So here’s what happened: my husband and I started dating right before he left for college, and he was really cute and nice, and I guess he also thought I was cute and nice, so we decided to make it work. A year later, I went to school too—but not the same school as him. For the next three years, we were an hour and a half away from each other, then he proposed and we were engaged (but still apart) for two years, and then we got married. A month later I packed my bags and left to finish my last year of grad school.
We were apart for seven years, including our first year of marriage. I understand that a few hours doesn’t compare to cross-country or cross-continental distance, but believe me, I know a thing or two about how to make long-distance work.
- You don’t have to be madly in love to try long-distance.
My husband and I had gone on three official dates before jumping into long-distance. He officially asked me to be his girlfriend two nights before he left for school, although I later found out that when he invited me over, he still wasn’t sure if he was going to ask me out or let me down easy—meanwhile, I was singing and dancing in my car on the way over, utterly oblivious to any possibility that we wouldn’t keep dating.
My point is, you don’t have to be “all-in” to try long-distance. I mean, being exclusive usually prevents hurt feelings, but it’s totally possible to long-distance date someone you just think is nice and cute. In fact, it can relieve a lot of the New RelationshipTM pressure. You don’t see each other every day, so you don’t learn each other’s annoying habits right away, and it’s easier to take things slow if things are long-distance. You need to be invested enough to date, but beyond that, no one is going to rush into saying the L word to someone they see once or twice a month.
- Find a good communication style for both of you.
Texting is not the same as verbal communication, which sounds incredibly obvious, but this can create a huge problem in long-distance relationships. Communication is the only thing keeping you connected between visits, so it’s important that you are conveying your thoughts clearly, and sometimes the way you would say it out loud isn’t the way you should say it in a text.
People are currently writing their dissertations on “internet-speak,” the little variations we have learned to add in our online conversations to convey emotions or verbal cues that you lose in writing. Use these. I mean, be genuine, you don’t have to sound like a Millennial/Gen-Z stereotype, but make sure your texts have your general “vibe.” If this is something you just can’t/don’t want to master, then find another form of communication that works for you—and for your partner. You may prefer to speak on the phone, but if they have phone anxiety, that could be a huge detriment to your relationship.
Snail mail is a great option. Everyone loves getting mail. But also, it’s longform, so you have room to share more than 200 characters of your thoughts, and it requires a decent waiting time as it makes its way to the other person and they craft their response and then that letter makes its way back to you. This can help prevent that feeling where you’re constantly waiting for your phone to buzz, overthinking about what it means that they haven’t responded to your text in 43 minutes.
- Prioritize in-person visits when possible.
This is where my experience may differ significantly from yours. Because my husband was only an hour and a half away for 6 years, then two and a half during our last year apart, we saw each other frequently. We made a point to see each other every other weekend if possible, and to not go longer than a month without a visit. Sometimes this was inconvenient, sometimes we had to give up other plans, sometimes we had to do a lot of driving for a little time together, but it was important.
First, no matter how well you communicate across the distance, being in close proximity to the other person is usually a good way to build chemistry and comfort with each other. For many people, physical distance can lead to emotional distance. The space can get filled with all your romantic idealizations of the other person that inevitably get shattered when you finally see them in person, because it turns out they’re just a person. A person you haven’t actually been around all that much.
Second, when you make time to see the other person, it’s a gesture that shows how much you care. You shouldn’t have to “prove” your love or affection, but when you like someone and want to cultivate a relationship, you find time for them.
- That being said, don’t put your life on pause whenever you’re not with your significant other.
Long-distance can be a great foundation for building a relationship between two fully independent people who don’t necessarily need each other, but instead, just really want to be with each other. The trouble is, it can also be the exact opposite.
During our first year of dating, I didn’t want to come up and stay in my husband’s dorm (we just weren’t there yet, y’know?), so with the exception of a few day visits, we mostly relied on him coming home to see me. Unfortunately, while we were hanging out watching Star Wars, his peers at school were bonding and becoming good friends, and he wasn’t there for it.
It’s really easy for long-distance to become defined by this dynamic, of missing out on other things to make time for your partner. But when you fight that inclination and learn to balance your own personal development with the development of the relationship, you can build a mature bond between two individual people. Once I went off to college, we took turns visiting each other and sometimes went more than a week or two between visits to make sure we were spending enough time forming other relationships with the people around us.
Now that we’re married, that level of independence has made for some hilarious mishaps. More than once, we have both been getting ready to go out, only to discover that we’d made separate plans. Which leads me to…
- Allow your relationship to change.
When you first started dating, you may have done things a certain way. Letters once a week, a nightly phone call, or other rituals to help you connect. The thing is, if the relationship is going well, those rituals will gradually become less important. You need to give your relationship room to grow and change. Instead of carefully planning out every visit for the upcoming semester, you might take things as they come so you can go to their friends’ last-minute parties or they can drive down for your impromptu karaoke night. As you get more comfortable with your partner, you will be able to trust them to make time for you without having to schedule every moment of your time together.
That being said, when the long-distance is finally over, you may have to develop new rituals to help your relationship grow and change again. My husband and I ran into several scheduling nightmares when we finally started living together, and we quickly realized something needed to change. Now we have a shared Google calendar where we keep track of everything from haircuts to weddings.
- Make an effort to understand and appreciate their interests.
This is good dating advice in general, but if you’re spending a lot of time apart, it’s especially important to let the other person know that you’re interested in what they’re doing and who they are outside of your relationship. When you see each other every day, you can simply watch and listen and pick up on what your significant other likes. When you’re apart, you might be so busy catching each other up on how your day went that you don’t have much time left over for discussing hobbies and interests. Make the time.
Ask specific questions, like what their favorite TV show is, and then watch the show so you can have a conversation about it. If they send you a song, listen to it and let them know what you think. Don’t just say “Aww, thanks,” or “That was good.” Ask them why they sent it to you, what they like about it, and mention what you thought, beyond whether it was good or bad.
Basically, what I’m saying is: be invested. In-person relationships can go on for a while even if one or both people aren’t overly invested in each other. But apathy is a death sentence for a long-distance relationship.
- Don’t try to prove people wrong.
The moment you start including other people in your relationship, you’ve got a problem. This is a common issue with long-distance, because everyone seems convinced it can never, ever work. If you start dating someone long-distance, or mention that you’re thinking about it, you will hear everything from “You’ll never feel at home there if you’re always coming back here to visit them,” to “Long-distance is only good for women—all talk, no sex!” The comments can range from insensitive to plain insulting, but no matter what everybody says, you two can make it work. You’ll show them just how wrong they are.
The trouble is, this can become a defining feature of the relationship. This may seem like a sign that your relationship is strong (you’re defying the odds!), but usually it’s a sign of trouble. You can’t define your relationship based on what other people think, and constantly reminding people via social media or at family reunions that you two don’t care what other people think is a sign that you care very deeply what other people think. If you didn’t care, you wouldn’t need to bring it up at every opportunity.
If you notice this happening, take a step back and investigate your feelings. Are you insecure in the relationship, or do you maybe have some familial boundaries to sort out? Are the two of you just proud that you’ve made it through tough times, or are you using false confidence to avoid confrontations that could cause tough times? Your relationship cannot grow to its full potential if it revolves around others instead of each other.
So that’s what I’ve learned over the years. This is a long one, I know, but about two years into long-distance, I could have used a comprehensive post like this. If you made it to the end, I hope I could help. Feel free to post a comment or message me anonymously on my tumblr if you want to vent or talk or need more advice. Long-distance can work, but I’m eternally grateful my husband and I are finally together ❤