling or having sex. This doesn’t work in long distance relationships. The longer your wait to solve your issues, the worse things will get.

Communication and problem-solving is the core to every relationship, though few partnerships dedicate time an energy to developing healthy communication patterns. In your long-distance relationship, you have the opportunity to start practicing open, honest, and kind communication. Start paying attention to the way you feel about your partner on a moment-to-moment basis and give them (gentle) feedback, even when it seems trivial. For example: “Hey, I know that you didn’t mean to ignore me, but you sounded distracted over the phone and that made me feel insecure. In the future, can you tell me when you’re distracted or tired so that I don’t have unrealistic expectations?” Or: “I felt guilty for going out with my friends when you wanted to talk to me. Is there a way I can give you what you need when I also have social obligations?”

The point of communication is never to identify your partner’s weaknesses or transgressions – it’s to help them understand how to take better care of you. Similarly, it’s your responsibility to recognize their communication as an opportunity to better learn how to take care of them. It’s normal to react with fear, insecurity, or defensiveness when it sounds like your partner isn’t satisfied with the relationship, but good communication happens when you move past those emotions and focus on speaking clearly and compassionately about how to make things work for everyone.

5. Self-esteem

Self-esteem is your confidence in your inherent worth as a person. It is that voice that says, “I deserve to be happy and healthy. I deserve respect and kindness.” It is a key ingredient in every other trait on this list, and it’s also damn near impossible to maintain. Without self-esteem, though, you will have a hard time staying independent, communicating with your partner, establishing healthy boundaries, and advocating for yourself when the relationship isn’t going well.

How do you build self-esteem? If I could tell you in one blog post, nobody would ever need therapy again. However, there are a few tricks you can do to bolster your self-esteem while you’re in a long-distance relationship:

  1. Keep a “pride journal.” Every day, write down three to ten things you’re proud of yourself for doing. They could be as small as “got out of bed” or as personal as “admitted to my partner that I am insecure,” but they’re all worth noting.
  2. Find a job that makes you feel competent. Leave a job that doesn’t.
  3. Admit to yourself and your closest friends/partners when your self-esteem is faltering. They love you for a reason and will remind you of your best qualities. Do not doubt them when they compliment you.
  4. Pick up a hobby, especially a craft or an art, that you can do alone. Over time (and with dedication), you will learn that you can make amazing things all by yourself.
  5. Come up with your own self-esteem bolstering techniques and activities. There’s nothing quite like taking care of yourself emotionally to prove how powerful you are.

6. Kindness

Your partner will fail you. You will fail your partner. What makes a good relationship is not your ability to play by the rules but rather your ability to admit fault when you make it and accept apology when you receive it. Obviously, if your partner continually acts without regard for your emotions or well-being, consider breaking up with them or demanding better behavior.

People forget birthdays. They make out with friends (and strangers!) at parties when they’re drunk. They don’t text you when they get home after work. Always let them know how those things make you feel, but try to approach their failings as kindly as possible – in return, you can expect your partner to approach your inevitable failings with kindness and understanding as well. After all, mistakes are rarely evidence that your partner doesn’t love you. Sometimes, they’re evidence that they feel so comfortable with you that they forget to consider their impact on you. That’s not always a good thing, but often it just takes a gentle reminder that you are a real human with real human emotions to promote better behavior.

7. Open-mindedness

Every relationship is different. Every human is different. I find that relationships often fail because people aren’t willing to break certain “rules” about what is and isn’t okay in romance. Some people swear to their dying breath that a good long-distance relationship involves communication every single day, while others clam up at the idea of being accountable to that level of connectedness. Some people rail endlessly against polyamory and others find that the only reason they can stay in their relationships is because of polyamory.

In a long distance relationship, you will be faced with an endless array of decisions about the format and function of your relationship. It’s up to you to really think about what will work best for you and your partner, no matter how uncomfortable or non-traditional it is. It’s also up to you to recognize when the rules aren’t working – and rather than figure out who’s to blame, change the rules so that they work. This takes creativity, love, and a healthy disregard for tradition. Remember, love is not a zero-sum game. You’re working with each other, not against each other.

[Animation: Gerald and Arnold from "Hey Arnold!" shaking hands]

Teamwork!

It also might take some work with a therapist, which is totally okay. Therapists are there to help you. Consider finding a therapist before you encounter problems rather than after, since it’s easier to prevent problems than it is to solve them.

I want to close this post with a reminder that every relationship is an experiment. Right now, you might feel like you could never live (or be happy) without your partner. That’s certainly how I felt in New Hampshire, saying goodbye to the man who taught me how to love. But that’s not true. If your relationship doesn’t work out, you will heal and live to love again. In the meantime, start learning how to build the qualities that sustain a relationship so that when you find a partner who is good for you, you can stay with each other no matter the circumstances.

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