When I came to Rome in June 2001 for a four-week intensive Italian language course, the last thing I had on my mind was meeting my future husband.
I was in a relationship and planning to move in with him upon my return from Italy. I was quitting my job in the States so I could move on to greener pastures in my chosen career. The Italian trip was, admittedly, to “find myself” at age 24, and it was also precisely in that mission that a new love had absolutely no place. This was all about me and living out my truth from the very core of my existence.
And yet—I met my future boyfriend, husband, and ex-husband, all on that first day in the Eternal City. He was the cousin of the only person I knew in Italy. Thus was born the most dramatic, meaningful, and impactful relationship of my life, which for its first six months was lived completely long distance.
It has been 15 years since then, and I still remember the acute, raw, visceral emotions that accompanied those six months. There are benefits underlying the difficulties inherent in long-distance love. Its unique challenges helped to shape my growth as an individual. I continue to draw on the skills I acquired then, when I was forced to cope with the struggles of a long-distance love.
1 | Learn to manage expectations and appreciate quality over quantity.
After I came back to the States from Italy, I moved in with my parents so I could save up money to get back to Rome. I had a college degree, knew no one in my parents’ town, and had no local activities or hobbies to speak of. It was simply about working my butt off to earn money as fast as possible.
In the space between, all I could think about was getting back to Italy and the man I loved. I spent interminable hours in front of the computer, typing out detailed summaries of my daily life, my thoughts, my gut-wrenching misery in being so far away, and my desire to make time speed up.
Most days, I was lucky to get back only a sentence or two in response.
That’s all? I would think, with anger and resentment. You don’t care about me, or us, as much as I do.
And yet what I realized is that for my beloved, a sentence or two was all he could manage in his life at that time, given the circumstances of his world. For him, that sentence or two had the same sentimental worth and intention as my pages of lamenting.
In 2001 we didn’t have Facebook or Skype—so we’re talking about the digital dark ages in terms of long-distance love. The key concept here has remained the same over time: just because your partner doesn’t express themselves in the same way as you do across the miles, doesn’t mean that they don’t feel as intensely as you do, or they aren’t as committed as you are to making things work.
Long-distance love lacks the day-to-day routine that most couples take for granted, so all exchanges become more poignant, more intense. But don’t get hung up on measuring quantity over quality. Learning how your partner’s communication style differs from yours and how to manage your expectations around that is an essential foundation for future success, and long-distance love is the proving ground.
2 | Experience the benefits of not rushing.
Long-distance love forces you to take things slow, because you don’t have daily physical proximity. While this can be frustrating, it can also be quite a blessing in disguise.
Recognize that the distance and the time spent apart are forcing both of you to spend more time articulating who you are and sharing yourselves in ways that, by definition, have to be more creative than what most people experience in their intimate relationships. These barriers and restrictions can also force you to make more of an effort to show your love, commitment, and true self than many traditional couples are called to make. That being the case, oftentimes, long-distance lovers develop a type of intimacy that creates a particularly strong bond. Cherish this, enhance it, and embrace it.
3 | Put into practice the old adage of “where there’s a will, there’s a way.”
Long-distance love presents a central challenge to what constitutes a traditional relationship: one person lives in one place and the other lives in the another place. Sooner or later most people aim to bridge that gap, with one moving to the other’s location, or both moving to be together in an entirely new place. The point is that if a couple wants to transition out of long-distance love, they are forced to make a commitment that involves a major life decision: an entire uprooting of one or both lives.
Not only does this type of challenge force you to truly examine how strong your relationship is and how determined you both are to live it out on a daily basis in the same physical location, it also forges a sort of hard-headed attitude in the face of adversity.
In my case, I couldn’t be together with my boyfriend in the same physical location unless I moved to Rome, for a series of reasons. That was actually perfect by me, since I was ready to make that sort of leap. But it presented both of us with a laundry list of challenges that really tested the strength of our bond.
As they say, what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger; the strength forged through long-distance challenges is something you’ll both be able to draw upon in your future together.
4 | Not having control means you must learn trust-building skills and use them.
While this sentiment is true in all relationships, it becomes more evident in long-distance partnerships because you don’t get to physically see your partner every day. None of us has control over love, but trust can feel even more precarious when we see and hear from a distance about all the things our partner is doing far away and without us. Paradoxically, this inability to “be there” forces us to muster all of our trust and have faith that the relationship is solid despite the distance.
On the flip side, long-distance relationships tend to highlight trust issues more intensely than ones where both partners can spend time together in person regularly. That will bring out a lot of neuroses in some people, and force others to examine how comfortable they are really putting their money where their mouth is when they say, “I trust you.”
Long-distance love forces you to ask yourself on a continual basis where you stand in terms of your boundaries, expectations, and ultimately what you hope for in the relationship. Learning to let go of trying to control things and simply trust when there’s no reason not to is a core component of long-distance love, and a key life skill for all of us who want to live life to the fullest.
5 | Long-distance love ultimately requires a couple to have a shared plan.
The challenge of distance puts a couple in front of a choice: where do we go from here? It requires pulling out some key skills necessary in any relationship, namely sacrifice, communication, compatibility, and willingness to work as a team. No two people have the same timelines. Respect for this fact becomes even more pressing when distance stands between daily in-person interaction. Are you going to move in together? Will one person move but maintain an independent life until you can decide whether or not your relationship will be successful even when distance is no longer an issue? Will there be resentment because one person feels they’re being forced to sacrifice more than the other person?
These are all decisions that require a couple to work as a solid team, to have a shared plan. When two people are on the same page, they can go anywhere together—even across oceans. Patience, trust, kindness, respect, and mutual consideration: a long-distance love calls on both partners to bring even bigger doses of these key relationship components. In an ideal world, the unique challenges of long-distance love can make each individual in the partnership stronger and more whole as they move through their lives.