Distance Makes the Heart Grow Fonder, But it May Torture You in the Process
(Note: Please keep in mind that this post is created with the framework of both parties wanting to be together. It provides ways to maintain a healthy relationship during times apart. It is not advice on whether or not to continue a relationship. Always remember that red flags remain red flags, whether you are long distance or not.)
I stepped out of the train car, suitcase and backpack in tow, into the frigid winter air. I had to trudge thirty minutes back to my home before I could let myself break. I marched with my muscles held tight, throat constricted, and eyes looking down. Thirty minutes later, I entered my apartment, threw my suitcase and backpack on the ground and collapsed onto my bed. “Finally” my mind whispered. “Finally, I can break.” In an instant, my body started trembling. I couldn’t feel myself breath between the tremors of tears streaming down my face. I don’t know if you have ever felt like your entire body was crying, but that’s exactly what it felt like. It was the day after Christmas, and after spending the holidays with my family in Chicago, I had to go back home to start working again. My roommates were out of town, and Christian was with his family in Minnesota. Until then, I never felt so alone, so low, so hopeless, so desperate, so depressed, so anxious, and so weak, as I did that day-- and believe me when I say I have had some HARD fucking days. But this was different, because this day wasn’t just about me. It was about my relationship. This was the hardest day my relationship faced during long distance, and quite frankly, I believe it determined our fate.
Christian and I were going into year two of long distance after college, and it was testing us beyond our limits. We were doing our best to see each other as often as we could, call each other, and support one another, but it felt like so much was out of our control. Christian was working at a demanding, difficult company 80+ hours a week and I was going through the absolute worst period of depression and anxiety I had ever been through in my entire life. It felt like all of the challenges we were facing in our personal lives were exacerbated 1000x by our long distance relationship. Our schedules didn’t match up so we had to talk at odd hours. Christian was the only one with a car to come visit me but it kept breaking down, and on weekends he did get to visit I was required to work. It felt like nothing was lining up in our favor, and we didn’t have a set plan for when the long-distance would end. I was beyond exhausted.
After coming home the morning after Christmas, I felt like I was really done. I didn’t want to be, I still loved Christian, but I just didn’t know how I was going to carry on. It was too much. I was tired. I had no more energy left to give. Christian called me that night, and I honestly didn’t know what to say. He could tell something was obviously wrong, and asked me what was going on. I don’t remember exactly what I said but it must have been something along the lines of “I don’t know if I can go on with this anymore.” I broke again. A little piece of me was still fighting, telling me not to let go, praying that he wouldn’t let me let go. At first he didn’t understand, and truthfully, I didn’t understand what I was saying either. I muttered “This is too hard, I don’t think I can continue.” They were the only words that could come out. At that point I think the gravity of what I was saying registered. I wasn’t breaking up with him, but I was telling him that I was hanging on the edge of a cliff. He could choose to help pull me up, or let me go. I know that year was devastating for him too. He could have very easily said “I can’t either.” Yet somehow, with internal herculean effort he mustered up the strength to pull me back on to land. He reminded me how much he loved me, how much we built together, and he asked for one thing-- “faith.” I will always remember that. “Faith, okay, I thought.” I knew that what he was really saying was “I pulled us up this time, but I can’t do it alone. I need your strength too, even when you feel weak. Next time, I might not be strong enough to pull us both up.” He asked if I could give him that. I said yes. Inside I didn’t know how I would do it, but in a way that was the first step in giving the faith our relationship needed to survive.
Two months later, Christian left his job. Three months later we decided to move to Minnesota together. Four months later he moved in and we officially ended our long distance. Even now as I am writing this, I am so grateful for that night after Christmas. It was the night that pushed us to put our relationship first, and find a way to be together no matter what. Now that I have crossed the bridge of long distance, I can appreciate the strength it gave our relationship, and ourselves as individuals. Without it I don’t think we would be where we are now, and I doubt I would feel the depth of commitment, love and certainty I feel in my relationship now. While I am grateful for these gifts, there is no doubt that being apart was arduous. I was the first of my friends to go through long distance, and I felt really alone many times. Without anyone to look up to who was successful after long distance, I felt like I was treading unmarked territory.
