The single most frequent not-photography-related question I get from people on Instagram is, “How did you survive long-distance?” They want to know if there’s a secret sauce, and if there is, where they can purchase it, and if it comes in bulk. Sadly, no such sauce exists. But I’ve always liked that that’s the phraseology that seems to be employed most often when I’m asked how I dealt with the experience of dating someone from miles (or hundreds of miles) away: how did you survive? Because some days it feels exactly like that: like you’re just doing your best to get through all those individual days (or hours) that lead to that final day where you’re together for good.
At risk of sounding cocky, we kind of consider ourselves experts in this field. This is mostly because the five years we were long-distance looked a lot like a game called, “How Much Time Apart Can These Two Take?” It started when we enrolled in different colleges that were a manageable, but at the time slightly-overwhelming distance from each other: about a 4 hour drive or 45 minutes flight. We saw each other about every other weekend, and now refer to this as “the warm-up lap” because after a year and a half, I transferred and would spend the next three and a half years living abroad in Ireland then Switzerland and (for one semester) on a sailboat in the Caribbean. (I stand by the fact that you don’t truly understand the challenges of a long-distance relationship until you’re at sea, caught in the rigging halfway up a mast attempting to get a signal because it’s Valentine’s Day).
But here’s the tricky part, even though we endured being long-distance for quite some time, and managed to make it out the other side of the proverbial tunnel and are now happily married, giving advice to others is tough. Because it’s not as simple as saying we just loved each other more, or that if you love each other enough getting through it is inevitable. I know couples that would’ve been well-suited as husband and wife but broke up, and ones that are together that (from the outside looking in) absolutely shouldn’t be (don’t we all?). I guess I’m uncomfortable giving advice because I’m not naive enough to believe that if you play by these rules, you’ll win the game. Because despite what Hasbro would lead us to believe, Life is not a game, and the nuances and difficulties and situations and emotions you experience during a long-distance relationship for the most part you can’t prepare for. But I do know the cloud that hangs over your head throughout long-distance, and I do think encouragement in all forms during that time period can be motivating, and I want to contribute to that…
So rather than say, “here’s how it’s done,” I’ve decided to say, “here’s how this will benefit you in the long run.” These are the spoils of war.
Let’s get to it:
#1: Time To Do You
As a teen and then twenty-something, it’s easy to trick yourself into believing that you can be with another person pretty much constantly and still have time to figure out who you are as an individual (especially when you’re in that whole googoo gaga we’re in love phase). For girls, especially, I just don’t think this is the case. Maybe some of you out there are superhuman, but being in a long-distance relationship gave me the much-needed opportunity to really get to know myself in the absence of wanting to appear cool or attractive or fun in the presence of a significant other.
In college and even after, most of us are still developing our self-esteem, and it’s so easy to slip into the habit of looking to a boyfriend or girlfriend for validation that you are pretty or smart or interesting. Long-distance doesn’t eradicate the ability for your boyfriend or girlfriend to tell you those things, but I do think their physical absence accelerates the process of you no longer seeking or needing that kind of approval and instead, finding it in yourself.
I also think young relationships often fall victim to “agreement syndrome,” especially on the girl’s side, where, if a girl really likes a guy, she will agree with almost all of his opinions almost all of the time. Again, I’m no psychiatrist, but I think this comes from a mix of emotional immaturity and wanting to be accepted; long distance gives both sides a chance to really fine-tune what they believe in and where they stand on certain things, regardless of what the other person thinks. So many of Porter and I’s most interesting and stretching conversations in our marriage are around things we don’t agree on. Having the opportunity to learn from your partner or agree to disagree makes life way more interesting in the long run than just nodding along. (Obviously, you don’t need long distance to develop these traits, but I do think it helps develop them at a faster rate).
#2: Time to Invest in Friendships
It’s no shocker that most young people in relationships monopolize each other’s time. This isn’t to say that people in serious relationships that aren’t long-distance can’t have meaningful friendships (married people still have friends, you guys), but when you’re dating someone who isn’t physically present that gives you a whole lot of time to spend on good old-fashioned friendship. I’m just going to say it: I don’t think I would be half as close with the people I became friends with in college had Porter been there. I can say with certainty that he feels the same way about his college friends.
Obviously, having the right kinds of friends helps. You know the ones I’m talking about: those that want to support you more than they want a wingman or for you to be “more fun” (aka single). Having friends in college that legitimately support the idea that you’ve decided to be long-distance and get the reasoning behind why you made that decision are the best. That kind of support system is probably the biggest influence on your relationship outside of you and your partner. As one of my very favorite sayings goes, “Show me your friends, and I’ll show you your future.” Take this opportunity to surround yourself with people that genuinely care about you, then be grateful you have this big chunk of time to foster meaningful relationships with the kinds of people who are going to be in your wedding someday or your kids’ godparents or (later in life) your Bocce partner.
#3: Learning to Be Selfless
Sometimes, the hardest part of being in a long-distance relationship is being happy for the other person when you aren’t happy yourself. Maybe you have an exam the next day and they’re headed to a party, or they would really like to call you, but you’re out to lunch with your “gal pals” (the actual phrase Porter uses to refer to my girl friends to annoy me). Long-distance relationships force people to develop selflessness rapidly because the simple fact is that if you can’t find a way to be happy for the other person when you’re having a rough day and vice versa, it’s going to put a major strain on things.
