Growing Together, While Apart

Lessons from a long-term bi-coastal marriage

‘An American Tail’ was one of my favorite movies growing up…coincidence?

In today’s job-hopping, high-tech world, it’s becoming less and less common for people to have firm roots in a single city or even a single country. Unfortunately, relationships thrive on roots, so how can couples manage to thrive in a world that often pulls them apart?

Our Story

My wife left for grad school in Rhode Island in the fall of 2014. By the time she’ll get back to our home in San Francisco full-time, she’ll have been on the east coast for 3 years. Circumstances might even extend that time further.

3 years — daunting if you think about it too much. By the time she returns home, we’ll have spent roughly a quarter of our decade-spanning relationship at a 3,000-mile distance.

From all our time and distance apart has come experience. Here’s what we’ve learned.

Critical Moments

Critical Moments are about key decisions. Should either partner move? Should the relationship continue? Should the long-distance extend for another year?

The critical moment of our long-distance relationship actually happened before it started, as we both wiped tears from our faces and made the decision that she should apply for a masters program across the country. It became obvious that her fulfillment and career revolved around an advanced degree, and in the end, after all the applications, the best degree for her wasn’t accessible in California.

So we got through our Critical Moment with a decision. I’d stay in California to keep the fires stoked on my own career, while she’d embark on a half-decade east coast career sprint.

Whew! Well at least THAT’S settled…

It’s best to keep the number of Critical Moments to a minimum — they’re a strain, and let’s be honest, they feel like a fight.

But the real important thing is to avoid revisiting decisions that have already been made.

Once you’ve decided on a way forward, you need to treat that decision as final. The longer that you keep opposing options on the table, and the more you pester one another about opening up the same arguments again and again, the more likely you are to spend time dealing with relationship burdens instead of relationship gifts.

The Relationship Bank

-Stephen Covey, ‘The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People’

Like in all relationships, each person can do things which either add to a feeling of goodwill, or reduce it. It’s like deposits and withdrawals at the bank.

If you or your partner begin to dread phone calls or time together, it’s probably because one or both of you is straining the other, or being distracted, or being too emotionally needy. Withdrawals everywhere, and then bankruptcy.

With less time together, it’s critical to make time together valuable and positive. You have to become super investors.

Whenever my wife and I are physically together, we go on a lot of dates and keep our phones away. It’s not just couch time, it’s connection time. 
The distance itself acts as a kind of constant withdrawal on the relationship, so it’s critical that we use our time to rebuild whatever distance erodes.

Keeping it Real

How often do you go the distance to remove the distance? 
If you wait too long between visits to one another, you essentially create an “out of sight, out of mind” result. You forget why you’re even dating, and face the very real possibility of growing apart or being replaced by someone else.

If you visit too often, you feel like you’re constantly on the road and not even getting the benefits of the place you’ve decided to live.

What’s the right balance?

If you’ve got the means, I’d recommend visiting for at least a long weekend every three weeks. Two weeks is too often (especially if one person has to bear the brunt of the travel), and more than four weeks begins to stretch and diminish your bond with one another. Six weeks is probably the maximum that can be sustained repeatedly. With that kind of separation, it can take the entire trip just to get used to sharing space again, much less build a lasting bond.

It Can Be an Adventure

Breaking into the unknown

I get pained looks from friends or coworkers when they hear I’m doing long distance. Most people automatically assume that it sucks.

And sure, it’s not all sunshine and rainbows, but what relationship is?

What this has given us is a break in routine — a break from the numbing repetition which causes you to take things for granted.

Instead, when I’m by myself for a month at a time, I get to feel the sting of loneliness, but also find the liberation of picking my own schedule and entertainment.

Then I’m off to see my wife, and the thankfulness of having my partner in my arms sweeps over me as freshly as it did during our early courtship. Things are sharper and more vivid — more exciting. There’s work to do (but not too much) to figure each other out again. I even get to explore an entirely new city with her (I ❤ you, Providence, RI).

There’s a sense of adventure to all of it that’s doing wonders for keeping things fresh.

Lay the Foundation First

But my wife and I had been together for 7 years before embarking on this particular adventure. We’d spent a lot of time building trust and improving communication, and we decided that no matter what, we were in it for life.

Human biology and hormones aren’t built for being physically separated for such long periods. You don’t beat those odds by accident, but by well-honed teamwork and a deep-seated understanding of the relationship’s value.

You’ll need all the understanding and appreciation you can get. But it’s worth it — the results can really surprise you.

The Payoff

It’s a wonderful thing — two partners that are able to independently find their own fulfillment while supporting each other’s. Despite being apart, you each grow and become stronger, and that’s strength you each can lend your partner in tougher times.

My wife’s independence and sense of confidence has soared. And honestly, so has mine. The struggle has generated growth, for both of us.

And we’ve developed an increasing sense of resilience as well. If we can handle this, we’re solid. The support we’ve lent each other while apart is filling the relationship bank to bursting. We’re getting the dividends.

To those of you out there going through something similar, or contemplating it, I want to say — life is long. Don’t let fear stop you from being your best self in a challenging few years.

You’re more full of love than you think.

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