Long-distance relationships: tips on making them work, from clear communication to planning an endgame
- Experts say rituals like setting a time for when to connect with each other when apart will keep a long-distance relationship strong and healthy
- Couples should also learn to embrace their independence, set up expectations for visits and enjoy individual experiences
The longest distance Matthew Harris and Maya Thompson were ever apart was more than 20 hours in the air – or the amount of time it takes to fly from Chicago in the United States to Sydney, Australia. That was in the beginning of their two-year relationship.
The couple both live in Chicago now, but for months, Harris, 24, and Thompson, 23, were in a long-distance relationship when she was finishing university in California and he was beginning his career in Chicago, and again when she was working temporarily in Sydney.
What happens when there are unexpected roadblocks that force a relationship to become long distance – like a job offer in a new city or someone wanting to move closer to family? All of a sudden, a budding courtship could become rooted in separate places.
When Harris and Thompson began dating in 2017 it was after being friends since they were little kids, so they were comfortable communicating during Thompson’s senior year at Stanford University. Harris was just starting his career in Chicago.
“We just made the decision to be with each other,” Harris says. “At the end of the day, I found myself comparing everybody to her.”
He says he learned a lot about the ways to communicate. He sent flowers; he sent text messages to friends asking them to pick up the bill at dinner, from him. They promised to never go to bed upset, and to see each other about every other month.
Dana Dorfman, a psychotherapist in Manhattan in New York, says couples should develop a ritual about when they connect. “Oftentimes, couples will check in in the morning, check in in the evening,” she says. “Having those predictable check-in points can provide anchors for communication and anchors for the relationship.”
Understand that long-distance visits aren’t real life
In his Los Angeles practice, marriage and family therapist Allen Wagner works with clients who date long distance or who travel often, such as musicians. He says that daters should know that when you’re seeing each other for weekend visits, it isn’t the same as when a couple ultimately, hopefully, is in the same place.
“When they do connect, it’s very intense and well thought out,” he says.
Couples often make plans like they’re touring their own city, and they spend all their time together. “It’s not always going to stay like that,” says Wagner. “It’s kind of like a summer fling. There are going to be times where a person’s going to be upset.”
Dorfman suggests setting up expectations for visits. Maybe one person wants to have a low-key weekend, or wants to get out to exercise. “Otherwise, there could be competing desires and competing expectations that could have been preemptively ironed out,” she says.
Know the next time you’ll see each other
Harris and Thompson scheduled the times they would see each other in advance, usually every other month. Sometimes that meant missing things at work or with friends or family.
And it’s good to set up talking time, too. Consider something like organising FaceTime dates – maybe you cook together, or just know you’ll catch up at that time – so that you both prioritise the time. Or do things at the same time. Thompson and Harris went through a Bible study together.
Soak up the time to be independent
Both Harris and Thompson note some positive parts of being independent. “I think that time alone is beneficial in our relationship, because it allows us to focus on ourselves, develop ourselves,” Harris says. “When we do get together, it’s us.”
Thompson advises other couples about to go the distance that it can be positive, not an obstacle. “It really is a time for you to really be growing,” she says. “It makes you appreciate your partner more, but it also makes you appreciate everything you also bring to the table in a relationship.”
Dorfman says each person having individual lives is critical. “You don’t want the relationship to necessarily detract from the quality of the rest of the life. You want it to enhance.”
Don’t feel bad enjoying individual experiences
Thompson faced this first-hand when she was excited about working in Sydney, but felt bad about being in a new place and having an amazing time.
“It just made it a little difficult for our conversations,” she says. “Sometimes I would not be as open about things.” She didn’t want him to feel like he was missing anything, she says, but ultimately, holding back could create a bigger emotional distance.
Both say they want each other to live their own lives. “You don’t ever want to feel like you’re the reason that your partner is stuck in time,” Thompson says.
After taking time to have their own lives separately, they are now back together in Chicago.
“Having her back, it just feels like my heart is full,” Harris says. “Half of my heart was gone for so long.”