That’s why I want to share with you some of the challenges we faced, how we overcame them, how you can too, and what we learned in the process. So you don’t have to feel alone, and unsure of whether or not it’s possible to have a successful long distance relationship. It is more than possible, and if you are willing to put in the work, it can skyrocket you and your relationship to places you never imagined.
Challenge 1) Communication complications.
Issues with communication was one of the most annoying, and frustrating challenges we faced because it emerged on multiple layers. First, our schedules were completely mismatched. Second, since we weren’t experiencing each others daily lives, our conversations often felt stagnated and didn’t reach the flow that we usually had. Third, it felt like there was never a right time to have “big” conversations--things like when we were going to move in together, where did we see ourselves going, what growth was taking place internally or problems that were going on with our families.
Solution 1) Figure out what method of communication works best for you, at what time, and how frequently + set aside dedicated time to talk about the “BIG” stuff.
To address the issue of our schedules we had to have multiple conversations about what time it was best for us to talk, how frequently, and what method of communication we would use. We noticed that we would often talk late at night when Christian got off work, but since I had work at 5:30 in the morning, I was often in a grumpy mood which negatively impacted our conversations. We decided it was best to talk earlier in the day when we could, or save our conversations for the weekend when we were more available. Be patient in learning what time works best for you and your SO, and realize that what works for them might not work for you (and vice versa). Work together, to find a time that is fair for both of you even if it’s slightly inconvenient. This might mean calling during your lunch hour, staying in on Saturday night, or holding off the conversation until you can talk more in depth and when you are both present.
Additionally, to help the stagnant conversations, we decided it was best to wait a few days to talk so we had more built up to talk about. Christian and I have never been the type of couple that texts throughout the whole day, and we appreciate more potent conversations. However, we decided to supplement our conversations with heartfelt messages throughout the week that were uplifting, and encouraging so that we were still present in each others lives. I know other couples who really value talking to each other throughout the day, even if it’s just a quick hello. Talk to your partner and figure out what works best for your relationship, and be open to adjusting your communication if you need to.
For the “BIG” conversations, we implemented “walk and talks.” Walk and talks are walks we schedule with each other ahead of time to check in with one another, and talk about the harder, more complicated issues and events in our lives. During these walks, each of us takes a turn sharing absolutely anything and everything that’s in our heart and mind. While one of us is talking, the other is required to listen without judgement, and be completely present. After one of us talks, we can both discuss topics that were brought up, offer support, and dive deeper if necessary. Afterward we always feel more connected, open, and feel a huge relief. This practice has increased our communication and problem solving solving skills ten fold, and we continue it even to this day. If walks aren’t for you, you could try going to a coffee shop, sitting in a park, or even scheduling a Skype date if you are not seeing each other for awhile. Wherever you decide to go, make sure it has minimal distractions, and makes you feel safe to open up.
Challenge 2) Feeling distant, sometimes even when we were together.
This was one of the most excruciating and unexpected challenges. I hate talking about it, but I feel like it’s important to share because most of the advice given on long distance relationships is to “just make the most of the time you have together.” That’s great and dandy, but what if you don’t have a great time when you are together? Obviously feeling distant is implied when you’re apart, but when you feel it in the presence of your loved one, it can feel confusing, and discouraging. I would always look forward to the weekends we got to share with each other, and I would expect us to get back to the place we were before long distance. I knew we had built a strong, loving, passionate foundation, and I wanted to feel that right away after not seeing each other for a few weeks. This did not always happen however, and it always made my heart drop a little bit. I learned there were many reasons why this happened. First, there were so many ways we were each individually growing while we were apart, that our relationship was shifting too. This meant that we would not be able to go back to the place we were before, and had to work hard to keep moving forward in the best way we could. Second, since we knew we would have to say goodbye to each other so quickly after saying hello, we unintentionally built little barriers around our hearts to protect us. This disabled us from being 100% vulnerable, when we were with each other. Lastly, because I would build expectations so high that I would get really anxious and upset at the first sign of the weekend not going well.
