Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.
It is the beginning of a new year, which means that many of us are dealing with adjustments to or within long distance relationships. There are many people, “relationship experts” or otherwise, whose advice on long distance relationships (LDRs) is limited to one short sentence: don’t do it.
I will never be one of them. My first major relationship, with “Moose,” was always either long distance or functionally long distance due to driving ability/car access and, while it was not always easy, it is an experience that I would certainly be a different person without having, and one that I certainly would not deny others.
Of course there are drawbacks to having an LDR. One of the reasons that so many of them fail so soon out of the gate is that people forget to factor in these points and potential pitfalls. Nonetheless, they do have some benefits over short distance relationships (SDRs).
Ultimately, you have to consider every factor involved and think about what it actually means for your situation. So, what follows is my “Owner’s Manual to the LDR” – giving the pros and cons as I see them, along with some handy alliteration.
There is no doubt that communication becomes a huge part of your relationship once the distance between you and your partner grows. But the common conception is that the two of you need to be in constant contact. This is absolutely not the case. As with any relationship, those involved need to figure out exactly what works for them and their lives. Unlike Swattie-on-Swattie relationships, in which you are likely to unintentionally run into each other five times each day, this means you might have to schedule times to talk to each other.
When Moose and I were together, we had a time every night when he would call me, and we kept it every evening without fail. On some days, that was a two minute conversation consisting of “I’m sorry, I’m so busy/have this commitment. I love you.” and on others it would last well over an hour. Sometimes we would send each other letters, but since Moose did not have texting and this was before the time of Skype (It was the dark ages), that was really the limit of our communication.
Technology is really the savior of many LDRs. You can text each other through the day, send each other photos, or talk on Skype so that you can see each other’s faces regularly. These things can really give the feeling of shortening the distance between you, as you are still active participants in each other’s lives.
There is no question that LDRs are a huge time commitment. On a daily basis, you are probably cutting out time to communicate with each other, but visiting is a huge demand on your time as well. I have read that the general guideline for LDRs is that you should see each other at least once a month, but I feel like that can be stretched to two if necessary. Beyond that span, it becomes difficult to maintain, as relationships are so often built on shared experience and physical bonds, which do not happen when you are not in the same place.
But visits are often a huge effort. Depending on access and the actual distance involved, visits can involve anything from a subway ride to plane tickets. As the distance increases, so do the anxieties that go along with it. Travel costs money, something that is often in short supply as college students, especially if your parents are not willing or able to pitch in. And a visit is often a huge time suck in terms of schoolwork. Those in SDRs see each other in small doses over a period of time, but distant partners have concentrated time, which will often render an entire weekend or break nominally homework free time, as you will want to make the most of the limited time you have together. This can easily become a point of contention if you do not put out fairly equal effort into travelling. If possible, you should switch off visits so that one partner is not bearing the brunt of the travel burden.
This is difficult, but it also means that the time you have together will probably be more meaningful. Every moment you spend with someone you love but rarely see feels special. You also often try to fill them with exciting adventures, rather than patterns of casual, unfocused hangout time. I love vegging with a movie more than most, but it is the new and exciting experiences that will go further to bonding you as a couple.
I am not going to lie, sex is really difficult if you are in an LDR. It turns simple occurrences, like a period coinciding with a visit, into tragedies. For those of us with roommates, it also can be quite difficult to explore other outlets, such as phone sex or masturbation. There are also people who are really uncomfortable with the concept of phone sex, which can be frustrating if you are in a relationship with them and do not feel the same way.
There is also the factor of general physicality. When your partner is miles away, you cannot hug them, spoon them, hold their hand. These other aspects of physical intimacy can be even harder to go without, as they cannot be mimicked with an active imagination and a hand or a vibrator. Holding your own hand or playing with your own hair just does not cut it. Some people are able to get this fulfillment through their other relationships, but our culture does not really support physically close friendships, so we are often left without a real outlet for our desire for physical intimacy.
All of the effort that inherently goes into LDRs can make for stronger relationships. You have to figure out how your partner communicates and work with it. You have to deal with significantly more minor issues that pop up as a result of the distance and talk through them rather than working them out, Bloodhound Gang style. Your relationship also much better resists the stasis that often plagues long-term relationships because you have to keep talking to each other.
On the other hand, LDRs are also much more flexible in terms of structure. You can share every detail of your life with each other, or you can be predominantly independent and only actually talk every few days. And each of these choices is an active decision, so you ultimately tend to have a much better handle both on what your relationship is and on what you want.
One of my exes is now in a long distance relationship in which they are not all that active in each other’s lives. The distance worked out quite well for them, giving each other the space they each want while still enabling them to feel close. Conversely, I have a friend who lives in Chicago and her wife is living in London. They talk to each other every day and often try to fall asleep with each other on Skype. Because of money issues, they have not been able to visit each other for almost a year, but they are going to be reunited in October.
A shift into long distance can also illuminate the potential of a relationship. When your boyfriend graduates or your girlfriend moves, you learn much earlier how well your relationship can adapt to the changes that living brings about, before taking big steps like living together or getting married.
Of course LDRs have their difficulties. They are relationships. We just emphasize these factors in LDRs because they deviate from the norm.
There is no shame in deciding that LDRs are not for you, or that you are not willing or able to put out the effort that it takes for a specific relationship. But there is a lot of value in distant relationships that their closer counterparts just cannot match, and with the right person, I promise that they are worth it.
If all else fails, just hum “I can go the distance.” Hercules would approve.