Friday, 4 October 2013

On going the distance (part 2)

It's past midnight on a Monday, and I'm talking to my boyfriend.  It's been over a week since we've last been able to talk - he's been on tour with his orchestra, and they didn't have internet or phone signal at his hotel.  But now he's on a bus to Venice, and thanks to a German phone borrowed from a friend, we are finally able to have a conversation without racking up astronomical long distance charges.

The last week has been difficult.  A series of missed calls, Tolstoy-novel-length texts, and desperate searches for wifi.  We have both felt the absence of our regular Skype chats.  And every time I send an email or a facebook message, it feels like sending a message out to sea - I have no idea when or if it will be received.

Sadly, he would never get to see that hilarious youtube clip...
I don't have a perfect relationship.  I don't even have a perfect long-distance relationship.  In the perfect long-distance relationship, we would have bottomless bank accounts so we could jet over to see each other every weekend.  We would have limitless access to internet and mobile phone networks, so that we could constantly stay in touch.  We would have near-identical schedules, so that it would be easy to find time to talk.

But nothing, as we know, is ever perfect.  Especially when it comes to relationships.

It's been over a year now since my relationship became long-distance.  In the year since I last wrote about it, a lot has happened.  I have learned things about myself and my boyfriend, and about relationships in general.  At times it has been challenging, hilarious, heartbreaking, ridiculous, inspiring, and joyful.  And I thought I'd take the time to share what I've observed and learned.

I always knew that I was going to miss my boyfriend.  I expected to feel sad and lonely when he wasn't around.  And I was right about that.  I always miss my boyfriend - it's a dull kind pain that's with me every day.  What I didn't expect was that I would get used to this pain, that I would stop noticing it.  What I didn't expect was that we would both get used to being apart, and this was a much bigger problem.

In a long-distance relationship, as you spend time apart from each other, you both become more independent.  I mean, of course you do.  You have to.  If you spent all your evenings at home pining for your other half, you'd be on the short track to clinical depression.  So you go out, you make new friends, you find new hobbies.  You get used to doing your own thing, following your own schedule.  And eventually you fall into a rhythm that works for you.  Which is great.  Until of course, your other half comes to visit.

Suddenly, everything changes again.  You can't just follow your own schedule anymore - there's another person to consider.  You've spent all this time filling up the big gaping hole they left behind, and now you have to fit them in again.  Of course, they were a part of your life when they were away too.  But there's a big difference between an scheduled hour's chat on Skype, and being together 24/7.

And then there's the jealousy.  Not romantic jealousy, but friendship jealousy.  I've struggled with this a few times on visits to Sweden.  You see, my boyfriend has this whole social life apart from me.  Of course he needs this social life, and I'm very happy he has it.  But when I come to visit, I can't help feeling a bit left out.  I can't catch up on all the bonhomie these people have shared.  These are people who can take him for granted, who get to hang out with him every day.  They share banter and dance tunes and drinks and inside jokes with him.  They probably even get to hug him more than I do.  How is it fair that he hugs his buddies more than his girlfriend?

At this point, I'm sure a lot of people would love to chime in and tell me that I'm fighting a losing battle.  That long-distance relationships never work.  Well, as my brother says, scratch any cynic and you'll find a wounded romantic.  In my experience, most of the nay-sayers out there seem to be hurt, embittered, or angry about a failed long-distance relationship in their past.  I have also been in unsuccessful long-distance relationships.  Nonetheless, I do think a long-distance relationship can work.  Maybe not for every couple.  Maybe not in any given set of circumstances.  But it can work.

I think a big key to making a long-distance relationship work is to fight the two romance-killers: routine and lack of communication.

I know you're probably sick to death of hearing how important communication is in a relationship.  Well I hate to break it to you, but it's true.  Almost any problem in a relationship is surmountable - if you talk about it openly.  If you don't talk about the problem, it will only get bigger, breeding resentment and misunderstanding.

Now I know what you're thinking.  It's really, really hard to talk about relationship problems when you hardly ever see each other.  The problem is that you want every visit to be nice.  You want to make the most of your time together, and leave with lots of happy idyllic memories.  Memories of strolling down the street hand-in-hand, visiting the zoo, or having a snowball fight.  The kinds of things couples do in a romantic comedy montage.  You don't want to leave with memories of having long, emotional discussions about your relationship problems.  And so it's very tempting to just stick on a smile and pretend that everything is fine.

Yes, everything is just wonderful!

But trust me on this one.  It is always better, if possible, to talk about these things face-to-face.  No technology in your way.  No sketchy wifi connections or crackling phones.  Just the two of you, looking each other in the eye and speaking honestly.

It's also important to communicate with each other about the relationship as a whole.  What kind of relationship is this?  Where is it going?  What do you both want?  You need to be on the same page about these things.  Otherwise you'll discover - far too late - that you are in two completely different relationships.

"Monogamy?!  I thought you said mahogany!"
Which brings us to the second romance killer: routine.  Yes, things can get routine, even when your significant other lives on another continent.  Maybe it's not the routine of ordering in Chinese every Friday, or quibbling over who makes the coffee every morning.  But even routines like talking on Skype every night can put your relationship in a rut.  You start to think of your conversations as an obligation.  You start to let your attention wander, and do things like checking facebook mid-conversation.

I will never forget a particularly cathartic conversation in which my boyfriend and I finally told each other how sick we were of talking on Skype.  Not that there's anything wrong with Skype per se.  It's just that after a while, anything can get boring.  And after all, what is natural about sitting down to speak to each other at an appointed hour, for an appointed period of time?  This should be a relationship, not a business meeting!

So what did we do?  We took away the pressure of talking on Skype all the time.  Instead, we tried talking more through instant messaging, spontaneously, when we felt like it.  And we got creative.  We looked for other ways to reach out to each other.  Whether it was writing romantic texts, sending silly photos, or composing the odd limerick, we found millions of little ways to say "thinking of you".  One of my latest discoveries?  You can send a video message up to 3 minutes long over Skype.  It's a great way to send a message when the other person is offline.  And if you happen to be under the influence of alcohol whilst recording your message, I assure you that hilarity will ensue. 

I am not at all speaking from personal experience.  Nope.  Not me.
Some people will tell you that a long-distance relationship is not a real relationship.  It's just a delusion, a fantasy.  In a way, these people are right.  A long-distance relationship can never be the same as a real relationship.  There is no replacement for being together in person.  Of course, your feelings for each other may be very powerful and very real.  But most of the time, your relationship is more like a promise of a relationship.  A promise of what will be the next time you're together.  This is why it's important to always look ahead.  Plan your next visit.  Get excited about it.  And more importantly, have an end point.  Know that at some point, one or both of you will move so you can be together.

Like any relationship, a long-distance relationship takes work.  You can't just sit back and expect things to run smoothly.  The Beatles say that love is all you need, but I don't think it's that simple.  You also need honesty, trust, kindness, and respect.  You need to never take each other for granted.  Keep showing each other how you feel, whether with romantic surprises or small everyday gestures.  And you need to keep the lines of communication open - if you're not happy, for God's sakes talk about it!

Am I a hopeless romantic for believing in long-distance relationships?  Probably, yes.  But so what if I am?  I'd rather be a hopeless romantic than just plain hopeless.  Call me crazy, call me naive, call me deluded.  But I think that when two people really love each other, and they really want to make it work, anything is possible.

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