Is it possible to have a successful long-distance relationship?
Living in Washington DC, that’s a question I hear a lot from clients and from friends. When we live far away from our significant others, children, parents, and friends, it’s unavoidable that our relationships will suffer.
Still, there are ways to reduce the damage.
Here’s a recent letter to my Washington Blade advice column from someone struggling to figure out how to have a successful long-distance relationship. If you are in a similar position, I hope you’ll find my answer helpful.
One interesting twist to her letter: Her own obvious ambivalence about being close to her partner.
Of course, not everyone who is in a long-distance relationship wants to keep their spouse at a distance. Still, it’s always worth considering how a seemingly bad situation may have its benefits.
If you’re in a long-distance relationship and finding it difficult to make it work, feel free to give me a call or email me. I’ll be glad to help you.
Here’s the letter, and my response:
I’m in a great relationship with Lisa. We’ve been dating for three years and living together for the past eight months. I’m going back to graduate school in the Fall and we’re concerned about how to make a long-distance relationship work. Any pointers?
One complication is, I’m going to grad school in my hometown and I’ll be living at my parents to avoid spending an enormous amount of money on rent. I’m not out to them (long story short, they’re very conservative). They know Lisa as my good friend, but coming out to them would create a lot of drama and messiness, which would make it very difficult for me to live there. How can I minimize the effects of not being out to them on my relationship with Lisa?
Long-distance relationships are risky.
Your big challenge is to stay close and vibrant as a couple even though you’re usually far apart, geographically. There’s no easy or foolproof way to do this because phone calls, Skype, Face Time, texts, and visits are all a poor substitute for actually being together physically on an ongoing basis. You can do your best to make up for the day-to-day distance by getting together frequently.
But this is not a great solution, because too much gets jammed into too short a time. Long-distance couples often try to spend time alone together, see friends, try new restaurants, cook dinner, cuddle in bed all morning, shop for furniture, have sex, make a great impression on each other, argue…all in a weekend. Intimacy and closeness don’t thrive in a pressure cooker.
Another problem with long-distance relationships: Both partners may resist fully engaging in their own lives because they don’t want to develop a life apart from their mate. I’ve seen people resist making new friends, decorating their homes, or pursuing careers. They’re trying to keep their lives in suspended animation until some hoped-for date in the future when they’re actually going to live with their partner. In the meantime, real life slips by.
Conversely, I’ve seen people pursue their own lives while separated and then ultimately grow so far apart that there’s no glue left between them.
That said, here are some tips to help you manage a long-distance relationship as best you can.
First, put a limit on how long you’re going to live apart rather than keeping the distance open-ended. This requires you to be clear about the reason you’re temporarily separating. It also gives you a finish line to aim toward, which can help both of you keep your energy flowing toward your relationship.
Second, stay in frequent, close touch between visits. The time you plan to connect should be sacred; no interference from work, friends, activities, or any other excuses. Make sure you share what’s going on in your lives. Not just the dry facts, but the feelings underneath.
Third, consider making friends with people where you’re living who are also in long-distance relationships. Support from others in the same situation can be helpful!
Fourth, need I say that it’s a great idea to avoid extra-relationship relationships? While you may feel in need of some loving, you’ll be flirting with the dangerous possibility of your new playmate supplanting Lisa as the object of your affection.
With regard to living with your folks, I don’t think you’ve considered that being closeted to your parents is a huge threat to your relationship with Lisa, maybe even more than a long-distance relationship would be.
Relationships always suffer when one or both partners are closeted. Hiding is intrinsically stifling, warps your ability to wholeheartedly be with your partner, and stunts your self-esteem. If you live with your parents, it’s unavoidable that you’ll tamp down your enthusiasm for Lisa, reduce the frequency of your connections, and limit your visits in order to maintain the illusion that the two of you are merely friends.
How can you avoid becoming even more distant from Lisa if you are hiding your relationship with her on a daily basis? And, not incidentally, how does Lisa feel about being a secret? While rent is expensive, consider the cost to your relationship of your staying closeted.
I’d also like you to consider that your plan to live with your parents–and even to move out of town– indicates you are uncomfortable really being close to others. You already don’t let your parents really know you, and your current plan will both deepen your distance from them and diminish whatever closeness you have with Lisa. If you think I have a point, consider working with an intimacy-wise therapist. I suspect you are sabotaging your relationships, so please get some clarity before proceeding.