What It Takes To Make A Long Distance Relationship Work


I met him in Spanish 4 Honors when I was 16 years old. He sat across the room from me and I barely knew his first name. We had some free time in class one day and somehow, we struck up a conversation. We talked about baseball and homework, and joked about how much the teacher hated me. He told me where he was applying to college. I told him my dream schools. It wasn't exactly that firework-worthy conversation you see in movies, and it was the kind of chat both of us probably had a thousand times before with other people. But six years later, we are still dating. In the past six years, we've collectively lived in eight different places. Aside from those first few months before he went to college in Indiana, there has never been a point in our relationship where we've been in the same place. If long distance were a sport, we would be on the starting varsity squad.

I typically steer clear of talking about relationships on Spire & Co, partly because we were each other's first kiss–which means I quite literally don't know a thing about dating–and partly because that's a corner of my life I don't feel the need to dispel on the Internet. But in the spirit of six years together and a ton of conversations, emails, and texts over the years asking what it takes to make long distance work, it felt like something some of our Spire & Co readers may find useful.

Okay, so here goes nothing...

1. Save the drama for your mama (or just cut it all together).

As I went out to write this, I asked my boyfriend if long distance had ever come up in conversation with other people. He said the response is always the same.

"Man that sucks."

"Jeez, that must be hard."

Anyone in a long distance relationship hears the same thing. It's like getting decaf coffee when you wanted the strong stuff. No one wants it. Yet of my girlfriends who have been in long distance relationships, we've all agreed: it really isn't that bad.

When I asked my boyfriend about it today, he replied, "I don't know, I haven't minded it too much."

I mean, sure, no one prefers to be in a long distance relationship, but all in all, the general consensus seems to be that it's not horrible. Of our friends who have lasting success in long distance relationships, one thing is the same: they don't get dramatic about it.

The Troy Bolton/Gabriella Montez relationship may work for High School Musical, but in real life, making a long distance relationship work means being a little more like Madam Secretary's Elizabeth and Henry McCord. They have faith that their relationship can stand the test of stressful careers, frequent international travel, and the chaos that comes with being two independent people.

A big part of it is just being reasonable. Of course, you'd rather be in the same place, but right now, it feels worth it so therefore you're going to soldier on. No one should be a martyr if they are in love and both people are in safe places, even if they are two separate places. (Obviously, none of this is the case if you're doing long distance because your significant other is in the military. I have zero authority in that realm, though I'm sure there's some great writers out there who do!)

2. Be your own person.

Perhaps one of the greatest advantages of a long distance relationship is that if you want to make it work, you have to be fiercely independent. When my boyfriend and I were talking about these past few years, he said, "I mean, yeah, it would be a lot worse if we didn't have our own stuff going on."

No one ever really aims to lose their individuality when they are dating someone, but it can happen. You can be so head over heals with that person that you slowly neglect your core self until you don't recognize the difference between your significant other's personality and your own.

Long distance makes that a lot more challenging. Just by the fact that you cannot be in a person's daily life encourages you to have your own full life and carve out just a chunk of that human experience for the other person.

He has his own life and I have mine. We both have a serious focus on our careers. He is on a basketball team with his work buddies. My girlfriends and I like to explore New York's wellness and brunch scenes. He plays daily fantasy sports in his free time. I read books and go to spin classes with mine. We are both clued in about what the other is up to everyday and what we are enjoying or stressing about in our lives, but we have our own stuff going on.

That's not to say that that sort of life doesn't exist when you are in a non-long distance relationship. Long distance just forces you to make it more of a priority. Whether you are ten steps, ten miles, or ten states away, focusing on your self evolution ensures that you'll bring more to the table for the relationship, in turn strengthening it.

3. Find a way to still be a part of each other's daily life.

While we may have very separate lives at this point, we have always found ways to be a part of the other's daily existence in one way or another.

Right now, that means we are in two fantasy leagues for The Bachelor. (We are really pulling for either of the Danielles to win.)