I also believe that almost always one person in the relationship seems to have a harder time with the distance than the other, and that can lead to bitterness and resentment if you aren’t careful (in our case, despite the fact that I was the one who decided to go to school abroad, it was absolutely me). It’s so important to be okay with the reality that each of you can have an absolutely awesome day without the other person being there. This seems obvious once you’re older and wiser, but for whatever reason being in college and dealing with the general stress of being apart sometimes made that reality fuzzy, and could make the other person’s joy occasionally seem like a slight.
I believe people for the most part find being selfish and getting their way to be a lot more comfortable than not, but try to realize on those days you feel a bit stung that you’re developing a character quality that you’re going to reap the benefits of in your personal (and probably professional) life for years to come. It doesn’t feel great to be selfless and celebrate the other person’s joy when you aren’t feeling all that joyful yourself, but it will make you a better person in the long run.
#4 Communication Is Everything
If I could pick the biggest benefit to our marriage that came from being long-distance it would be this: communication. Porter and I are SO good at communicating. We’re rarely passive aggressive or vague or don’t say what we mean. When you’re long-distance and the majority of your conversations take place over text messages, you learn that even your punctuation can lead the other person to believe you’re in a bad mood or not having a great day or maybe mad at them for a reason they can’t pinpoint, so you need to be direct. I feel like you also get really good at the art of talking about nothing. Because, let’s face it, not every day is all that interesting, but you still want to talk to the person you care about so you have to adapt to incorporating all kinds of topics like which dog breeds are superior or which JFK assassination conspiracy theories are the most convincing or if it’s possible to screen share an episode of The Office over Skype so you can watch it apart together (it is and it’s great). It might feel like you’re talking about nothing or that you’re in kind of a conversational rut from time to time, but believe me, that phase is fine-tuning communication skills that will serve you for years to come.
#5: Trust, Much Like Rome, Is Not Built In A Day
The most glaringly obvious benefit of surviving long-distance is that, ideally, you come out on the other side deeply and truly trusting one another. Things like jealousy and fear I think are always going to play from time-to-time in the background of most people’s minds when they’re far away from the person they love and fundamentally, can only control their own actions. Different things (so I hear) work for different people, but the fundamental principle Porter and I found most comforting that allowed both of us to navigate long-distance with minimal discomfort or fear or paranoia was if you wouldn’t do what you’re doing or say what you’re saying if your significant other was standing next to you than you shouldn’t do/say that thing. Obviously that covers the really serious relationship-breaking stuff (like cheating), but it also covers the wide range of small things a lot of long-distance couples think are “okay,” but overtime, I’ve noticed, turn out to drive wedges and burn bridges (for the most part, flirting). When two people commit to being long distance they essentially have to also commit to trusting the person implicitly and completely, or it fundamentally won’t work. The kind of trust years of long-distance can create, I think, forms a really solid foundation for a happy marriage.
#6: Don’t Eat The Marshmallow
There’s a test that’s been done on Kindergartners that’s proven to be a more accurate predictor of success than IQ: it’s called the marshmallow test and essentially, it’s about delaying gratification. Kids are given a marshmallow and told that they can eat it, but if they wait for a certain amount of time (usually a few minutes) they’ll actually get a second marshmallow, which they can also eat. The stats on the long-term success of the kids who were able to wait as five-year-olds speak for themselves: learning how to struggle in the present for a future gain is an incredibly important life-influencing skill.
The mental composure required by those in a long-distance relationship in order to be able to put-off present joy for the sake of being together in a date far in the future builds up endurance that will benefit you outside of that relationship. Even if your relationship doesn’t end up working out, simply having successfully dealt with the distance exercises those mental endurance muscles that will, no doubt, be necessary in all kinds of situations in all the years of your life.
#7: Maturity About Time
As teens and twenty-somethings, a year can still seem like a lifetime. This is evidenced by the fact that even in my mid-twenties, when I hear that people have been together for a full year or two years I think, “Wow, they’ve been dating for awhile.” But the thing is, in the scope of your life, a couple of years really isn’t that long. If you were long-distance for two years or three years or even five or more, it’s pretty funny how quickly you go from feeling like it was an eternity to it being a blip on the radar screen of your life. Just like high school, in the moment, seems like a decade, but five years out seemed to have gone by in a flash, making it through a long-distance relationship shows you how capable you are of enduring a difficult situation over a long period of time. It’s almost a certainty that everyone will face periods of their life that are incredibly challenging, I have to believe that having previously experienced enduring a strained situation over a long period will at least make us somewhat more prepared when those times come.
#8: Taking Little Things for Granted
I don’t take a single day I wake up next to my husband for granted, and I know there are many men and women out there that feel the same that never were long-distance or have it infinitely harder than we ever did (like military spouses!), but having been a long-distance couple does make it hard to lose perspective on how great the little things can be, like having a face-to-face conversations or going out for ice cream or for a run together in the morning or just not having to worry about planning the next visit or how many minutes are left on the clock until one of you has to leave again. I like to think our married life is a little bit richer for having gone through five years apart, and that, of course, could only be because we’re just a couple of years out of long-distance, but to be honest, I really don’t think so. I think being separated from someone you love for a very long time leaves an impression on how you appreciate that person’s presence that doesn’t really fade. Maybe that’s corny, but it’s how I feel.