Solution 2) Create closeness in creative ways that do not rely on being physically together, hold on to your love + be patient.
Christians, and my number one love language is physical touch. Since we could not rely on this language to express ourselves, we had to find a different way to consistently show our love. This meant gift giving and words of affirmation took the lead. We left each other love letters and sent pictures. Christian got me flowers, and I made him gifts like painted coffee mugs, and a cozy blanket. This made a HUGE difference, and made me feel much closer to Christian even when he wasn’t there. Some nights I would go to sleep reading the love letters he wrote me, and I would hold it to my heart to feel his love. It sounds so cheesy, but it really helped! I wove my love into the gifts I gave him, and made sure they were gifts he could use every day, that way he felt my presence constantly. We also sent photos to each other all the time, so we could see each other throughout the week. Each couple expresses, and experiences love differently, so I recommend taking the Love Language quiz yourself and get some ideas on how you can show each other love even when you are apart. Whatever your result is, I recommend making the effort to find little (and big) ways to be present in each others lives even when you are not talking, or physically with each other.
As far as the little heart barriers that we created that didn’t allow us to always be 100% vulnerable with each other-- I just have to say hold on to the love you know you have. Remember the times you first fell in love, and all the special moments you created with each other. Memories are powerful, and can get you through the darkest of days. Consider creating a little box with your loved one’s letters, pictures, or mementos that remind you of them.
Lastly, be patient. I know it can be frustrating to feel like you are growing, but not growing together. Trust that you are going through your own development that will help grow your relationship, even if you don’t feel it yet. Trust that your partner is doing the same.
Challenge 3) The torture of uncertainty.
Oh lord. Just reading the word “uncertainty” reminds me of the crippling anxiety it brought me during my long distance relationship. It was a massive theme during this time, not just in my relationship, but in life. Christian and I didn’t have a plan right away for when we would end our long distance, I was going through an identity crisis, and I had no idea where I was going in life. It felt like all the pieces of my life were floating through the air and I had no control over anything. I realized quickly that there would always be an element of uncertainty in life, and the only thing that would make it better was how I chose to approach uncertainty.
Solution 3) Make clear cut plans for when you will see your SO next + practice presence and grounding.
You may not know when your long distance will end, but work together to at least plan when you will see each other next. This will give you at least a little bit of stability in a very unstable time. I also recommend being clear and following through on when you will talk again next. Let that person know exactly when you will call them, or when they should expect to hear from you.
Additionally, if uncertainty is something that causes you anxiety, start building practices that bring you back into the present moment. I would get so anxious about the uncertainty of the future, that I would lose sight of the gifts I had in front of me. To bring me back to the moment, I started learning ways to return to my breath, grounded myself by going on walks, and practiced gratitude by writing three things I was grateful for at the end of each day. These simple tools gave me strength to deal with the lack of control I was feeling in life, and my frustration at not being psychic enough to see into the future. This also allowed me to feel more connected and enjoy the times Christian and I did have with one another and not always worry about having to say goodbye. I still use all of the practices I used that year, and they continue to help me build internal strength and trust in myself to deal with difficult situations. Play around, and see what practices help you get present and stay grounded. It might be meditation, or it might be exercising, cooking, painting, or playing an instrument. Try incorporating whatever practice you choose into your weekly routine, or even daily for the most benefit!
Challenge 4) Not being able to be there for one another in tough times.
