The Ache of Separation
Life in long-distance relationships.
It occurred to me recently, that within my social circle, my relationship with Julia is held up as an example of the possibilities of a long-distance relationship.
Julia and I have been balancing her career as a doctor in Australia, with mine working and founding a company in America for nearly five years.
In that time, I’ve been in Adelaide, Sydney, New York, Darwin and San Francisco. Sometimes our geographical Venn diagram has overlapped, but for most of those five years, it hasn’t.
A friend who lives in Canberra, while his partner studies in Washington DC, wrote to me the other day and said:
“Long distance is the new normal for most couples I know, at least for a while where both are ambitious people.”
If this is true, then we need to have a discussion about how long-distance relationships (LDRs) work best. And if my friends are going to make major life decisions influenced by the fact that Jules and I did 4 years in an LDR before we got married, then I want to make sure they know the true costs involved.
The best possible outcome of an LDR is relationship stasis. If you can get to the end of a period of long-distance, and your relationship has not changed, moved, or progressed then you’ve done really well.
The average outcome then, is that your relationship will end up worse at the end of the LDR than it was at the start.
If your relationship is struggling now, expect an LDR to make things worse.
LDRs create a unique circumstance where the absence will build up an intensity of longing that is really wonderful to resolve.
After time apart, you will be really, really excited to see the person you love. Under normal circumstances, most relationships don’t reach these levels of excitement. It’s the same thing you felt as an eight-year old before Christmas. You would try and compress the time in front of you to make it go faster, and the anticipation felt like you were holding your breath.
The exhale is really a wonderful thing.
This might be the only positive of LDRs. It’s really nice to see someone you love for the first time in a month.
“Absence is to love what wind is to fire; it extinguishes the small, it inflames the great.”
In the space left by your partner’s absence, you find a clear outline of the person you love.
The distance brings into sharp focus the contours of their character. This can be a good and bad thing.
Again, it will tend to amplify what’s already there, rather than revealing something new.
LDRs help to define who your partner is to you and the things you most love about them.
Your partner is going to get home from work one day after a really challenging experience and cry to themselves alone.
Your absence is going to deepen their pain.
A car is going to idle for ten minutes with the headlights on outside your partner’s bedroom window at 3am one night.
You’re not going to be there to protect or comfort them.
On the third night in a row of sitting in front of the news, eating eggs on toast for dinner, your partner is going to look down at their plate and wonder what the point of all this is.
You are going to be the reason they question your relationship.
You will have to find a way to deal with the guilt you feel about all this.
You will have to rationalise to yourself, to your partner and to your extended network of family and friends that despite all this, being apart is the right choice.
It’s likely many of those people will not agree with your rationalisation.
LDRs take an extraordinary amount of maintenance.
Even to maintain stasis, you have to spend hours every day keeping love’s garden watered. And you’ll have to do it remotely.
Messages, Couple, Skype calls… technology does a remarkable job of bridging the gap, but you have to be the builder.
Remember, maintenance for stasis will not be fun every day. There will be days where it is easier not to write the email, not to switch off for the call, not to pull open Skype.
Under-investing in maintenance is a risk. But investing the right amount isn’t all roses either. It’s a discipline and a monotony that you can’t avoid.
“Benvolio: What sadness lengthens Romeo’s hours? Romeo: Not having that, which, having, makes them short.”
The glue of a successful LDR is the minutiae of your day to day life.
If you just have a few phone calls a week, and stick to telling each other just the headlines:
- “I got a raise!”
- “Uncle Dave is moving back to Portland…”
- “The Knights beat the Panthers.”
you’ll start to unglue.
Minutiae is all the stuff that’s probably not worthy of sharing in a normal call, but would be noteworthy were you in the same place:
- “I drafted an email this morning about the raise but I haven’t sent it yet…”
- “I’ve been thinking about Uncle Dave, have you heard from him recently?”
- “I’ve worked out a way to watch the NRL on my computer I think…”
Unfinished thoughts, tiny details, soon-to-be born gripes… The minutiae is the glue and LDRs need it to stick together.
You will dedicate a significant portion of your daily allocation of self-control to suppressing overwhelming feelings of longing and yearning and heartache.
That will leave less self control available for other parts of your life.
Expect your vices to confront you daily.
You will never truly be in the moment with others.
Wherever you are, whoever you’re with, there’s always the chance that a message from your partner is going to suck you out of the moment completely.
This isn’t a message from a friend — this is a message from someone you miss, who misses you, who is reaching out to you, waiting for you to respond. And it’s hard not to respond immediately, and completely, straight away.
And when you land back into whatever your present reality is, you’ll be dislocated from it, reminded that this is only temporary, that you’re not really you and that this current state of things isn’t going to last.
This fact makes you a worse friend to all the new people in your life.
The flipside of this is that when you’re back together, you’ll be more present, more in the moment than you would in normal circumstances. The balance between these two states is hard to find.
Distance will strengthen each person’s individuality. And each time you come back together, you’ll have to refresh your relationship anew.
You’ll make new friends, create new social circles. And the introduction of your partner to those new people won’t always go as smoothly as you imagine.
You’ll always be more popular than your partner in the new circles you create.
“I imagine a line, a white line, painted on the sand and on the ocean, from me to you.”
You’ll have two modes of working.
Non-partner mode, where, upon getting home alone at 9pm, you’ll find it easy to fill the silence with an hour’s work.
And partner-mode, where in the same circumstances, you’ll fall into each other’s arms on the couch for a chat, a glass of wine and an episode of Friday Night Lights.
You’ll have to learn to switch between the two effortlessly.
The extra ten hours a week you gain each time you move apart will give space for new hobbies, new friends and personal reflection.
Then that ten hours will be filled as soon as you’re back together again, and your hobbies, friends and personal reflection will fade into the background.
“so I wait for you like a lonely house till you will see me again and live in me. Till then my windows ache.”
It’s likely that LDRs will become more prevalent.
Technology makes the world smaller.
People can find their dream jobs anywhere. Globalisation expands the prospective job pool to the entire world.
Evolving professional populations with a greater proportion of women will continue to redefine the way domestic responsibilities get shared.
In this context, a conversation about LDRs and the best way to manage them is overdue.
The reality is, they are never simple or easy.
Any gains they allow in one area will have to be cribbed from another.
The balancing act is constant. LDRs are living, breathing things that require constant tending to.
That doesn’t mean they can’t work. Just that you should properly account for their costs before you make the jump.
Love is something people rarely discuss in its granularity.
It’s either sunsets and picnics or empty ice-cream tubs and closed blinds. We talk endlessly about its effects, but rarely about its particular causes.
It’s a hard thing to write about — especially if you are someone who professes to be in love.
It’s such a subjective, hidden thing, that you have to assume whatever you write, most people will disagree with or misunderstand.
I don’t think that should stop us trying though.
After all, that’s what makes love last.
Trying, trying, trying to do what is done in love.