Years ago, I did what many choose not to: I got involved in a long distance relationship. This brilliant, handsome, beguiling man didn’t reside in another city, county, or state—he lived in another country.
My friends thought I was crazy. My mother believed I was setting myself up for heartbreak. My father, I’m certain, was just glad he didn’t have to meet the man. I, however, was doggedly determined to Make It Work, despite the ocean (trust me, it’s not a pond) and most of the continental United States between us. We were, after all, Meant to Be.
Before I made the radical decision to move from my home in Italy to his in San Francisco, we subsisted on the powers of communication and rendezvouses marked in my memory as some of the loveliest and most passionate moments of my life. People marveled at our ability to remain deeply connected regardless of the time difference, the language barrier, and the miles and miles between us. I always argued that we survived and thrived precisely because we were worlds apart. While bittersweet, here are twelve experiences that only those who are engaged in a long-distance relationship can understand:
1. The old adage is true: Absence does make the heart grow fonder.
There are few moments as memorable and sensational than reuniting with your loved one. While a long-distance relationship involves its share of lonely nights and forlorn weekends, being apart fosters a greater appreciation for the time you do have together—and greater appreciation for the one you love. Not seeing your partner on a daily basis makes you miss them in an entirely good way—for when you do, you hold on to them like you’ll never let go.
2. You have the time, space, and energy to focus on your own life.
Let’s face it: Relationships –at least the ones that last—require a not-so-insignificant amount of selflessness. You compromise in myriad ways, from turning down a job promotion that necessitates travel to stay close to them and spending time with his friends instead of yours to taking up golfing when you’d rather be playing tennis. In a long-distance relationship, you often have the opportunity to focus on you—and only you. You can work late hours without feeling that twinge of guilt. You can have a weekend away with your niece without hurting his feelings. You can spend your evenings on your novel. You can embrace your own passions wholeheartedly. And these experiences are all the richer because you know you’ll be wholly, completely you when you do see your partner again.
3. You embrace the magic of the moment.
Long-term domestic partnerships come with a litany of mundane activities that would probably make your younger, freer self cry: Trips to Ikea. Grocery shopping. Picking up her dry-cleaning; pairing his socks. In a long-distance relationship, you learn to plan reunions that rarely involve the routine necessities of daily life. My long-distance boyfriend and I relished what time we had together, and filled nearly every waking hour with romance and adventure. We went rock climbing. We slept under the stars. We talked until two o’clock in the morning in front of a fire while it blazed snow outside. Without the distractions of chores and alarm clocks, we were able to concentrate solely on each other.
4. You learn independence with a capital I.
Friends of mine who have been in committed, domestic relationships have a tendency to forget how to do things on their own—and some have never learned at all. During the years in which I was in a long-distance relationship, I gained a number of lifelong skills that have rewarded me to this day, from changing a flat tire and balancing my checking account to fixing a clogged sink and managing emotional woes on my own. The self-sufficiency I gained led to immense courage and considerable growth. Moreover, those qualities I inadvertently adopted and nurtured while alone have served me well in more way than I can count.
5. You sharpen your communication skills.
I envy modern couples in long-distance relationships. Technology today—from Skype and texting to Whatsapp and Facetime—allows couples who are physically separated to stay closer and better connected than ever. And yet I don’t regret a minute of the time my boyfriend and I spent communicating when we were apart. Since every second on the phone was valuable, we didn’t waste it on small talk or trivial matters. Rather, we spent that time together discovering each other in deep, lasting ways and discussing weighty issues—politics, religion, our pasts, our dreams. Our letters to each other were filled with specific, telling details as we tried to paint for the other an image of our lives across the proverbial pond. Our communication, harkening back centuries, led to a bond that was so much more intimate than the purely physical. It was intensely emotional, mentally provocative, and spiritually satisfying.
6. You learn patience.
Patience had never been one of my virtues. Until I met this man from San Francisco, that is. During our relationship, I learned that not every desire can or should be instantly gratified; that days and hours and sometimes months of waiting come equipped with marvelous rewards. What’s more, anticipation builds, which can often be delicious.
7. You acquire trust.
It takes a leap of faith to trust your non-live-in lover who lives in the same town. Trusting a partner who is three time zones away is another story entirely. But my partner and I, early on, made a commitment to be loyal to each other, no matter how lonely we got. It takes courage to trust someone on that bone-deep level, and yet, if you’re with the right person? It will be wholly natural. Moreover, it will instill in you persistence and faith—which is right up there with patience in terms of lifelong gifts.
8. You realize that geography is just a construct.
If you have a magnetic, unbreakable bond, the distance between you becomes just that—distance. You may be interstate or oceans apart, but narrowing that distance when you can has never been easier. And when you can’t be in each other’s physical presence? You realize you can be in their mental, physical, and spiritual sphere. With this, you start to see the world in a larger, more encompassing and enlightening way. The moon you’re looking at is the very moon that he too is seeing, after all. It’s just a matter of perspective.
9. Your passport becomes brag-worthy.
When possible, my boyfriend would make the fourteen hour trip to meet me in Italy, even if it was only for a week. I had a blast showing him my favorite haunts. When time permitted, I would meet him in San Francisco, where we did everything from taking a tour of Alcatraz to spending a tender, lovely weekend in wine country. Other times we met halfway—or out of the way: New York City. London. Greece. Together, we experienced places and people and cuisines and attractions that few couples have the chance to do in an entire lifetime together. Exhilarating? Oh, yes.
Which brings me to my next point…
10. You get creative.
Each date feels like a first date when you’re in a long-distance relationship. From the outfit you wear to the venue you choose, the hopeful expectation your separation builds also grants you the time and creativity to put real thought into your outings. Gifts also become symbolic and not mere necessities—a painting that brings to mind your first weekend at the ocean together, a necklace that captures the color of her eyes, a book that you loved and want to share with him. Because each interaction is undeniably precious, you put imagination and energy into each gesture and every plan.
11. You choose your battles wisely.
Domestic relationships are often prone to disagreements both large and small, with disputes ranging from household responsibilities to issues as petty as who left the light on in the living room. The boon of a long-distance relationship is that your arguments are few and far between. And when you do have them? They’re based on meatier issues, and are resolved with the thoughtfulness and deliberation that comes with having the time and space alone to think things through.
12. You learn the power and beauty of being comfortable and content alone.
Reflecting back on this time in my life, I realize that my long-distance relationship was, in many ways, a primer for my future when my husband and I decided to separate. When I was with my San Francisco beau, I learned at a relatively young age how to be relaxed and satisfied in my own company. I had no one to please; I had no one else to please—and in that space, I discovered what stimulated me, what disappointed me, what warmed me, what enthralled me. I walked for miles in the woods alone on a regular basis—a hobby I do this day. I found pleasure in dining solo; a special thrill in seeing a play or film by myself. I learned to navigate emotional turmoil alone. Without the diversions and responsibilities of being with someone on a day to day basis, I started to know myself in a way I never had before. And through this, I gleaned what it meant to enjoy and appreciate myself. Which is, of course, the most rewarding experience of all in both life and love.