There’s an old saying that “distance makes the heart grow fonder”. But what if it’s not that easy? We’ve explored our top long distance relationship advice and tips to help you make it work with your partner – whether they’re on the other side of the state, country, or globe.
There’s no doubt about it – long distance relationships aren’t easy. They create significant challenges to overcome, and usually require a couple to develop special skills and resources to make them work successfully. If children are in the mix, that raises the stakes even higher.
If you only get together infrequently, then the emotional wrench of each parting, and counting days until you connect again, can keep the relationship alive – so long as the positives are so positive they outweigh the in-built negative of not being able to be together so often.
But with good news is, with the right planning, attitude and communication skills, you can successfully manage a long distance relationships over the long term.
Why long distance relationships can arise
Many different factors can lead to long distance relationships. Work might take one of you interstate or overseas, perhaps your job is fly-in-fly-out work in regional and remote communities, or one of you is in the armed forces. You might have met online, and your partner is based a long way away from your work life and home life. The arrangements may have been in place from the beginning, or present themselves later in the relationship as other life decisions intrude and take you in a new direction.
As well, today’s world of closed international borders due to the COVID-19 means that many more people over the last 18 months have been separated from their partners and families.
What do you need to know to make long distance work?
For a long-distance relationship to succeed, there are a few things to come to discuss and agree on, as early on into the relationship as possible:
Decide on what the time horizon of the relationship will be
How long do you need to do this? Is it short or long term? Temporary situations require different skills and strategies than if the relationship is going to be like this long term, such as in cases involving employment in a mining role or the armed forces.
Make sure you’re both on the same page
Are you both on-board about the reasons behind it? If you think your partner’s new job opportunity isn’t worth the impact on your relationship, or if you believe they have options about the amount of travel, then resentment might start to creep in. You could lose confidence in what the distance is really about, and start to think it means something else – like your partner doesn’t mind being away from you, or maybe you’re not important enough to stick around.
Define each other’s role expectations clearly
Whoever is home, and whoever is away, there needs to be discussions about what’s expected from each of you. For example, is the one who’s home meant to undertake all home maintenance, all decisions about parenting, maintain in-law relationships and be smiling at the door at the away-person’s homecoming? Is the person who’s away expected to be on speed dial, not have too much fun, and always bring presents on return? Undiscussed expectations can come back to bite you.
How to succeed longer term
Sustaining love from a distance requires each of you to have certain personal characteristics and strengths.
Autonomy: Fundamentally, you need to be fairly autonomous. Both of you should be people who enjoy intimacy, but who are very independent, equally enjoying separate time, interests and friends.
Independence: You also need to have a life that’s not dependent on a partner to thrive. You have to be able to navigate couple moments – dinner parties, events – confidently on your own. If you really need a partner regularly by your side and believe your life stops or is impeded when they’re not around, you might going to struggle more.
Trust: Importantly, you need to have trust. If you spend a lot of time worrying what your partner is up to while you’re apart, then that will eventually bring the relationship undone. Trust is not built by being in proximity and keeping watch, but still it can feel like a long time apart will test you as a couple and perhaps leave room for things like infidelity to occur.
A good support network: You also need a support team and a life outside the relationship. If you’ve been depending on a relationship for your main social life, the relationship has too much riding on it. If your friends and family are on-board with the relationship, then you will have more at your back when there are some lonely points.
The critical skills for long distance couples
While the above characteristics and personality traits are largely inherent and tough to change, there are also plenty of complementary skills you can develop and foster to help make your long distance relationship grow stronger:
Communication: You need to be able to speak up about your needs, and to raise fears and concerns directly and quickly with your partner, before they take root and start to breed resentment. Be open about what’s going on for you.
Proactivity and directness: If you let issues slide, then the distance can equally magnify insecurities and anxieties, as it can falsely emphasise the positive in the relationship.
Compensation: This is not about one person owing the other for the negative impact of the distance. You’ve both agreed to the relationship on these terms. However, given that spending less time together can have an impact, planning together how to balance that out with positive intimacy will be important. This may be grand gestures sometimes. But it will be more sustainable if it is heartfelt and reliable, such as rituals you create on homecoming, such as the first weekend being “just for us”.
Reliable contact: Distance can make contact difficult. Time zones or combat zones can get in the way. To whatever degree you can, talk openly about what’s going to work for you, and be flexible when it sometimes fails. As paradoxical as it sounds, plan for spontaneity too – surprise phonecalls and small unexpected gifts can speak volumes. Be prepared to negotiate a new routine as well if old ones are no longer working. If you initially agreed to a call at 6pm every night, you could start out feeling very reassured by it. But after a while, you may start to feel annoyed by the rigidity of it.
Managing anxiety with flexibility: There is a lot riding on the homecoming. When you are two independent people, you might clash a bit those first few days, rather than rush to passionate embrace. You might need to “warm up” the relationship again. It could be that discussions that have gone awry online need to be processed first. You might experience your partner as intruding on your independent routine, or you might feel like a bit of a “spare part” when you first arrive. Don’t interpret any of these feelings as bad signs in themselves; they might just be your way of sorting yourselves back into coupledom. You need strategies that match your style rather than judge what happens between you according to what you have in your head as a stereotypical reconciliation.
In the global economy, and the uncertain times in which we currently live, couples are more likely going to experience periods apart than at any other point in history.
If you need to learn new skills to communicate better with your partner about what’s happening in your relationship, there are plenty of resources available to help you. Relationships Australia NSW offers Couples Communications group programs online throughout the year to help you learn the skills to talk through issues with your partner more effectively. Find out more about upcoming courses here. A version of this article originally appeared on Body + Soul, and has been republished here with permission.