Wednesday, 14 November 2012

How to survive a Long Distance Relationship, Really (Part One)

This is the definitive guide to surviving a long distance relationship! (Part one) 
(Part Two is here)

By long-distance, I don't mean a cross country sleeper train, that's a whole other survival guide
How can I say that?

Firstly, I did 1018 days of "method research". Mr and I were long-distance for almost three years, and while we probably did everything wrong, we also did everything right.

Second, I've scoured the web for guides to survive long distance relationships, teased out the common themes, and tested the advice against real life. This is an amalgamation of everything I read on the subject, peppered with my own insights. Maybe you already read other articles before you read this. If so, great. 

I've taken out the fluff and the guff: So many articles on going the long-distance start with how hard it is and how it's not for the faint of heart. Anyone who's about to, is, or has been involved in an LDR doesn't need to be told that. That's why I'm writing this now, and not a year ago. Also, it's not that rare. A lot of couples do the distance thing at one point in their lives, and I'm not even referring to military couples, who I believe are much, much braver.

I've taken out the condescending advice: I know you know how to use Skype, how to post a letter, and how to make a phone call. I don't need to suggest you might even want to email your loved one on a regular basis. I do recommend a smart phone, but you don't need the latest model. Text apps that work over data networks are useful, but email does the same job, and often better.

I've also taken out any advice about trust. In my experience that was never a question or an issue. If you are struggling with trust, jealousy, or commitment in a long-distance relationship, there is support available elsewhere. Most of these feelings can be covered in relation to communication and how to deal with arguments. Yes, arguments!

So I'm also a little bit realistic. Much of life ends up being about muddling through rather than creating concrete plans and schedules. Love is no exception. Like I said, we probably did it all totally wrong but we got there, it's over, and it's great.

I missed these moments the most
About Us (in case you didn't know)
We met at grad school in Glasgow, Scotland. After we handed in our dissertations we both moved back to our respective parents' homes. I headed to the East Coast of Scotland, and he went back to Pennsylvania.

Before he left we booked flights for me to visit at Christmas.

We had no plans, or so I thought (he already knew he wanted to marry me).

After he proposed at Christmas, I came back home and felt like the most ungrateful, miserable (and lonely) fiancee.

We got planning straight away: No plans on how to manage our LDR, but planning our wedding, marriage, visas, and future life together. The rest is history!

We were transatlantic, 3000 miles apart, and he was five hours behind. But we managed. So here goes…

The (definitive, kinda) guide to surviving a long distance relationship.

The Nuts and Bolts: Planning and managing expectations

This is where most guides to LDRs agree: You gotta have a plan.

For the first three months of our transatlanticism I had no expectations about where we'd end up. I'm not sure I really thought about it. And that made it worse. Mark recalls days when I refused to answer his Skype calls because I missed him too much to be able to speak to him. After we got engaged and agreed to a long engagement, we were able to plan our visits and our future lives more effectively. Skype chats could be less about missing each other and more about looking forward to being with each other.

You don't need to get engaged, but I'd recommend knowing where the two of you are going together, or otherwise.

Then: Agree a (target) end date

It's much easier to manage when you know when the distance will end, and when your milestones are. You can count back and arrange visits and chop up the time into manageable chunks. Mark and I were apart for almost three years. That's most of our relationship. But in my head it was just several blocks of 3-6 months.

For us, the target dates were intuitive:

1. Wedding day, and
2. My arrival in the USA.

The latter date was fluid but we knew it'd be a year, more or less, from our wedding date. Although our lives were in the hands of the US Government, the visa process was straightforward and predictable. We could then start to manage our expectations of our reunion, and our marriage, which was just as important as managing the expectations of our time apart.

Also: Start saving up money!

LDRs are inherently expensive, whether it's visits, calling cards, weddings or visas. Or a combination thereof. Make sure you've got a plan to finance it - together. Some of your overseas conversations may be boring, talking about the nuts and bolts. But it really helps.

Goofy Skype chat, and a picture email: "I'm at the airport!"
Communication and Skype Dates

With timezones and transatlantic communication to navigate, many articles recommend scheduling regular communication time and arranging 'dates'. Let me confess:

I am notoriously bad at keeping to pre-arranged Skype dates and schedules. I still am.

But we figured out a groove for remaining in contact. It wasn't pre-arranged, it just happened organically. An average day went like this:

Morning GMT: On the bus to work I checked my email, often a lovely 'good morning' message Mark had sent the night before with a run down of what he watched on the news chatter, so I could listen to a podcast and catch up, and read the morning news on Twitter.

Lunchtime GMT: On my lunch break, I knew Mark was getting up and ready for the day, so I'd email him the most interesting articles from my bus journey. If I wasn't too busy he'd phone just to say hi.

5-6pm GMT: I'd be on my way home, and if Mark wasn't too busy he'd give me a call to tell him about my morning, and I'd talk about my day.

8-11pm GMT: If I wasn't out, busy, or too tired, and if Mark could snatch some time early, we'd chat on Skype. Almost every day. And if we couldn't, we'd let each other know. An email: "I'm at an event tonight, so I might not be able to chat",
or "I need a bath. I smell. Later ok?", or
"did you get my Facebook message about the voicemail about the Skype message you sent when I tried to call?" or:

Him: Why aren't you answering your phone?!
Me: It's upstairs on silent. I was writing you an email.

