Published on November 12, 2012 | by Mikkel Stern-Peltz


Does absence make the heart go wander?

A bunch of flowers stuffed into a letter box

Long-distance is a hard thing for any couple [Photograph by Betoul Mahdey]

Long-distance relationships suck. Seeing each other when you want, sleeping in the same bed, intimacy and sex are replaced with distance, Skype calls and frustration.

Most couples prefer to be near each other, in the same area, or even living together, but for many this is not the reality of their relationship. Distance can come between two people for any number of reasons but for young people university can often be the culprit.

Moving away from home for your higher education is not abnormal and, although some may not be moving far, the dream degree of others will be at a university hours away, in another country, or on another continent.

Although a university course – and by extension, being long-distance – has a set end date, reaching it can be a daunting task when you rarely see your significant other for extended periods of time.

Emotional challenge

For people in a relationship who are moving away from home, long-distance is the natural solution.

For others it is “a lie teenagers tell each other to get laid the summer before college” as How I Met Your Mother’s Marshall Eriksen puts it.

Some have a highly romanticised view of long-distance, inspired by poet Sextus Propertius, who wrote in the first century BC: “Always toward absent lovers love’s tide stronger flows”.

Somewhere in between these two poles there is the idea of not giving up on someone you care about, regardless of geographical location.

It may not seem like a big deal to enter into a long-distance relationship – after all, it is said that “love will conquer all”, and technology has made it appear easier to manage than in the past. But long-distance still requires immense commitment and emotional resilience.

“You don’t break up because you’re afraid it might not end well, you break up when not being together becomes unbearable” Esben Herborg

Couples therapist Catriona Wrottesley, of the Tavistock Centre for Couple Relationships (TCCR) in London, suggests that young people may not view long-distance relationships as ones that will necessarily last forever but are willing to give it a try: “When you are young, you do not necessarily know where you want to be or who you want to be with in the future, so going away to university can be a transition time of great uncertainty for relationships. Some work and survive, while others will not.”

Few people choose a long-distance relationship willingly, but love is an unpredictable entity; I had been home from university for two weeks and I found myself having fallen in love with an amazing girl.

We both knew that I had to go back to London eventually, but it did not matter. We spent a wonderful summer together, trying to ignore the fact that our days were dwindling, that we would eventually have to face the reality that I would be leaving.

On one hand, I had been after this girl for a while and was not about to let 600 miles come between us, but on the other I also wondered if ending it would be best because I felt that long-distance might not go well.

I spoke to my friend Esben – whose opinion I hold in high regard – and he told me that if I cared about her, a fear of it not working out was no reason not to try. “You don’t break up because you’re afraid it might not end well, you break up when not being together becomes unbearable,” was his advice – something I never regret following.

Love conquers all, but not bureaucracy

Hugh McNaul met Morgan Winter during the first year of his BA course in Graphic Design at the London College of Communication. “We met in halls, I came to London [from Northern Ireland] thinking I didn’t want a girlfriend, and she’d just come over from the States. She slept in her room for one night, then we met and, after that, she just stayed with me.”

Morgan was on a Graphic Design exchange at Chelsea College of Art and Design from her school in New York, and had to leave London at the end of term. “I’d never really had a long-term relationship – let alone a long-distance one – so for me it wasn’t really a question of ‘let’s just end it now’. It was always the idea that we just had to get to the next stage and that we would give it a go.”

“I booked tickets to go to America in July, and we agreed that if we still felt the same when I came over, we’d keep it going,” Hugh says. “It was amazing and we had so much fun together.”

Everything seemed perfect for Hugh and Morgan until the couple went on holiday to Sweden – which Hugh refers to as the “best trip of my life”.

However, because of an error with her passport, Morgan had not been registered leaving the country when she had gone home that Christmas, and was therefore denied re-entry to the UK. “They didn’t even give her the benefit of the doubt. They just sent her back,” Hugh remembers.

“The times when you can come together are rarer and briefer, so it is harder to maintain an idea of a shared life and a shared relationship” Catriona Wrottesley

“We were long distance for six months initially, and then we did another four months after our trip to Sweden.” Despite plans to get married, the couple eventually ended the relationship after the distance became too much. “We would always talk about getting married and imagine what it would be like, but she was a bit more for it when she was here and everything was great.”

Hugh says that things changed after they were forced apart again: “It was the plan that we were going to get married in the summer after I’d finished my third year, and then she asked if we could wait for winter. It wasn’t a problem for me, but she kept pushing it back and every time she did I felt that I had to re-order my life. I felt that it wasn’t fair, and that’s how [it ended].”

Keeping track of how your relationship is evolving becomes an issue when you are apart for long periods of time. When you are leading separate lives, there is a tendency to grow apart, according to relationship counsellor Catriona Wrottesley.

“The times when you can come together are rarer and briefer, so it is harder to maintain an idea of a shared life and a shared relationship.”  Some things are lost in translation, which means that you have to be attentive to details on a whole new level with your significant other.

It’s all about romance

The time you spend together after being away from each other for a long period can also be marred by expectations – yours or your partner’s. “Although being together may be lovely and exciting and special,” says Wrottesley, “there can be so much expectation weighted on that brief period of time that it can tip over into becoming very difficult emotionally, especially with the prospect of separating again in a short time.”

At times you can worry that there may be a sense of falseness when you are visiting your partner, because you try to avoid conflict so as not to spend your weekend at home fighting. This can be related to how you come to view your partner when you are not together. Wrottesley suggests.

“It can be quite shattering when you finally achieve that togetherness when the original reasons for being apart are no longer there. You’re then faced with the reality of ordinary day-to-day life. The excitement has gone and reality sets in – with all that brings, the good and not-so-good.”

Hugh is an example of this, “My personal experience with being in a relationship is that I don’t have those expectations of people,” he says. “I try to respect them for who they are, and not what I intend them to be.”

For him, being candid was very important. “We never really argued. We were honest with each other. I think that’s why our relationship worked so well; our communication was so good. It was maybe fine-tuned over the long distance thing, but being able to say what you feel is really important and if you can’t do that don’t be in a relationship. It’s about giving and taking.”

“Always toward absent lovers love’s tide stronger flows” Sextus Propertius

You have to live your day-to-day life without someone who should be such a big part of it, because doing nothing makes it so much worse. In my case I had nothing to do when I was back in London after leaving my girlfriend.

Not only did I have to deal with suddenly not seeing her every day, but I had nothing else to focus on, which made it the only thing I could focus on.

Although Sextus Propertius would have you believe that “passion is often greater in absent lovers; endless presence reduces the man who is always around,” as he wrote in his elegies, the lack of intimacy and physical contact is one of the worst things about long-distance relationships.

“That’s the worst part of it. I’d be lying if I said anything else,” Hugh admits. It is an important point that it is not just about the lack of sex, but the lack of physical togetherness that Skype or texting cannot provide.

Technology “can’t replace face-to-face physical contact and just being with someone,” as Wrottesley says. You do what you can to deal with it, but it is never easy. Catriona Wrottesley says it may help to remember that those who are in relationships where they see each other every day can also feel lonely. “It is not just about physical distance – it is about what kind of emotional connection you have with the other person.”

Hugh denies that there is anything he wishes he would have known when starting a long-distance relationship: “You would have to be naïve to believe that it is going to be exactly the same. It’s about expectations – don’t go in with any because it is what it is.”

Hugh does proffer advice for couples in the same situation: “Try and get involved in your partner’s life, speak as much as you can, and be clear about how you feel. Communication is the key to a successful long-distance relationship. Admit if it’s not going to work; there is no point in fighting against it. But that doesn’t mean don’t try.”


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