In March 2020, during the pandemic, my boyfriend and I decided to quarantine separately after three years of dating. I thought it might take a couple of months. In reality, we ended up long-distance dating for almost a full year.
Although it wasn’t what I would have chosen for myself, I am actually thankful that we got to date long-distance. It taught me some amazing lessons and it strengthened my relationship with my boyfriend.
If you have also found yourself in a long-distance relationship, I hope you can see it isn’t all bad. Here are 10 things that I learned while dating long-distance that you can steal for yourself.
1. Long-distance is a clarifier.
Distance introduces space into the relationship that can be very revealing.
It will either make you miss them or it will show you how much you don’t miss them.
It will either make you feel more secure in the relationship or it will make you feel more insecure than ever.
Distance is a helpful hurdle that will reveal how much the relationship is worth to you.
2. Your relationship will look different in different seasons.
At first, I was afraid that distance would change our relationship. Do you know what? It did.
But it isn’t a bad thing.
Going long-distance pushed us to explore parts of our relationship that we might not have before.
We talked more about money, our childhoods, our families, and our weird pet peeves.
Looking back, I can see how our relationship morphed through different seasons. There was a season where we worked together. There was a phase where we consistently went to the pool together to swim laps. There was the beginning part of the relationship where we were trying to move from friends to dating.
Each season introduced a new routine, new inside jokes, new memories, and new conversations.
I realized that I could look at going long-distance in a similar way. I could approach it as a phase that would give us new experiences and jokes and lessons in our shared memory bank.
I didn’t want to become bitter or whiney about the circumstances. Thinking about what the season could give us, rather than what it was taking away from us, helped me stay in a positive headspace.
A long-term relationship will inevitably change because people change. The sooner you can get used to evolutions in your relationship as you continue to grow alongside your partner, the more secure you will feel.
3. Constriction can be great for your communication.
Time is precious when you date long-distance. Instead of letting an issue drag on for days, long-distance can force you to discuss it clearly and quickly.
Your partner can’t see you. They can’t pick up on the subtle hints that you might be upset. You can’t assume they know what is bothering you because they aren’t around.
I learned to bring up issues quickly. The benefit of doing this long-distance is that it gave me time, by myself, to consider what I would say before we talked. I thought through potential solutions to discuss during the conversation. I showed up more calmly to the conversation because I had time to process it beforehand.
Space also helped me consider whether I was upset about a real problem or whether I just needed to go to bed early.
The result was more focused conversations that offered real clarity. We solved problems quickly because phone calls can only last so long. I also wanted to use the precious time we did have for fun, happy conversations instead of arguing or complaining.
4. You need to develop a high degree of trust in your partner.
One of the most helpful relationship books I’ve ever read is The Science of Trust by John Gottman. In it, he describes how couples can build trust with each other by choosing to accept their “bids for connection” in small, everyday moments.
There are many, many such moments in a relationship. At each of them there is a tiny turning point — an opportunity, or a lost opportunity for connection. Failing to turn toward our partner in any one of these sliding-door moments may not have hugely negative consequences. However, when we add up many such choices to dismiss emotion instead of attuning to it, the result is two different trajectories leading to very different universes. (pg. 197)
In my long-distance relationship, I consciously looked for times when my boyfriend might have been holding out an opportunity for connection. Some examples:
- Telling me all the highlights of the soccer game with enthusiasm.
- Calling me every time he went to the grocery store, even if there was no news to share.
- Asking me to play games online with him.
I don’t love soccer. I didn’t always want to play online games. I could have asked him not to call me every time he went to the grocery store. Instead, though, I seized the opportunity to build our relationship up in those small moments.
Of course, I did this because I love hanging out with him but also because, in a long-distance relationship, there are fewer organic ways to build up that trust and connection.
These frequent sliding-door moments serve as small “trust tests.” They are moments of choice when the partner directly or indirectly asks for something. We call that a “bid for connection” — and the choice is made to turn toward, away or against that bid. . . In many, many of these moments the trust metric is subjectively evaluated — often without our awareness — and cumulatively, over time, we decide whether we can count on our partner to be truthful and truly “there for us.” (pg. 197)
Since you don’t always see your partner in day-to-day life in a long-distance relationship, building up trust is important.
If I didn’t trust my boyfriend, our conversations would have been consumed by interrogation or suspicion. Instead, I chose to focus on creating a strong foundation of trust between us by saying yes to almost every opportunity to connect.
5. There will be dull days with nothing to talk about.
At first, I expected us to have amazing, in-depth conversations every single time we talked.
But some days are just boring. One or both of you will be tired or distracted once in a while. Having days with nothing to talk about doesn’t mean that your relationship is doing poorly.
If you have nothing to talk about every time you call, then of course it might be worth re-evaluating the relationship. But if you are experiencing a handful of dull days here and there, it’s okay. You are both humans. You aren’t content machines trying to entertain each other every day.
Sometimes the conversations between my boyfriend and I are less than five minutes. You don’t have to talk for three hours every single day for your long-distance relationship to be strong.
6. You won’t make shared memories the same way you would in person.
This has been one of the toughest parts of long-distance dating for me.