In the past it has been tuning in to Quantico (until it got too violent for my liking). Other times it has been playing a game online. Or reading the same articles. Or eating dinner on Sunday together over Skype. You get the idea.

We've never been able to see each other on a daily basis, but whether intentionally or not, we always played some part in it.

4. Communication is almost everything.

98% of the time, we don't go to sleep without talking to the other on the phone. Some nights we are sleepier than others, but even if it's just for two minutes to ask how the other is doing, it's always been something we prioritized. Now it's something I look forward to. No matter how rough my day was, I end it in a great mood because I spoke to him.

On days when we aren't slammed at work, we'll talk over Facebook Messenger or Slack, but it's very short exchanges because we are busy. Regardless, it's not 24/7 communication, which I think is how a lot of long distance relationships start out. It's hard to keep that up and it messes with rule #2 of being your own person. If your day is consumed with that other person, you aren't building your own life.

That's why I say communication is almost everything. It's not necessarily about how much time or how frequently you're communicating, but rather the quality in which you are communicating.

Bobby and I used to speak more frequently when we were both in college but in hindsight, we both used to multitask while we were on the phone or on Skype. Perhaps it was because we didn't value our conversations to the level we do now or maybe it was because it felt necessary since it was taking up more of our days. Regardless, when we speak now, I stop everything to talk to him and he does the same. I have to say, I think our conversations are more enjoyable and we certainly value them more.

Bottom line: if you want to make long distance work, you don't have to communicate with the other person all the time. You just need to be present when you are conversing.

5. Don't take notes from The Bachelor on planning your next get together.

Can you tell it's Bachelor season?

Anyway, if you've ever watched the show or seen a commercial, you've probably noticed that they are always jet setting across the world or going on the most elaborate dates you could possibly imagine. Sure, I'd love to have a picnic on the Cliffs of Moher or go on fancy dinner dates in my non-existent collection of ball gowns. But I'm fairly positive if that was every date I ever had with a person, I could literally fall in love with anyone. Anyone. 

Okay, I digress...what we we talking about again? Just kidding. How this ties into long distance relationships. Right. Okay, so there was a time when we would see each other every three months for, like, three to five days. (I know, long distance can in fact be the worst.) Anytime he would come visit me, I wanted to have the most exciting itinerary planned. But sometime around year three of being together, he said something about it that was really insightful.

"Em, I really don't care what we do. We can do whatever you want. I just want to spend time together."

Wow, okay. You don't care. I guess I won't plan anything then. BECAUSE OUR TIME TOGETHER DOESN'T MATTER TO YOU, I thought.

Once I eliminated that instant alternative narrative, there was such a lesson to be learned in what he said. If a relationship is going to work, it's not about the elaborate dates or how picture perfect something looks. You have to be able to create quality time with someone wherever you are.

That's not to say you can't do nice things together. I'm writing this after we went to a very nice dinner downtown. However, in the past six years, not every moment we've spent together has been Bachelor date worthy. We've been snowed in together for three days with nothing other than a box of spaghetti and tacos. We've had food poisoning. We've had unexpected weekend work assignments. The messy, boring stuff is when you discover if you actually enjoy spending time with the other person.

If you want to know if your long distance relationship is worth it, spend time together the way you would if you were in each other's daily life.

6. Fight constructively.

For nearly the first two years of dating, we never fought. Not once. I mean, what is there to fight about when you are 16 years old?

Of course, we didn't keep that streak up. It probably wouldn't have been healthy to exist without any altercations. I have to say though, I actually like how we fight. Well, scratch that. I like how he fights. I'm still working on the whole patience thing. Anyway, when either one of us are upset, he inhales deeply, mentally takes in the situation, thinks about it for a minute, and then calmly expresses his frustration.

I, on the other hand, am a little more, hmm...vent-y? When I'm upset, I have to just get it all out and express every thought that's running around my brain like a little kid on a sugar high. But he knows that. And I know how he works. We both listen to each other's perspective and like clockwork, come to an understanding and decide how we are going to move forward. Like clockwork. We don't leave things floating around. We solve them on the spot or within the day. We have a rule where we don't hang up the phone or say goodbye until we've solved something.

