What’s the key to a successful long distance relationship?
It’s three-for-one day at Father Knows Best Headquarters. Even though you only asked for one key, I’m going to give you a trio.
The first key to a successful long distance relationship: set a date in the reasonably near future by which you and your partner will live in the same city. The second: make sure that both of you are well prepared for when that date comes. And the third: to borrow some language from the 12-Step tradition, make a searching and fearless inventory of the reasons that you and your partner are living apart.
Let’s spend some time with each.
Key One. Get your full-time reunion circled on your calendar. A long distance relationship is a bit like climbing a mountain up to where the oxygen is thin, up into what mountaineers call the “death zone” — you can stay there for a while, but you can’t live there in the long run. Two years is about the longest that I have seen a relationship survive in the death zone of long distance. Actually, let me amend that and say that two years is the longest that I have seen a long distance relationship thrive. I have had friends who staggered on for five or more years with their partner living in another city, but nobody involved was anywhere near happy. It would have been a mercy to let the relationship die.
Setting a date for your permanent reunion also allows you and your partner to engage in a little optimism, to count down the months and then the weeks and then the days until you will be back together. There is something hugely draining about saying, “I have no idea when this will end.” Whereas there is some real energy in being able to say, “We’re halfway there.”
Key Two. Make a plan for what it’s going to be like when the two of you are back together full time. I asked my friend Mark, who spent two years living across the country from his wife when she was in Grad School, to share a little about their reunion. This is what he had to say:
“Our two years of long distance were fun in some ways. My wife and I learned to live on our own again, and we made the most of it. It was the return to married living that was really hard. The commitment and daily sacrifices of marriage hit us hard upon our reunion. I wouldn’t ever do it again. When you get back together, you need to be really ready to exercise your forgiveness muscle, your curiosity muscle, and to schedule time together to reconnect and communicate again.”
What Mark’s experience makes clear is that being in the same town again after a year or more apart is to enter into major renegotiation of what your life looks like and of what your partner’s life looks like. It is a lot of hard work. If you want your relationship to be a success, Andy, you and your partner need to be prepared to do that work.
Key Three. Do some serious investigation into why the two of you are living in different cities. Ask yourself why you are apart, ask your partner, ask friends who love you enough to speak to you in an unvarnished way, ask God. Maybe after that investigation, you will come back to the explanation that you have now — maybe, like Mark, you have a fabulous job that is keeping you in City A while your partner has the opportunity to go to a fabulous Grad School in City B — and that’s just fine. But be open to the difficult possibility that your investigation is going to reveal something else.
I’ve known a number of couples who told themselves that they were moving apart for school or work or whatever. But after a year or two, they realized that they had really moved apart because they didn’t want to be together. It would have hurt a whole lot less for them to name that reality in the early going.
I guess I include this third key, Andy, because sometimes a successful relationship isn’t one that lasts forever. Sometimes a successful relationship is one in which you and your partner bring joy to one another, in which you learn from one another, and in which you then make the hard and sad and necessary decision to depart from one another.
Give all three of those keys a try, Andy. Maybe one of them will open the door by itself, maybe you will need all of them. Either way, it’s my prayer that the door will be opened for you and your partner, that the two of you will find the kind of success that you want and that you need.
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