Memories are often born organically when you do projects, go out to eat, hang out with friends, or work together in person. When you date long-distance, your memory-making options dwindle. Conversations are essentially all you have to develop closeness and memories in this time.
Here are a few ways we get around this:
- Instead of making shared memories now, ask each other about past memories. It is fun to reminisce or learn more about your partner’s memories of going to school or the sports they used to play or embarrassing moments that happened to them.
- Think of a few open-ended questions to ask them that could lead to an interesting discussion. If almost all of your intimacy is going to be developed through conversation, take advantage of that by asking open-ended or “would you rather” questions instead of always trying to talk about your day.
- Call each other while you are doing something. My boyfriend always called me when he went to the grocery store. It felt a little bit like I was there with him as he looked through the aisles and went through the checkout.
- Send them surprises. I sent my boyfriend a surprise pizza for his birthday. He secretly bought and sent me some sweatshirts. It was fun to get these presents on our doorsteps and it fostered a sense of closeness with each other.
7. You may develop a healthier dependence on your partner.
I went to therapy last summer because I was struggling with anxiety. My boyfriend always listened thoughtfully and offered support when he could over the phone.
After a while, though, I realized that I needed to get external help to deal with the anxiety. I didn’t want to expect my boyfriend to be my therapist.
If you or your partner is having a bad day, you can only do so much to fix it long-distance. Rather than relying on the other person to help, you are forced to self-soothe. Your partner can encourage you, but you have to figure things out on your own.
It is obviously good to support your partner. It is good to be vulnerable with them and share what is bothering you. However, in a romantic relationship, there can sometimes be a tendency to rely too heavily on the other person as emotional support and neglect learning how to emotionally support yourself.
In a Psychology Today article, Leon F. Seltzer, Ph.D. writes:
I’ve worked with many couples in which the emotionally needy partner literally wore down the other through repeated requests for reassurance that they were loved, cared about, and that their partner really wanted to spend their spare time — sometimes all their spare time — with them.
On their own, they couldn’t erase their chronic self-doubts, so they truly felt compelled to lean on their partner for reassurance. Not only did this behavior eventually lead their partner to become increasingly impatient and annoyed with them, it also made their partner feel inadequate in their efforts to provide them with the succor they continually asked for.
His solution to the problem?
Ultimately, however, it’s we ourselves who must repair, from within, whatever has been broken or failed to develop properly. For if we were wounded as a child, it’s up to us, as the adult we are today, to heal that child — who still lives and breathes (and silently trembles or cries) within us. And our partner, however well-meaning, has nowhere near as much access to this “inner child” as (at least potentially) we do.
It’s therefore up to us to learn how, independently, to comfort and reassure that emotionally unstable, nervous, or self-doubting child.
During this long-distance year, I branched out and discovered new parts of myself that I might not have if I always had the option to be with my boyfriend. We developed ourselves alongside our relationship rather than losing ourselves in each other.
Long-distance helped me. It gave me space and time to invest in myself. I went to therapy, planted an herb garden, got a new job and wrote a lot. The more I took care of myself, the better our relationship got.
If you are feeling frustrated with the constraints that distance is putting on you, I encourage you to look at the opportunities this time is giving you to invest in yourself. The healthier you are, the healthier your relationships will become.
Taking care of yourself is a service to your partner.
8. Laughing together is essential.
Just laugh together. Send memes and videos. Share funny stories. Tease good-naturedly. Try to inject joy into the other person’s day, even though you are far away.
This is important because you want to associate your relationship with good things. You want to build up a safe, joyful space with this other person. Make the relationship a haven where both of you feel comfortable and happy.
Prioritize laughing together.
9. Don’t compare your relationship to people who aren’t dating long-distance.
I would extend this one to say don’t compare your relationship to other people’s in general. However, I desperately ask you to avoid looking at couples who are together in-person and then feel jealous or sad or inadequate because that isn’t your reality right now.
This can happen when you scroll social media. It can happen as you talk to friends and family. You might see a couple together doing something sweet and then fall down a vortex of feeling sad because you don’t have as many opportunities to connect as other people and wonder if maybe your relationship is suffering for it.
I found myself drifting into this type of thinking at times. It wasn’t helpful at all.
What did help:
- Locking my attention onto the relationship I had.
- Thinking about ways I could show love to my boyfriend despite the distance.
- Thinking about what I appreciated about my boyfriend and our relationship.
If you find yourself drifting into comparison-land, hit the brakes. Create some boundaries with yourself and stay focused on the realities of the relationship you do have.
If you are in a long-distance relationship right now, I have two things to say:
- It sucks.
- It can also be good.
You want to be with your person. The distance is annoying and you will have many moments of frustration or even sadness. It’s okay to cry it out and vent sometimes because it is natural to miss your significant other. However, if the relationship is strong, long-distance can give you opportunities to strengthen it.
When I focused on how much I hated the distance, I got more miserable as a person and as a girlfriend. When I focused on creative ways to learn and grow and develop the relationship within these restrictions, I was far more positive and happy overall.
Who knows? You might look back on it someday and miss parts of it.
This article was brought to you by PS I Love You. Relationships Now.