Understanding how someone behaves at their worst takes time, and not everyone is a creature of habit. That being said, I've learned that there's a lot of power in having some rules, like never saying goodbye or goodnight until a solution is determined, even if it's temporary. The longer something festers, the more your internal narrative takes over and the less reality has a voice.

What I will say with this–and really anything in this piece–is that I'm 23 years old. Life at 23 isn't all that complicated. It's not a walk in the park, nor is any chapter in life, but there's definitely more challenging chapters that bring more difficult conversations. However, I do hope that no matter what comes, in some way those rules stay in place and I think structure like that is beneficial for anyone.

7. Understand that it's not life and death.

Long distance may be a significant choice, but to invest your heart in someone can feel like the biggest deposit of all time. That being said, I think you have to approach love like bungee jumping. When you jump, you don't have a 100% guarantee that the rope won't break but you jump in hopes that the experience will have a positive affect on your life. You know full well you could end up in a very sticky situation, but you jump in spite of that.

When it came to our relationship, we always were cognizant of the if factor, meaning that ending up "together forever" was never a guarantee. We were always aware of the power of time and change. It's not that we don't make plans. I mean, we are going on our second trip to the Caribbean in a few weeks. But we've always been focused on the idea that this is working right now, it's worked for a long time, and hopefully, that'll continue to be the case. If it doesn't, though, that's okay, too. We've had a good run.

Long distance relationships are tricky. You are making the choice that you could see a future with a person and therefore, you're going to commit to making the unconventional work. And let me tell you, it can get expensive. Travel isn't cheap and there's a slew of other inconveniences. Yet you make the choice despite the downsides. However, it's really easy to get stuck on the idea of forever. It's that light at the end of the long distance tunnel. But with anything in life, we don't know what that light looks like until we are there. If we focus on the light, we could miss the greatness that exists in the now.

Any relationship can get frustrating. Long distance relationships have a layer of foundational frustration before anything else can exist on top of it. But until you're making the together forever kind of choices, I've found a lot of enjoyment in appreciating what's working currently.

Think of it like a good television show that you're binge watching. You start watching because it looks like something you'll enjoy. You keep watching it because you continue to enjoy it. If it stops being enjoyable, you have the choice to stop and choose another show (or pick up a new hobby). You also have the choice to make it all the way to the finale. It's a choice and the ability to choose is a gift.

8. Soak in the phases.

A friend of mine has been in a relationship with her boyfriend since high school. They went to different colleges. They had semi-separate lives, but they've made it work and just the way she talks about it emphasizes that you can build a fulfilling relationship on the foundation of long distance.

We were talking a few months ago and she said, "You know, I'm really liking this phase. We aren't in the same place yet. I don't see him everyday. But I like this part."

In six years, we have gone through a lot of phases, and we've done so both together and apart. Either way though, we've been there to remember the other's story. Running for student government. Getting accepted into college. Starting businesses and side hustles. Scoring dream jobs. Moving to unfamiliar places. Dealing with less than fabulous situations. Making less than fabulous choices. Sticking around to rise up from them. You name it, the other has seen it.

Life at 16 is a lot different than life at 23. Whatever phase you want to call each of those chapters, I've liked each and every one of them. We've been in the passenger seat of each other's lives. We've been in the backseat. We've been on opposite highways all together. While our paths have never completely matched up, it's nice having someone around who cares about yours and you, theirs. Whatever the road ahead looks like, I agree, I'm liking this part.

So do long distance relationships work?

Long distance works if you make the conscious choice each and every day to make it work. It's a two person job that has to be split 50/50. If the heart space deposit seems worth it, keep at it. If it doesn't, time for a new chapter. Appreciate the phase you're in and bring your whole self to the table.

Long distance has nothing on two pals who want to make it work. At least, that's what Bobby has taught me.


Featured image via Laura Ivanova.