Michele Weiner-Davis, MSW, licensed clinical social worker, marriage and family therapist, Boulder, Colorado, and author of Getting Through to the Man You Love: The No-Nonsense, No-Nagging Guide for Women. DivorceBusting.com
Bottom Line: 9 rules for love-at-a-distance success
Peter and Sue faced a dilemma. They were happily married and living in Vermont with their three school-age sons. But Peter lost his job and couldn’t find another good one in the area. He got a good offer 300 miles away and wanted to move the family—but Sue didn’t want to uproot the children. Reluctantly, Peter and Sue decided he would take the job, and they would try living apart.
After Janet and Thomas’s children left their California home for college, Janet was offered a great new position in Hawaii—and the couple jumped at the chance to try island living. But when their daughter, a college freshman, started to struggle with depression and took a leave from college, Thomas went back to California to lend her support and wound up staying for nine months.
Stories such as these are increasingly common. Many involve marriages where one spouse must relocate for a work assignment…to pursue education or training…or simply out of necessity to support the family.
Long-distance relationships have huge challenges, of course. But if you approach yours with the right attitude, tactics and plans, it can not only work well—you also can emerge with a stronger relationship. Here’s how…
For many couples, it’s really true, as the adage goes, that absence makes the heart grow fonder. Often, spouses who live far apart discover anew just how much they love each other—and become less likely to take each other for granted. When they connect on the phone or online, they share feelings of longing for each other more openly than ever before. When they are physically together, they find that instead of being irritated by each other’s annoying habits, they focus on each other’s strengths. Plus, having separate lives adds a bit of mystery, making sex, albeit rarer, more exciting.
But living apart also can be overwhelming—and intensely lonely. There’s no one there to bring you a cup of coffee or rub your tense shoulders. And when finances or schedules prohibit frequent in-person visits, a couple’s sex life can pass from the rare-and-exciting stage into a that-was-history stage.
So you’ll have to work a little harder to make it work out well. What’s that entail? Successful long-distance couples tend to do all or most of the following…
Make living apart a joint decision. Since good long-distance relationships require on-going collaboration, it’s much better if both partners are on board from the start. Unilateral choices usually lead to resentment, anger—and sometimes worse. If one partner is extremely reticent about living apart, acknowledge the validity of this concern. Even if you don’t agree with or even understand your partner’s reservations, try to put yourself in the other person’s shoes. Rather than debate who’s right and who’s wrong, try brainstorming creative ideas for tackling your differences. To work, this must be a win-win situation.
Be clear about expectations. Make sure that you have many open conversations about the nitty-gritty such as the intended duration of the separation, frequency of in-person visits, logistics of who visits whom, preferred methods for staying in contact and the best times to connect. Each couple is different—some enjoy having frequent contact throughout the day, while others find that distracting and invasive. The more you talk about these details beforehand, the smoother the experience will go. And if you’re already in a long-distance relationship and you never had these conversations, it’s never too late!
Anxiety about fidelity can be more of an issue when there’s literal distance between you—it’s human nature. Jealousy can be an issue, too. When you live apart, you will need to have a great deal of trust in your partner. Even if you think that you are on the same page regarding your expectations about monogamy and what constitutes betrayal, make sure that you have explicit conversations. Lay down ground rules about what is and isn’t acceptable to both of you. For example, few couples would have a problem if one partner had drinks with co-workers at a bar, but what about a non-business dinner with just one attractive coworker? What about a new “friend” with whom you play tennis…go to movies…or even have dinner with at home? Talk about such possibilities when they are exactly that—possibilities.
Communicate often. Be intentional about arranging frequent contact to discuss matters both big and small. If one person’s need to communicate is greater than the other person’s, compromise so that both partners’ needs are honored.
Be flirty with each other. Just because you are miles apart doesn’t mean that you can’t turn up the heat in your relationship—and heat is a tie that binds. Try spicy text messages…and try talking on the phone about what you’d like to be doing if you were together. And when you are together, make sure that you make time to make love.
Don’t overworry if every contact doesn’t go well. Although distance might make you feel pressured to make every conversation with each other wrinkle-free, that’s an unrealistic expectation. For starters, all relationships have hills and valleys. Plus, when texts, phone calls and even video chats are the primary means of communication, meaning easily can be misconstrued. After an unpleasant exchange, take some time to calm down, and then nudge yourself to extend an olive branch as soon as possible.
Send photos. Whether it’s the sights you discovered while touring a new city, silly selfies, the gourmet breakfast you made for yourself or the friends you encountered on your morning walk, sharing your experiences through photos is a powerful way to stay connected.
Visit as often as finances or schedules will allow. Even if your time apart goes without a hitch, it’s still important to be together to touch, engage in mutually enjoyable activities, handle mundane tasks as a team and remind yourselves how nice it is to be part of each other’s daily lives.
Monitor the plan. It’s important to regularly assess how well the new arrangement is working—for both of you. Identify and discuss what lets you feel comfortable with the separation…and the unsettling parts that need addressing. Discuss what each of you might do differently to feel more at ease with the distance.
In the end, the quality of a relationship is about much more than physical proximity. The truth is, many unhappy couples say that their loneliest moments are the ones spent with their partners. And many long-distance couples find that the experience strengthens their bonds. But it doesn’t happen automatically. Whether you’re living under the same roof or thousands of miles apart, relationship happiness takes commitment…sensitivity to your partner’s desires…and yes, work.
When parents decide to live apart, it can challenge both—the away parent can feel left out while the at-home parent feels overwhelmed. And when a parent feels stressed out, there is a ripple effect throughout the family. Plus, simply put, kids miss the away parent. Tips for co-parenting when one of you is far away…
Discuss which types of child-related decisions must be made mutually. It’s only practical for the at-home parent to make many daily decisions—but discuss with your spouse what sorts of decisions should be joint ones and then be sure to honor that understanding.
Present yourselves as a team. It’s always important for parents to back each other up, but now it’s more so. Don’t let your kids pit you against each other.
If you’re the away parent, stay connected. Talk, text, video-chat with your children—whatever age they are. Adult children often require as much guidance and emotional support as their younger siblings!
Visit as often as your schedule will allow. Even if you and your spouse are content with seeing each other fairly infrequently, the away parent should make spending time with the children—not to mention, grandchildren—a priority. No matter how far away you might live, they need to feel your presence.