Despite this being the most challenging of the challenges, it was also the one that helped me personally grow the most. As I said earlier, I was going through the deepest period of depression, and most crippling anxiety I had ever faced this year. Christian was working a highly stressful job in a demanding environment. Even with all the messages of encouragement we sent to one another, phone calls, and weekends together, there was nothing that could replace the level of comfort we could provide for each other if we weren’t apart. I was normally someone who kept a lot of my troubles to myself or only shared them with Christian. While that worked up until this point, it wasn’t working anymore. I learned that it was unfair for me to place all of my troubles on to him, and expect him to be the only one to comfort me. I don’t think I would have learned this lesson if we didn’t go through long distance, but I’m glad I did. If you place all your problems on someone else and expect them to take care of you all the time, you are creating good breeding grounds for codependency. If you hold everything in and keep it all to yourself, you sacrifice your mental health and physical well being.
Solution 4) Support one another as best you can, expand your network of support + be diligent with self care.
Even though you may not be able to be there for each other all the time, it’s crucial that you make an effort to show support the best you can. Remind your SO that you are there for them, that you love them, and send them messages of encouragement, and love. One thing that especially helps is if you can give empowering messages like “You can totally do this. You are so strong, and I believe in you.” This reminds your partner that they are internally strong and capable of taking on life’s challenges even if you are not there.
Even though I usually kept my troubles inside, or only shared them with Christian, going through long distance forced me to expand my network of support. I realized that I couldn’t take on life’s challenges all alone, and that it wasn’t fair for me to put all of the weight on Christian. This realization is what caused me to seek out a therapist, call my sister more, and reach out to my friends and be more vulnerable with them. I learned to have different outlets to express my challenges, and felt supported by different people in my life, instead of only my SO. I felt more open to the people who loved me, and this in turn strengthened my connection to people outside my relationship. We all need support in life, and we get that support in a variety of ways. It’s inappropriate to expect one person to fulfill all your needs, so reach out and expand your own army of people who have your back. Know that this will serve you greatly in the long run. After all, the people who live longest are the people with the strongest relationships- and that doesn’t just mean romantic ones. It’s with family, friends, and community as well. So start reaching out, and if you need to, hire a professional like a therapist, or a life coach!
Long distance can take a huge toll on your well being. During this time it is especially important that you are diligent in your self care practices. Be gentle with yourself, and do things that are nourishing for your mind, body and soul. Use this time to get to know yourself. Be tender with who you are. Be open to who you are becoming. Take yourself on dates, go on walks, set goals, watch a funny movie, cook for yourself, and build the relationship you have with you. Be inspired by the fact that your relationship is positively fueled by the love you have for yourself!
Going through long distance for two years after college was a difficult, but transformational experience for myself, for Christian, and for our relationship. We built positive communication tools we use to this day, expanded the methods we use to show each other love, and deepened our trust in one another. I learned practices to deal with uncertainty in life, broadened the group of people I rely on for support, and learned that the more I gave to myself the more I could be present in my relationship. This trying time also solidified my commitment to Christian, and made me confident in the future of our relationship. I learned that the benefits of our relationship outweighed the hardship we experienced, and that any great thing in life takes patience, and time. I truly believe that this experience was necessary for our life as a couple, and helped to clarify our values and desire to be with one another.
If you are going to be long distance with your loved one, or are already, have faith. Two of the questions I get asked the most often about my relationship, and long distance in particular is “how do you know it will last?” and “is it worth it?” My answer to the first question is you don’t know, you just have to give it your best shot. If you feel like giving up just because the distance is hard, but you are still in love, hold on especially when you feel like you can’t any longer. It will be through those darkest, hardest times, that you will build more trust in your relationship that will serve you in the future. As far as the second question goes, I would say yes. It is definitely worth it. My parent Sofia always says “in love, gamble everything!” and I believe that applies here. I know love is scary. It is downright terrifying. None of us want to get our heart broken, feel rejected or get hurt. Loving is risky, but it’s high risk, high reward. If you give effort to love and it works out, you will receive the biggest gifts life can offer. It might be hard, but you can do it. Have faith in the process, and know that it will push you to be stronger and more resilient than you ever were before. The distance you spend apart will make you a million times closer when you are finally together again, and you will realize it was all worth it :)