As I mentioned in a previous post, my boyfriend and I did long distance for almost 4.5 years. Starting a couple of weeks ago, we semi-permanently live near each other for the first time since we started dating.
The very brief explanation is we were friends in high school, and got together a couple of weeks before leaving for college. The problem is those colleges happened to be 400 miles apart. We had no idea if it would work, but felt it was worth seeing if it was something we could handle. Lucky for us, we’ve managed to grow a relationship in spite of it. But that doesn’t change the fact that maintaining or growing any sort of relationship long-distance sucks.
I realize not everyone has been in or is in a long-distance romantic relationship, but nearly everyone has friends or family that are much further away than we’d like. So I’m going to do my best to take that into account throughout this post. I also have a special treat! My boyfriend, Parker, was kind enough to co-write this post with me so it isn’t limited to my perspective. Below are some questions, with each of our answers, regarding how we’ve learned to manage long-distance.
Did you think we had a good chance of making a long-distance relationship work when we first started out?
Rachal: Care to elaborate?
Parker: From an objective perspective, we already had a long-standing friendship with good communication habits, we already texted regularly and made an effort to consistently reach out to one another. From a subjective perspective, we cared about each other quite a bit and are both the type of people that typically put in the effort to make difficult things work. And as people we were very similar and compatible, so if one of us was going to try and be committed, there was a good chance both of us would be, and that often lends itself to a successful relationship. So I thought we had a good chance of making it despite the distance.
Rachal: I hoped that we would, but as people who know me are well aware of, I don’t like to make bets on things that are not guarantees — as my boyfriend rolls his eyes and laughs. So I thought it was worth it enough that I wanted to try, and I had a lot of faith in us, particularly given that we had been such good friends for a fair amount of time, but admittedly I was a bit nervous that it might not work.
What have you found beneficial about long-distance?
Parker: [laughs] It forces you to become really good at the habits that often slip for people who aren’t long-distance, like communication and working out a schedule, because all you have is phone calls and Skype and the very occasional visit. If you have bad communication habits in long-distance, your relationship is going to fall apart, so long-distance really teaches you to form a good communication system with your partner, which then helps once long-distance is no longer a factor.
Rachal: I would definitely second that, and emphasize it more if possible. Because distance is difficult to deal with it can be weird to think about upsides, but in addition to that I would also say that it makes the time you do have in person feel way more valuable and special.
Parker: Took the words out of my mouth (again).
Rachal: It definitely makes it easier to not take each other for granted.
What sucked about long-distance that you didn’t expect (or was worse than you expected)?
Parker: Two things mainly. One, that it didn’t really get better over time. You would think that after doing long-distance for a while, you would start to get used to it and it wouldn’t feel as difficult. And there was some element of that, but there were certain things that got more difficult, like as you’re reaching the end of long-distance your patience with it grows shorter and shorter because you know it’s almost done. Second, even though our issues were relatively infrequent, when struggles did come up, it’s hard because you don’t have the ability to give little physical reassurances like holding someone’s hand or giving a hug. So it’s just words and voice, and there aren’t accompanying physical motions or actions that can give that reassurance that everything’s going to be okay even if it’s a rough patch.
Rachal: I think the first one that you mentioned is what stands out to me the most. Not that I ever specifically thought, “Oh, this is going to get easier,” but I definitely didn’t think it would get harder. So it was weird to be caught off guard after we had been together for a few years and, by all objective standards, had a grip on how to handle things, but from an emotional perspective, the distance took more of a toll than it had previously. I also agree with the second point, and would add that it was just really disappointing to not be able to share the little things as often — like pointing something you passed by or just the small things that are easy to share with someone who’s right next to you, but not necessarily significant enough to save for a nightly phone call.
How have you handled long-distance family relationships?
Parker: I called my parents once a week or more, occasionally spoke to grandparents, and tried to go to family gatherings and stuff like that.
Rachal: Since I have a few younger siblings, I try to keep in better touch with them through facetime or sending them cards on occasion, but for most other family it’s occasional phone calls and visiting when possible.
