Five Things That Help a Long-Distance Relationship Survive and Grow

Take it from someone who’s been there.
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Take it from someone who’s been there.

Does absence really make the heart grow fonder? My now-husband and I are among many couples all over the world who have tested this theory by having a long-distance relationship. It all started just five weeks before he began law school and I began a study abroad program in Italy. We really, really liked each other, but knowing that for the next three years we’d be on opposite ends of the country—and for a little while, the world—made us think seriously about how we could make our budding relationship work. Here are a few things that helped us go the distance.

01. Write letters.

My husband was advised by a dear friend to write good, long letters—and happily, we continued this practice through two years of dating and a yearlong engagement. Lewis Carroll once wrote, “The proper definition of man is an animal that writes letters.”

While email, Instagram, texting, and Skype might be faster ways to communicate, the act of putting pen to paper is far more considerate. Nothing beats opening your mailbox and finding an actual handwritten note among all those bills and catalogs. The first love letter I ever received was waiting for me when I arrived in Italy, and I remember loving the care—not to mention the organizational skills—that my boyfriend showed in order to mail a letter ahead of time. Sometimes I would wait until I could really take the time to read a letter undistracted and then write a response—it was almost like a date.

Letter writing doesn’t need to end with dating, by the way! When my husband was deployed to Afghanistan after we were married, our many phone conversations consisted of kids, finances, home repair, and day-to-day stuff, but our letters during that time gave us the opportunity to express ourselves on a deeper level. During the long lonely days of his deployment, those letters meant even more than the ones from our dating days. All those silly postcards, quick notes, and thoughtful letters are the written history of our relationship, and we love rereading them from time to time.

02. Embrace the phone date.

For a long-distance relationship to work, you have to accept the fact that real, live dates are few and far between. Rather than allowing the perfect to become the enemy of the good, embrace the phone date.

My husband and I were both busy with school, work, and friends while dating. Managing our time well meant that talking on the phone constantly was not an option. We tried to pick one evening a week to block out a chunk of time for a longer conversation. The important thing about the phone date is the intentionality; everyone leads hectic lives, and you could find yourself chatting for five minutes every day but never feeling totally connected to each other. A scheduled phone date is something to anticipate, and pouring a glass of wine, sitting somewhere with ambiance, or having a book or movie to discuss will only make that time together more enjoyable. And the communication skills my husband and I developed during all those phone conversations have definitely helped us in our marriage.

03. Develop the friendships around you.

Don’t be that lovesick lady always pining for her boyfriend. Embrace the positives of a long-distance relationship because, yes, there are a few! A couple in a serious relationship isn’t meant to be apart indefinitely, but sometimes circumstances—job, school, family issues—make it hard to be together. The time you lose with the person you’re dating is time gained to grow closer to the friends and family who are near.

Less time with your boyfriend means more time to grow in generosity, kindness, and thoughtfulness by loving and learning from those around you. The friendships I fostered while dating long distance are among the closest of my life, and my husband and I both agree that the time we spent apart building strong relationships with others only enriched our own relationship.

04. Plan your visits well.

I’m not saying that you need to have a minute-by-minute itinerary, but a rough outline of the visit can help balance both people’s expectations. Perhaps one person wants to spend every minute relaxing and talking, whereas the other is figuring out how to squeeze in a meal between rock climbing and going to hear a great new band. Communicating how to spend your time will help make those in-person moments more meaningful.

Also consider spending time with friends and family when you’re together. It can be tempting when you finally do see each other to spend that time all alone, but you learn so much about people when you see them interact with those they love. Plus, if the relationship is meant to last, you want your significant other to really know the important people in your life. My husband’s good friend from law school and his wife are dear friends thanks to all the double dates we had when I came to visit.

05. Be patient with each other.

In order for a relationship to survive the distance and time apart, a couple needs to trust each other. If one person is constantly questioning the other’s faithfulness or honesty, it could be a sign that the relationship isn’t working. That being said, even the most devoted couples experience miscommunications and disagreements, and distance can definitely exacerbate these conflicts. It’s easier to misinterpret each other over the phone or email, and it’s harder to make up after a fight, but try to be patient and assume the best intentions of each other. Both my husband and I had really busy schedules that left the other wondering if there was something more to the lack of calls or letters. To remedy this, we tried to let the other know with a quick email if things were hectic. Even just a brief heads-up from the other was reassuring.

So yes, I think absence can make the heart grow fonder. Is it always easy? Definitely not. Agreeing to pursue a long-distance relationship is a shared sacrifice, but a couple that approaches this time apart with a genuine desire for each other’s happiness will celebrate the achievements, interesting experiences, and friendships fostered by the other in their absence. A couple that cheerfully puts in the effort to communicate well and stay committed to the relationship while growing as individuals can, indeed, make long distance work.