Notes on long distance relationships

One aspect of life in academia is that it is surprisingly common for couples to suffer from the “two body problem”. This play on the Three Body Problem of classical mechanics occurs when the generally tough academic job market forces a couple to live in separate cities and often separate countries, sometimes for their entire career.

I don’t have any particularly deep wisdom in this regard, but my wife Christine and I spent most of our engagement apart while she wintered over in Antarctica in 2016. While spending something like 340 of the 380 days of our engagement apart might seem like romantic suicide, we weren’t going to begin our life together by sacrificing dreams and long-planned exercises in awesomeness. So we endeavored to manage the challenges and mostly succeeded.


(Image: SPT by Christine Moran)

Before Christine set off, I polled a number of friends who had endured similar circumstances and took careful note of their advice. Since Christine returned, a few people have asked me for hints and I’ve been happy to talk. Here, I collate the output of a few different emails and conversations in the hope that someone else may find it useful in the future.

  • Try to set reasonable expectations. That is, expect that it’s going to really suck. Which it mostly will. If you expect to be challenged then you might be better prepared when loneliness sets in.
  • Don’t bother even thinking about being jealous or envious. Long distance won’t cause a trust issue, but it can easily exacerbate one. Think expediently. Who benefits from suspicion? How can you prove or police the issue? If another human wants to discretely play around, do you have any right to stop them anyway? I think the best approach is to assume good intentions and provide the benefit of the doubt.
  • Have a variety of work to throw yourself into. I wrote two books in my copious spare time, and advanced a bunch of other projects. Evenings can be lonely, especially if social engagements fall through or you’ve had enough of your hobby for one day. You can expect, if you feel miserable, that you won’t want to do anything but wallow. Unfortunately, dwelling on moments of desperation and misery doesn’t do anything to shorten them. So try to have a range of things to do. If in doubt, vacuum the house.
  • Build relationships with more local friends who can help meet your day to day emotional needs as a human being. (If you have those – some don’t!) One of my main (and unexpected) needs was to be nurturing to other people, so I got in the habit of calling friends going through rough patches and letting them talk, or having people stay on my couch as long as they needed to.
  • Get used to talking about anything over the phone. It takes practice to get and remain in the habit of talking freely about whatever is on your mind. But open and unafraid communication is a good life skill, and not just for long distance relationships.
  • If you’re in a different time zone, expect and allow for differences in mood. It’s surprisingly difficult to match mood with even four hours of difference, let alone 12. One person is sleepy, or the other person is ready to get up!
  • Schedule phone calls, and schedule agendas. If there’s a problem, it’s sometimes good to “save it for the long talk on the weekend”. It’s really easy to misinterpret something by text or phone – a lot of information is missing. Unfortunately for us, phone calls weren’t reliable for months at a time. For several weeks early on the only thing we could do was read to each other from a book we both had handy, because the sound would “glitch out” half the time.
  • We didn’t get to Skype more than once every six weeks or so. Some people like video chat for an hour a day, others prefer a text once a week. No judgment – find what works. In some ways Skyping was even more emotionally taxing. The link quality was never good, and anticipation and loneliness were always concentrated around these virtual meetings. In some ways, the disembodied voice of a regular phone call was less confronting.
  • Find ways to smooth out the ups and downs around your meetings. If it’s trans-Atlantic you might catch up a few times a year, and after they go home it’ll be sad, probably sadder than before. But also character building. Exploit your emotional variations by having a Moleskine in which to write truly terrible poetry. Always have something to look forward to in the near future.
  • Make a list of things that make you happy. Refer to it if necessary. Mine includes things like prairie dogs and puppies in long grass, memories of great “wins” and stuff that has made my friends happy.
  • Develop a self care checklist with things like food, water, sleep, clean clothes, human interaction, family, mountains, and squirrels on it. If you’re feeling particularly down in the dumps you can check the list and try something you might have forgotten to do for a while.
  • Try to balance the doom and gloom on your Twitter feed with some feeds that provide only cute cats and dogs and stuff. Or quit Twitter all together. As far as I can tell it’s mostly just people who love making each other miserable.
  • Write letters to people, particularly older relatives, and your Significant Other. It’s good to get in the habit of non-instant communication. Or at least to fill out the frequency spectrum a bit. There’s something more meditative about writing a letter than firing off a quick email.
  • I liked to text “<3” to Christine when I was missing her. But I don’t know if she even got very many of them – the cell network isn’t reliable in Antarctica. We’d also text selfies from time to time.
  • Experiment with coping strategies. Write down what works. Join online support groups. Help other people out. Volunteer. Join musical clubs. Diversify your friend group.
  • Enjoy doing stuff that requires lots of time and concentration! Learn a new language or instrument or martial art. Having a partner around is fun but it does leave less time for other activities.

Although this blog isn’t the place to cover the final matter in detail, many relationships, including long distance relationships, end prior to the death of the participants. This is also usually no fun but it is by no means the end of the world. Life goes on.

If I’ve missed anything particularly obvious, please let me know!

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