Yeah, it wasn't perfect. Wires got crossed many times. If I wanted to watch TV with my family, we'd type to each other instead. If one of us was busy, we'd wait. I often got tempted to stay up super-late just so I could get a meaningful conversation. I sleep so much better now that I'm in the same timezone as my husband.

Dates, such as simultaneous cooking dates, or movie dates, never worked for us. I didn't want to pretend I was with my partner when I really wasn't. But there were times for planning (wedding, visas, trips and visits), times for mindless chatter, times for helping each other with job applications, times for speaking to the whole family, or watching each other open birthday presents, times for political discussions and rants. Times for arguments, which I'll cover later.

Being yourself and living your own life

And there were times for ourselves.

Articles about LDRs all agree that you need to take time to grow as an individual, to have a social life, to stop focusing on how much you miss your partner and get out living. Basically, don't be a hermit.

It's all true, but I'm going to be realistic. Yes, couples who live together have their own interests. But doing it as one half of a transatlantic couple is something else. You want to share experience with your partner, you don't want to miss out on what they're doing, you feel guilty if you're having fun and you know your partner isn't. Maybe you feel more alone when you're out with other people.

On the other hand, it's not hard to get out and about, especially when you have friends who want to see you (and whom you want to see), when getting out and doing stuff is fun. When you don't miss doing things with you partner. You miss doing nothing with your partner.

So in these cases, I think you can be picky about the things you do and don't do. Examples:

Things I did:
- Got into photography, which is a skill I could work at alone. And I could share my work with my husband.
- Visited friends for tea, dinner, drinks. Spent the weekend with them. And called Mark at intervals. Let friends say hi to him.
- Traveled for work, a lot. It kept me busy, sometimes took me out of phone signal range, let me see the country (which I still want to share with Mark one day). And it helped out the organization - I had no kids, and no husband to get back to as our relationship was already phone-based. So it worked.
- Applied for, and was accepted to the International TV Festival Network, and then did an internship with the BBC. Because I wanted to, because I could, and because I had the freedom to.
- Attended weddings and other important events.

Things I didn't do:
- Go out with single friends exclusively, or go out on nights with couples. My girlfriends were brilliant for arranging girls' nights.
- Join a club or do a random activity like ballroom dancing.
- Go on holiday without Mark.
- Watch certain movies.

I made sure to do one thing every weekend. Just one thing. Whether it was meeting a friend or taking photos of flowers. Similarly, Mark got involved with civic/political activities here and since I've moved I've joined in. He baked and did martial arts and traveled for work.

When we were busy, we'd let each other know. We'd support each other in our endeavors as best as we could.

Since we've been together we've done our rustic weekends - those little things we didn't want to do alone. Those things we said we couldn't wait to do together, but we did wait, and it didn't do any damage. Promise.

In Part Two, I cover romance, visits, fights and shifts. And the advantages of a long distance relationship!

I'll also tidy this up a bit too. I promise. Please let me know what you think, what makes sense, what doesn't, and what else do I need to cover?


  1. I'm so glad you wrote this. Jon and I have done long distance before, but that was only for 10 months - and this is TWO YEARS. not as bad as your three, but still bad. I'd actually love to chat with you about this further, because I can't tell you how many "did you get my Facebook message about the voicemail about the Skype message you sent when I tried to call?" conversations we have - Jon is GREAT at communication when we're together, but we're really struggling right now.

    1. I must confess it was 2 years 9 months (but that is almost 3 years, right)?

      Regardless, I don't judge on distance or time!

      Anyway, I sent you an email ;)

  2. What a brilliant post. I love that you saved doing certain things to do together, and that the 'couples' stuff just wasn't possible on Skype. We tried one movie night (watching the same movie at the same time, while online together) and although it was kinda lovely, it just didn't work! We actually used to just leave Skype open and connected pretty much all the time (might be a bit creepy-sounding, written down!), but that helped us to feel like, even when one of us wasn't there, there was a more physical link between us. What'sApp and other Smartphone tricks were also invaluable.

    Looking forward to your next post!

    1. Thanks for your comment, Eve!

      We would watch music videos together, but the idea of watching a movie together online never really appealed. And don't worry, it doesn't sound creepy - often we'd just have Skype open while we were doing other stuff online.

  3. Great post - you made me remember how I use to hate talking on skype when we first went long distance, or when we'd just parted - it use to make me miss his calls. I love hearing how you both worked out the time zones too. Luckily Joe never needs much sleep so when I was on my horrid hour bus journey to work we'd be talking on msn, text all day and msn at night. But that's what worked for us and every couple will work out their own ways and routines. And like you mentioned, being able to photograph things and show Joe really spurred me into taking more!

    1. Weird, I definitely replied to this earlier but I guess it didn't post.

      Anyway, thanks Rachael. I remember my old horrid hour bus journeys too - I became very good at making them productive (and speaking to Mark quietly on the phone for a long time and trying not to annoy the other passengers).