The Curse of the Long Distance Relationship

This originally appeared in BCN issue 66, March 2004.

Tonight as I lie on my bed and tap the lonely hours away on my laptop I am missing people a lot. The winter wind whistles around the house and through the window I can see the inviting lights of old London town sparkling in the distance, but I am alone with no warm body to snuggle up to. ‘How did this state of affairs come to be?’ you might well ask. Surely M is poly ethical slut type with more partners than she can shake a stick (or similar implement) at? This is indeed the case, but despite my multiple partner set-up I have spent the majority of the last two years, since becoming poly, on my own. First I lived out in the middle of nowhere whilst many of my partners lived in London or beyond. Now I have moved to the big smoke, but my main girlfriend, George, lives down on the South coast and my main boyfriend, Timmy, even further away across the sea in Sweden. As I lie here facing another night with neither of my major squeezes to keep me company I have to ask myself: am I suffering the curse of the long distance relationship?

The down side of long distance relationships (or LDRs as we afflicted call them) are obvious. It’s tough when the people you love can’t be at your side to support you whenever you need them. It hurts when all your time together is limited and you have to undergo regular tearful goodbyes at railway stations. Visits can feel very pressured when you know you only have a week together and then you won’t see each other for another two or three months. And conflicts and breakdowns in communication can be more difficult to avoid when you’re keeping in touch over email or phone rather than in person.

But believe it or not there are benefits to the LDR way of doing things. It does help to keep another acronym alive: NRE (new relationship energy). I met Timmy a year ago on LiveJournal and we spent several months getting to know each other over increasingly flirtatious emails. By the time we actually met, the sexual tension between us was high. We maintained the pretence that we were just meeting as friends as we wandered around Tate Modern: me sneakily checking him out in a mirrored sculpture, him standing right behind me in the dark of a video exhibit so I could feel his breath on the back of my neck. When I finally grabbed him on the millennium bridge we had ensured that our first kiss was one of the most erotic moments of either of our lives. And having a week together only every other month means that this level excitement has hardly diminished. I still get major butterflies every time I meet him from the station, spending the days leading up to it imagining the tiniest details of that initial touch. The first sex each time is a fantastic combination of the excitement and unfamiliarity of somebody new and the comfort and surety of a regular lover.

With George I get a long weekend every fortnight or so. Again the distance means that our sex life remains tremendously exciting, with all the time in between to plan what we are going to do the next and exchange suggestive text-messages on the subject. We also make the most of our time in other ways by protecting it and making sure we’ve got our work out of the way and can do all the things we both enjoy when we finally do get together. We arrange dates and picnics, we book to go away on weekend breaks: all the things that easily fall by the wayside when you’re living with somebody and seeing them every day.

A final benefit with LDRs is that they ensure that you get plenty of time apart to reflect on the relationship. In the past I’ve found it easy to get over-dependent on people: moving in with them too early and failing to build in space once I have. With LDRs I get plenty of time on my own, I don’t fall into the common trap of starting to neglect my other friends, and I can take in between time to think about how the relationships are going in a way that I rarely did when I saw somebody every day, to make sure that we’re aware of any problems and nip them in the bud.

All of which leads us to the skills for the successful management of the LDR. The first one is common to most relationships but becomes vital when the one you love is miles away: Communicate. Communicate. Communicate. People have different preferred methods of communication (email, letter, phone, text, internet chat). I would personally suggest a combination of these. It is good to know that you can get hold of somebody quickly if you really need them. Knowing that they have a mobile phone on or that they’ll check their text/email every night is a good way of getting this sense of security. Long love letters through the post or over email are a great way to continue feeling special. Live Journal and text messages are a good way to keep feeling part of each other’s day-to-day life even though you’re not there. And sometimes you need to communicate directly. Even if you aren’t really a phone person I would suggest trying because it’s hard to go for weeks without hearing somebody’s voice. Timmy wasn’t sure at first, but now we have a marathon hour-long phone chat once a week.

Communicate about communication! Let the other person know how regularly you would like to communicate and what methods you favour. If problems do come up between you, use the strengths of the LDR to your benefit. If you’re unhappy with something they say or do, take some time to consider what you want to say about it since you have so much time available. Don’t just snap back an angry email. Often it can be helpful to write a letter that you don’t send, expressing all your feelings, then when you are calmer rewrite it ensuring that you really try to understand where they are coming from and show that you are recognising that. Own your feelings (‘I felt upset/angry when you said…’) and give a clear message about how you’d like things to be in future (‘…and what I’d like is…’) Try to nip problems in the bud and communicate openly from the start because it does become very easy in LDRs to let things fester. Remember that miscommunication can happen when you can’t see each other’s body language or reassure each other with physical contact. Try not to leap to conclusions when there might actually be several ways of reading what somebody has said.

As I said before, it is easy in LDRs for time together to feel pressured. When I know I only have a few days with George or Timmy negative feelings can be exaggerated if anything doesn’t go according to plan or we have a disagreement. It’s important to remember that it isn’t the end of the world if one day isn’t perfect. I’ve found that the few times we have had a difficult conversation or one of us has become upset, it has actually been very good for the relationship and left it feeling stronger. Difficult times are often like that and it’s worth remembering this and trying to embrace them rather than avoiding them or feeling that they have tainted your whole time together.

I think it’s also important to be very clear at the end of seeing each other exactly when your next visit is. One of the shakiest things in an LDR can be uncertainty about when you will next communicate or get together. If one of you does have to change plans, try to give as much notice as possible and recognise that the other person might find it difficult. When you do meet again after a while apart you might well find that you need to spend some time reconnecting before you’re as comfortable together as you usually are. Try not to book lots of social things on the first day together. Instead give yourself plenty of relaxed time just the two of you doing things you both enjoy.

Finally comes the question of what to do about your sexual needs in between seeing each other. Obviously the rules about how open the relationship will be differ between people, but even if, like me, you do have other lovers you will probably miss being sexual with each other. Again, I’d suggest building on the strengths of the LDR. The fact that you’re not in the same place does not mean that you can’t have great sex. Phone sex can be incredibly erotic. Talk each other through what you’re doing to yourself or what you’d like to be doing to them. Text the other person directions about what you’d like them to do to themselves and get them to report back. Use the relative safety of written communication to write about your deepest fantasies. This will all make your sex life even more spicy when you do finally get together.

And of course there is always the possibility that an LDR will become a close proximity relationship. I certainly hope that George and I will be living in the same city (and hopefully the same house) by the end of the year. And I’m aware that this will bring a whole different range of benefits and potential problems which you will probably hear about then! Timmy and I are likely to be long distance for the long term. As long as a decade in fact, while his kids grow up. But I’m optimistic for the prospects as long as we continue to express our needs and communicate.

For now, one invaluable and highly recommended aid to our LDRs has been my Scholl back-massager from John Bell and Croydon. On nights like this its warm – ahem – vibrations can ease my loneliness in more ways than one until I next get my hands on G&T.