Dropped calls are a common hiccup for my boyfriend and I. For four out of the six years we’ve known each other, we have lived 1,500 miles apart. Two years into our relationship, he took a calculated risk and moved to New York to pursue his dream of working in film, while I stayed behind to complete my bachelor’s degree. After only a few short months of going long distance, we tearfully broke up; the frustrations of being away from each other and the anxieties of our unplanned future had taken their toll.
- Lindsey Warwick, MS, Lindsey Warwick, MS, LPC-Associate and LMFT-Associate, is a therapist at The Gracious Mind.
At the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, we found ourselves drawn back together, and by the middle of 2020, we had officially rekindled our love. In a world where many loved ones were navigating long distances for the first time, my boyfriend and I were giving our LDR another go. Today, we are currently picking out furniture for our shared home, and will be living together in a few months time.
Having nearly made it out the other side of our long-term, long-distance relationship, I’ve found myself thinking about the difficult beginning of our cross-country romance. While I don't necessarily have regrets about how things played out, there are definitely some things I wish had taken into consideration before embarking on such a uniquely challenging relationship format.
5 questions to ask before entering a long-distance relationship
1. Have I discussed my concerns about going long-distance with my partner?
Before my boyfriend boarded that plane for New York four years ago, I had a million questions running through my head. When will I see him next? What time will he call me every night? What if he meets someone new? What if we fall out of love?
At a time where the future of our relationship remained unknown, I was hungry for certainty. Lindsey Warwick, LPC-Associate and LMFT-Associate at The Gracious Mind in Texas, calls this an “intolerance of ambiguity,” or the desire for everything to be planned out to the last detail. This lack of flexibility can spell trouble for long-distance relationships.
“It's something that contributes to anxiety,” says Warwick. “It basically means ‘I can't handle the fact that I don't know what's gonna happen’, or that ‘I'm not in control of this,’ and it can bring up a lot of distress.”
Opening up a line of communication about these fears is crucial. “Usually when you're going to have conversations like this, ‘I feel’ statements are really good ways to address it because then you have to own what you're feeling,” says Warwick. “It puts the focus on you, which decreases the defensiveness of your partner.”
2. Can we afford to see each other if we go long-distance?
When my boyfriend landed in New York City, he was starting from square one. He had a place to live, but not much else. As for me, a 20-something college student with a minimum-wage waitressing job, buying plane tickets to visit him in the middle of my schooling was completely out of the question.
Our financial limitations became jarringly clear, and it worried me more and more as time went on. Not knowing when (or if) we could reunite in the near future was terrifying.
Warwick explains that financial insecurity can be a big stressor for long-distance relationships, especially since it can reveal surprising financial power dynamics. If one person ends up spending more money than the other in an effort to connect, for example, a rift might occur.
“The person who makes significantly more money might end up feeling a little bit resentful, or burdened if they're the one paying for stuff,” says Warwick. “Being aware of and attentive to that, have conversations around that, acknowledge or ask if that's happening. You don't want resentment to build up over time.”
When visiting each other isn’t possible due to financial constraints, Warwick says that video chats can help you feel more connected than say, a phone call would. “Finding ways to get creative with increasing contact if you're not together, with WhatsApp, FaceTime, Zoom, or Skype can be really helpful in increasing that intimacy when you can't afford to see each other,” she says.
3. Are my expectations realistic?
Since my boyfriend was the one moving away, I assumed that he would be the one to schedule our nightly phone calls and plan our future cross-country trips to see each other (since he was the one leaving me behind). But these unspoken expectations were not always met, which made me angry and resigned from the relationship at times.
“Having expectations without communicating them can be a big pathway towards resentment, especially if you have an idea of how something should go, and it’s not happening that way,” says Warwick. “Being able to talk about that or being able to notice those expectations versus the reality is really important.”
For example, if hearing from your partner every day is really important to you, Warwick says, it’s your responsibility to communicate that—and help figure out how to make that happen. “Understand that sometimes a work thing might come up, or an emergency might happen,” adds Warwick. “Don't rely on a super rigid plan, but have something that at least gives you some idea, especially if you're a planner and a goal setter and a scheduler.”
Plus, expectations regarding your future as a couple should be decided together, says Warwick, to ensure that you both feel that you’re investing in something that will give back. “So whether you're going to eventually move where this other person is, or they're going to eventually move back, or whatever that is that you mutually come to a decision about, there's probably going to be a bit of give and take,” Warwick says.
4. Can we go without physical intimacy (at least, for the foreseeable future)?
My partner and I lucked out in sharing the same love language of physical touch. During the first two years of our relationship, our sexual chemistry became a medium for deeper connection. But I hadn’t properly considered how difficult a lack of physical intimacy would be for our relationship.
“Long distance can be a real make-or-break for compatibility because so much of your connection is emotional and intellectual because you're talking on the phone, or you're texting, or you’re video calling,” Warwick says. “Over time, you move from that passionate love to consummate love, which is less sexually charged and more emotionally intimate, and more intellectually connected. And if you don't have that with your partner, it can be really hard to sustain it long-term.” This can be even harder for newer couples, she adds, because they haven't had time to build other forms of intimacy to help sustain their bond.
Warwick says that, apart from sharing intimate phone calls and messages, keeping busy can help alleviate some of the pain that comes with not being able to have physical contact with your partner. “Throwing yourself into things that are important to you, whether it's your work, your friends, volunteering, other things.. If you're not busy, it can probably feel a lot more agonizing.”
5. Have I built a life of my own outside of my significant other?
Back when my boyfriend lived in Texas, we would spend every waking moment together. We did everything together, from grocery shopping to bar-hopping, and the times we did go solo, we would be sending each other “I wish you were here” texts all night. But after going long-distance (especially once we broke up), I found myself scrambling for shoulders to lean on. Where were all of my friends? I hadn’t considered that by spending every hour with my significant other, I was neglecting my other relationships and interests.
“There's a lot of relationship literature that talks about the vital importance of differentiation so that you don't converge into your partner, and become your partner, and make your partner your whole world,” says Warwick.”If your entire world is wrapped up in this person, the level of devastation you're going to experience and all of the existential crisis stuff that goes into the loss of your whole world is going to be fundamentally derailing.”
Warwick shares that watering your own garden is important, in (and out of) long distance relationships. In an ideal relationship, both people lead fulfilled lives separate from their partner, full of platonic, meaningful relationships. “It does make a positive difference to have happy, healthy, safe people in your life beyond just that one person. In the same way that your romantic partner nourishes you, it's important to be able to nourish yourself with these other things,” she says.
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