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3 Secrets to Making Long-Distance Relationships Work

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My husband and I met the first day of college. Even though it took me a few months to admit it, we knew we were perfect from each other for almost the first moment we met. We spent three blissful years seeing each other every day—sometimes several times a day.

And then we graduated.

Adam moved to Taiwan for a year for graduate language study. I spent a year teaching in Washington, DC while I tried to figure out what I wanted to do with my life. We were an ocean and two continents apart for an entire year, quite a rude awakening for two people used to seeing as much of each other as they wanted.

The next two years were even worse. I moved to Oxford to pursue a master’s degree in English. Adam moved to Seattle to study Chinese.

By the time we finally married, almost six years to the day from that first day of college,  we had spent as much time living on separate continents  as we had living in the same city.

Long distance isn’t good for any relationship, but Adam and I learned a few secrets about how to make it work.

1. Be up front about expectations.

When Adam moved to Taiwan, we were barely out of our teens. We had a vague idea that we wanted to be together, but we didn’t have a clear vision of what we wanted out of life. Our indecision led to a lot of fights and hurt feelings the first year we spent apart—did we really want to be together or not?

A year later, before I moved to Oxford, we sat down on one of our rare visits together and had a serious heart-to-heart. Yes—we did want to be together. Because we committed to the shared vision of our future, all the hardships of a long-distance relationship became mere hurdles along the course toward our ultimate goal of a happy married life.

  • Have a clear, shared goal if you want your long-distance relationship to work. All relationships involve sacrifice, but long-distance relationships can be especially hard. It is almost impossible to make these kinds of sacrifices if you don’t have a clear goal in mind. Adam and I were able to survive our long-distance relationship because we knew we wanted to be married.
  • Trust your partner and deserve his trust. All relationships are built on trust, but trust is the life-blood to long-distance relationships. Set clear rules with your partner for what is and isn’t okay while you’re apart. Stick with them and expect him to stick with them, too. By trusting each other to follow clear rules, you can avoid the jealous fights to which long-distance relationships are so susceptible. Ultimately, if you can’t trust him—or be trustworthy yourself—you have no business staying together anyway.
  • Be cautious about friendships with the opposite sex. Whether or not they realize it, people in long-distance relationships are emotionally vulnerable.  You feel a love you can’t express the way you want—and that can be very dangerous. Be especially careful about friendships with people of the opposite sex. They can become inappropriately intimate before you realize it. If you find yourself giving up time you would normally be talking to your partner or confiding things in a friend instead of your partner, you’re putting yourself in a dangerous position.
  • Make yourself a person worth coming home to. We forget sometimes how much our self-improvement projects rely on inspiration and support from our partners. Avoid taking on debt on your own that you’ll eventually have to pay off together. Take good care of yourself physically while you’re gone. Most importantly, keep up with habits of selfless behavior. That way you’ll remember to put each other first even after months or years of being on your own.
  • Pick an end date. Even stable long-distance relationships can’t last indefinitely. It’s easier to overcome hardship when you know when you’ll be together again.

2. Communicate as often as possible.

As a graduation gift, my now-mother-in-law bought me a watch with two faces. I could set one to the time in Washington, DC and the other to the time in Taipei, Taiwan. Of course, she didn’t realize that Washington and Taipei are exactly twelve hours apart—both faces were set to the same time. Even so, the watch served as a reminder to think of and call Adam whenever I could.

  • Find something to share together. When you and your partner spend a lot of time away from each other, it can be tough to find things to talk about. Make it easier by undertaking a project together. For example, choose a novel to read or TV show to watch and discuss. (Find great books for men and women.)
  • Look for ways to help each other. With your partner far away, it can be easy to forget that relationships work best when partners help each other. But a little bit of selflessness adds a lot to a relationship. Maybe you can edit each other’s research papers. Or offer each other help with problems at work.
  • Don’t forget the rules of good conversation. Conversations are the most important thing you and your partner care share. Make sure to have as many good conversations as possible.
  • Get creative about the ways you communicate. E-mail and phone are obvious and video calling can help keep a long-distance relationship stable. But a handwritten letter or surprise gift is a thoughtful way to keep things spontaneous.

3. Stay positive, even when challenges come your way.

Adam’s one visit to Oxford was a low point in our relationship. We were both so excited to see each other again. But when he arrived, he was jet-lagged. I was ill. We spent most of the week-long trip arguing. After five or six days of conflict, I was afraid it was time to give up on our five-year-long relationship.

When we talked about the way we were feeling, we realized that it was impossible for any trip to live up to the high expectations we’d both shared for his visit. Our excitement added a lot pressure to make the visit impossibly perfect. That pressure really strained our relationship at a time it should have been renewed and nurtured. 

  • Expect the person you meet at the airport to be different than the person you talk to on the phone. Whether you want to you not, when you only talk to your partner on the phone, you project some of your own ideas about his personality onto your memory of him. Give yourself a few days to fall back in love with your real partner. He won’t be quite the way you imagined him—but he’ll probably be even better.
  • Plan for low-intensity events at the beginning of visits, especially if one or both of you will be jet lagged. It’s easy to think of your visit with your partner as a fun vacation, especially if he’s living someone scenic like Oxford or Taipei. But visits are times to renew your relationships—not holidays. Give yourselves time to relax and get to know each other again before you hit the town.
  • Choose long trips over short visits whenever possible. Short trips put a lot of undue strain on a relationship. You’re trying to jam months of intimacy into just a few days. If possible, plan to spend longer periods together. For example, I moved to Seattle to be near Adam during the summer between my two years of graduate school. It not only gave us a lot of time together, it also gave us a sample what life in the same city would be like when we could be together again.
  • Do whatever it takes to spend as much time together as possible. If long-distance relationships require sacrifice, the time and money to see each other is one of the most important sacrifices you can make. Keep a careful budget so you can afford plane tickets and use all your vacation time on visits. 

Long-distance relationships are hard. But with sacrifice and commitment, they can be a part of a beautiful love story.

Have you ever been in a long-distance relationship? How did you make it work?

2 responses »

  1. Thanks for this. I really connected with it.

    Also, it’s comforting to know that things don’t always have to be smooth to work out in the long term.

  2. Thanks for this. I really connected with it. I think it is my tendency as well to expect too much out of a weekend rendezvous. If I don’t go in sick, I usually come out that way from lack of sleep and rest.

    What’s especially comforting from reading this is that things don’t have to go smoothly at all times to work out in the long run.


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