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Some say that absence makes the heart grow fonder.
Others say that absence makes the heart grow crazy, basically buys you shares in an airline and racks up epic phone bills like nobody’s business.
Whichever side of the fence you sit on, long-distance relationships are a fact of life for many couples. But it seems that people rarely look at long distance as a positive experience, and instead see it as something that must be endured or avoided at all cost.
I’m a big believer that long-distance can be a really healthy thing for a relationship. I think that most people would benefit from experiencing long distance at some point in their life.
We’ve all heard that old adage that you should be happy being alone before you bring another person into the equation. That you should have a strong sense of who you are, and a healthy sense of your own independence, before you start to build a shared life with someone else.
Rarely is life such a linear progression, and relationships even less so. We meet people we don’t expect to fall in love with, sometimes before we’ve had the time to grow into our skin. As creatures of habit, once we’re in relationships we can fall easily into comfortable routines. We share our friends, make decisions in relation to the other person, and sometimes put our partner’s needs before our own. Holidays are spent together rather than travelling alone. Compromise and growing together is part and parcel of healthy relationships, and I am in no way saying that these habits are a sign that couples aren’t happy or don’t respect each other’s own individual needs.
The reason I think long-distance relationships are an important life experience is that they are such hard work. Like, heart-wrenchingly hard work. I didn’t plan it this way, but all of my serious relationships have involved some form of long distance, whether dating my high-school sweetheart whilst in boarding school, being separated from a college boyfriend during the university break, or having my husband move back to Canada a few weeks after we got married.
Over the eight years that we’ve been together, we’ve spent about almost three years of those in some form of long distance. After meeting in Sydney and dating for a few months, my partner Marc moved to Canberra for a graduate job. Later, in 2012, his work offered him the chance to work in London for nine months, during which time we only saw each other twice. Then there were the nine months when he was basically commuting weekly between Brisbane and Canberra. And then in 2016 there was the 12-month stint in Canada (during which time we got engaged and somehow pulled off a wedding within five months. Handy wedding hint: There is a whole lot of stuff you just don’t worry about when you’re in this situation!).
In all of the instances where we were doing international long distance, there was never a question that I couldn’t have joined him, but I chose not to. I wanted to focus on my own career and build up my professional experience. I also wanted him to be able to make the most of such an incredible opportunity. And it’s not just one sided either. In 2017, we’re moving to London so that I can chase my dream of working for a cultural organisation, but one of the likely sacrifices is that Marc’s work will be based in Europe, meaning we’ll spend part of the week apart.
My experience in long distance relationships is that they force individual growth, examine ingrained behaviours and prompt sometimes uncomfortable conversations. I’d argue that they make any relationship stronger. Even if the relationship doesn’t last, amidst the heartbreak, both individuals come away with a clearer sense of their personal needs and what they’re looking for in future partners.
A phrase I heard recently is that sometimes you need to introduce chaos in order to find clarity. I spoke to a few friends about some of the positives that came out of their experiences of long distance relationship.
You’ll appreciate the time you do spend together
Melissa and her partner had been together two years before entering into long distance for 18 months. “Luckily, we were secure anyway and had lived together for two years, so we were committed to making it work,” Melissa explains. “It certainly made us spend quality time together when we had it, and with technology these days, we didn’t really feel out of the loop.”
Claire agrees. “Distance gave us both the desire to spend quality time together, but also a healthy respect for the others’ independence and personal space when they needed it.” She met her now-husband Harry when the pair were just 18, and spent three years apart whilst studying. “I knew what I liked, and Harry knew what he liked,” she says. “We met vastly different people, possibly potential partners – but no one we ever liked as much as each other.”
Making plans to see each other will bring a sense of excitement and anticipation to the relationship. It’s also important to acknowledge that sometimes the person coming home will have other commitments or people they want to see, so make sure to discuss ahead of time how you want to spend the time you do have together. “It is so gratifying to feel such love for someone, when you have missed them so much,” says Claire. “I still feel the same way when Harry goes away for a couple of days, then comes home to me.”
It will improve your communication with each other
The initial conversations about long distance are always emotionally challenging, but it’s important to probe your feelings about being separated. How are you likely to feel? How will you use your support networks, or build new ones? Are there existing problems or personality traits that might be exacerbated by distance? Talking these through with your partner means that you’ll both feel more prepared for potential rough patches, and you can both consider strategies to deal with these before they happen.
Establishing a routine and being vocal about what you need to feel supported will help you both feel as connected. “We would talk every day at around the same time, [which] worked well and I stayed sane,” says Melissa. It’s important to keep in touch regularly so that both of you feel reassured and emotionally supported.
Creating shared experiences isn’t impossible, even when you’re apart, and can give you something to talk about other than your daily routine. This can be especially important if one of you is ‘staying put’ whilst the other is discovering somewhere new and exciting. Get creative by agreeing to read the same book, or watch the same show on Netflix so that you can discuss it on your next Skype date.
You each have time to do your own thing
Claire believes that the three years that she and Harry spent apart exponentially strengthened their relationship. “We had space to become our own people. We were used to having time alone and didn’t rely on being attached at the hip.” This can be especially important if you need to pour some serious energy into your work, which was definitely the case for Melissa. “I started a new job at the same time and needed to get my head around that.”
My anecdotal evidence from speaking to people about doing long distance relationships, or even travelling alone, is they are rarely something that people choose to do. It’s often something that’s forced upon a couple, the last resort, and something that must be endured. I can completely understand the resistance to long distance. But personally, I also think there is huge value in choosing to spend some time apart so that you both have the freedom and mental headspace to chase your own individual dreams. Resenting your partner later in life because you felt held back from taking that bucket-list holiday you’d planned years before you met is likely to be more challenging to deal with than a period of separation.
Every relationship is different, but I think we need to stop looking at time spent apart as the death toll for your shared and individual happiness. Yes, doing long distance can be frustrating, expensive, and lonely. But, it can also take your deep and meaningfuls to the next level, make you each appreciate relationship in a new way, and give you both the invaluable opportunity to grow as people. Let’s start looking at long distance relationships as a chance for some pretty tremendous transformations, the benefits of which will last far longer than even your lengthiest Skype call.
You can read more of Jose’s musings on her blog, mapleandmabel.com