Monday, January 19, 2015
Expat Talk: Surviving a Long-Distance Relationship
How many of you have been in a long-distance relationship (or "LDR", as it's been cringe-worthily renamed)? It doesn't matter if your love transcends state lines, county lines, or international date lines - long distance relationships are hard.
That's it. Just hard.
I haven't talked much about my own long-distance relationship here (even though I talk a lot about my long-distance relationship with my family back in the States). That's mostly because it seems ... well, so far behind me in the past. In fact, as I write this, we celebrate 10 years (10 years!) of being together today.
And yet, it is so much a definition of who I am; of who we are as a couple. Our long-distance relationship, while in the past, continues to influence and shape our future. It's impossible to ignore.
During a recent visit to my childhood home, I went through my boxes and drawers of all my old stuff (as you do). Photographs, ticket stubs, trinkets, and letters all came tumbling out. And then I found these: held together by a thick rubberband, a stack of all-too-familiar-looking train tickets measuring at least two, if not three, inches thick, their orange borders identical to the ones still issued today.
Back then, we were separated only by countries - me in York, studying for an MA, John in Paris, building his career at an international technology company. But even then, I could remember precisely what it felt like to stand at the platform edge at York as his train slowly pulled away from me. I often felt a rising panic; one that would catch at the back of my throat and threaten to overwhelm me if I didn't turn away and head for the bus stop immediately. Or, the reverse: getting on a GNER train (remember those?) at the old King's Cross (remember that?) - a miserable, gritty, canker sore of a train station, with pigeons threatening to shit on your head while you stood with your mouth agape at the departure board and a ring of commuters who stared ahead at the bleak entrance before them, waiting for their trains to be called.
I hated it.
But before that, we'd been separated by an ocean, with me in Massachusetts finishing up my degree and John in Oxford and London, completing his MSc. Which was worse. A lot worse. Back then, I'd run to my college mailbox, excited by the promise of a postcard or letter postmarked "Oxford" or "London" or "Leicester" - and it would never disappoint. Back then, I'd use up all the money I earned during my campus job as a college admissions fellow on phone cards. That mechanic, faux-cheerful voice telling me, "You have (pause) fifty (pause) cents remaining on your card. Please enter your credit card information if you wish to continue this call."
Back then, Skype was very new. Hardly anyone had heard of it before. A friend of a friend of a friend had told John about it and we decided to give it a try.
It was a game-changer.
Over the next few months, we scheduled "movie dates" (complete with popcorn and M&Ms), where we'd pop a DVD in at the same time and keep Skype on so we could chat throughout. We'd keep Skype on all night so we could "sleep" next to each other; our hearts breaking as the connection broke.
"That is, like, so sweet," someone remarked when I told this to them.
No, it fucking wasn't, I wanted to say. It was necessity. That craving for normalcy? That need for open and constant communication as much and as frequently as possible? It wasn't "sweet".
It was a matter of survival.
On my 22nd birthday, John bought me a ticket and I flew from Boston to London for the weekend - Udita drove me to the airport at 3:30 a.m. (and she had a Neuroscience exam at 7:00 a.m. What a friend, eh?). I arrived feeling excited, breathless, nervous, and emotional. The immigration official asked me what I was doing in London and I answered: "To visit my boyfriend, who lives here." Even she was taken by our long-distance love story, remarking on how "romantic" it was that I was there for a flying visit and wishing us well.
But as my whirlwind trip came to a close and we skated around Somerset House one last time (the tickets were a surprise from John), one memory sticks out in my mind more than any other - one that I've never shared with anyone before.
We were in the bedroom of the house he shared with some of his brother's friends in Stoke Newington. The sky was nearly dark and the branches outside his window were withered, brittle, and frail. My plane left the next morning. John had just given me a diamond necklace (which I would never take off, but later lose, only to have it replaced) and I burst into tears. I suddenly felt that gripping panic that had taken hold of me so many times before. I couldn't see how this could possibly work. I gulped for air as he grasped my hands.
"Look at me," he'd said. "Look at my face. You'll watch this face grow old and wrinkly. I promise. Okay?" And I knew then that I would. Because I believed him.
I think belief - self-belief, collective belief - is the key to surviving a long-distance relationship. The doubts that settle in our minds like gremlins gnash their teeth into our consciousness, diminishing and defeating belief like vapors being blown away. I think back to the times we argued, cried, or talked about ending things - and they were all instances of diminished belief, when we couldn't see an end to our long-distance situation.
Of course, practicalities are everything. Belief can't stand on its own if you have no concrete plans (or attempts at plans) to be together at some stage. Timelines are helpful. Planning visits during a visit is helpful. But at the bottom of it, belief (even if it's sometimes false), can carry you through - for just long enough.
Have you been in a long-distance relationship? Are you in one now? How are you dealing with it? I'd love to know. And if you're struggling through a long-distance relationship at the moment, hang in there!