What about friendships?
Parker: I’ve kind of had mixed success handling long-distance friendships. Some people I’ve had a really good experience keeping up with online, and have a few friends that I’ve never met but have developed friendships with online. Some other personal friendships I haven’t had as much success with but try to text to check in and see how things are going and then try to make the effort to see when I’m in town and near them.
Rachal: I’m either really good at this, or really bad. There are some friends who I text or otherwise communicate with very frequently, and other friends who I am just really bad about keeping in touch with. Part of that is a time thing — there’s only time to stay really close with so many people — but part of it is just having not developed as strong of communication habits with some friends as with others.
What tools were the most helpful for dealing with long-distance?
Parker: Phone calls, text messaging, Skype/Google+. That’s pretty much it.
Rachal: I’m going get kind of communication meta here, because it’s me. Technology is obviously a huge thing — I genuinely don’t know how people did this before cell phones and texting.
Parker: Mail, dude.
Rachal: I know people who did it, but that would suck. Worse. But beyond just technology, the sort of shorthands that we developed for things were really helpful.
Parker: What do you mean by the shorthands?
Rachal: So like early on, we had a very specific conversation about what certain things meant if we texted them. If one of us texted “Okay :)” then everything was fine, but “Okay.” meant that we were upset about something. And we could always ask if we were confused about tone or if we needed to talk later, and things like that. Though it was maybe less of a tool, we also made sure to vary how we communicated. So we texted and did phone or video calls a ton, but once in a while I would send a letter, or you would have a particularly funny Snapchat video, or things like that.
How do you think it changed our relationship?
Parker: It’s almost impossible to answer, because we don’t have a frame of reference. In high school we were friends but we weren’t dating, so how it changed our relationship exactly is hard to say, because we don’t know what it would have been like if we hadn’t had to do long-distance. Long-distance made us learn each other very well, because we had to figure out how to sustain a relationship for 4.5 years, where all we would have were brief periods of time together. So we learned a lot about each other because we would talk a ton, and come up with little games to keep our talks fresh or interesting, so it wasn’t the same thing over and over of “How was your day? How was your day?” I do think it made our relationship a lot stronger in the sense of if we can make it through rough patches where we weren’t even near each other, then it made us more confident that we could sustain a relationship when we were actually together.
Rachal: I agree. I think it really forged and strengthened not only our communication, but our commitment. Because if we weren’t sure about this whole thing, then it would not be worth putting in the amount of effort that we did. And like I mentioned before, it made it easier to value our time and each other, because it was not only rare, but something that had to be worked harder for. I have no idea what it would have been like if we had started dating not long-distance, but despite the challenges, I’m very grateful for the way things have turned out.
What did the distance cost us?
Rachal: I’ll go first on this one. The first thing it cost us is time, which is a funny thing to say because we didn’t get to spend as much time together as would have been nice, but it was a lot of time planning or working to set aside specific windows for us to talk, so the combination of time and effort were significant. I think it also cost us a little bit of the spontaneity that’s fun, especially at the beginning of a relationship, because we had to plan, and you couldn’t just swing by my dorm room and say let’s go get pizza.
Parker: I agree. The only other thing that I’d add is that it cost us flexibility. We did have to be a bit flexible with how and when we talked, how long, and things like that — especially given college and the fluctuation in our workloads. But it did cost some inflexibility in our overall lives. We made an effort to have a phone call at minimum every single day, and at least once a week longer talks. So if friends wanted to go out and do something and we had scheduled time to talk, we’d sometimes have to say no because that was important to our relationship. But then also on breaks and holidays, it led to some inflexibility with schedules because we chose to prioritize our time together. We had to balance spending time with each other, and family, and friends we hadn’t seen in a long time, which led to some conflicts and difficulties. Time windows being so limited as far as what we could spend together made it difficult.
How did you go about balancing the priorities of our relationship vs. being independent, and how did distance play into that?
Parker: Not to sound like a broken record, but it does come back to the constant communication. We would talk about what was going on that night, if there was something we knew we wanted to do, and not only making sure the other person was aware, but we had a good system of making sure the other person was okay with it. If needed, we would make up for that time somewhere else. Then there were some set things, like on Friday nights when I would go hang out with friends and play video games and eat pizza, and we would be okay with a short phone call that day — especially if you also made your plans for that day. We were very deliberate in terms of not wanting to limit each other; we want each other to have our own lives and our own friends, but also devote the proper time to our relationships. And we were in near constant communication to try and achieve that balance to the best of our ability — we weren’t always perfect.
Rachal: Yeah, this is the part of our relationship where I feel like we have been really flexible. We both want the other person to have a social life apart from our relationship, so we made sure that we each got take time to spend with friends or even on our own while still maintaining our relationship as a priority.
How did our relationship change when we had stretches where we weren’t far away?
Parker: Scheduling became a lot more stressful because we really wanted to maximize our time together, but also had to balance friends, family, other stuff with spending time with each other. Sometimes life throws a curve ball and it would really eat away at our time, or one of us would have a certain expectation of how much time we would have, and significantly less than what we were anticipating would cause some tension and some stress between us. That’s the negative side of things. But for the positive, obviously we would get to be together. We could try new restaurants and make recipes we really like, and really focus on each other and enjoy each other’s company, laughs, smiles. Again, because the time was so valuable and so limited, we both loved spending every minute we could with each other.
Rachal: Yeah, it really depended on the stretch in my opinion. When we didn’t have a lot of other commitments, it was awesome because we actually got to be near each other and do all the things you mentioned. But when there were a bunch of other things we were also trying to do, or circumstances became challenging, then it could definitely be pretty stressful at times. But like you mentioned earlier, it was also easier to work through those tensions when we were in person.
What are your top three pieces of advice for people managing a long-distance relationship (romantic or otherwise)?
Parker: The biggest one, which feeds into everything else, would be to just work extremely hard on your communication. Don’t be afraid to ask almost oddly direct questions to your partner, because it’s more important to figure out what works and what doesn’t and why than it is to avoid asking a slightly awkward question. It makes everything easier if you’re both very clear and aware on what your position is and what your expectations are. Another, as much as it does have its drawbacks, is scheduling things out in advance. When we knew we were going to have time at home together, we’d plan what days we were going to hang out and what movies we’d watch, because even the planning process was fun for us. Of course, leaving some room for spontaneity can be fun as well. Lastly, just both people making the effort. Obviously, we all have bad days where we’re exhausted or overworked, or generally feeling off or cranky. But making the effort not to let those things seep into your relationship, and trying to do something special over the distance occasionally — whether it’s an extra long goodnight text or sending a letter or when they come to visit making a little surprise care package. Small things that are thoughtful can be really helpful. Even not letting yourself get bitter or going to bed angry with the other person; you and I used to have some pretty late talks to make sure we were okay with where things were at after a rough conversation or a rough night.
Rachal: Number one: COMMUNICATE. Please. Clearly. Ask obvious or weirdly direct questions, because the distance makes picking up on nuance more difficult, and there’s a smaller grace area for not communicating clearly. Second, just talk a lot. Be thoughtful and make the other person feel like a priority, even if that means more effort or time than would necessarily be convenient. It’s always worth it to make someone you care about feel valued. Last, I would say really make sure that effort and contributions feel equitable. Particularly with distance, it can be easy for that to start to feel out of whack, and few things damage a relationship quite the same.
I know that was quite a long post, but I hope that was informative or helpful in some way! Distance is a big hurdle in any type of relationship, and one that emerging adults often deal with to a greater degree than other age groups. A huge thanks to my boyfriend for contributing — and for dealing with me for all these years, even with all the miles often between us. What advice have you found most helpful for surviving long-distance relationships? Let me know in a comment below, on Twitter @ohgrowup, or Instagram @oh.grow.up!
(Photo credit goes to the ever-wonderful Megan T.)