When Distance is Worth the Risk
One year ago I would not have been caught dead even thinking about dating someone from a distance, much less starting a relationship at over 1,500 miles apart. I'd done the whole distance thing before, and my experience was marred by infidelity, distrust, and communication breakdowns. And even though I had found relatively positive results while investigating the relational quality of long-distance dating relationships while at Pepperdine, the thought of living 1,000+ miles away from my significant other posed myriad qualms.
So when my relationship with my current boyfriend began trending towards more serious and committed last fall, I had major reservations. Living in a small Colorado mountain town literally at the very end of the road with limited access to affordable and convenient airfare was just one of my worries. (I'm not kidding. Gunnison airport is closed for a total of 4-5 months each year.) Oh, and did I mention he lived 1,600 miles away, and was planning on moving clear across the country to the Pacific Northwest, only 400 miles closer, in the not-too-distant future? The soonest he could visit was two months into the future, and we had no idea when we would both have the time to travel to see each other with our busy schedules and discrepant weekends (perks of working in a weekends-are-your-work-week setting when your boyfriend only gets weekends off, if that). I was literally stuck in the middle of his Army life, still clinging onto my hopes of living in Colorado for the rest of forever, where I knew he couldn't move for his career. (Are you kidding me? I'd finally moved to this gorgeous state, and I was going to have to consider leaving if things took a turn for the serious???) Let's not forget I'd told myself I would never move for a guy; I'm too strong and independent of a woman to do such a thing, so this whole Army girlfriend thing already wasn't looking too awesome.
Then there was the issue of communication. Contrary to popular belief, a communications degree does not guarantee perfect communication skills. In fact, I'd argue I am somewhere on the lower end of the spectrum when it comes to being able to express myself forthrightly. Running away from conflict is my MO, which is totally easy when you can turn off your phone and don't have to worry about distancing yourself from the other person since you're already so far away. Muahahaha, it's a perfect recipe for conflict avoidance. But in healthy relationships, conflict resolution and honesty is necessary, and ignoring the issue and not communicating that you need space is a reaaaaaaallllly bad call. (Not like I know from experience...) Spending my days far away from my man has made me realize that if I want this to work out, I have to bite the bullet and communicate since that is the glue holding us together in the absence of each other's physical presence.
Perhaps the hardest part of the whole long distance thing is the whole Love Languages thing. As a person who needs physical touch and quality time, long distance is pretty much the antithesis of what I need to function and feel loved in a relationship. (If only I hadn't gotten a 0 on acts of service; that would've been nice.) There are those so-ridiculously-crappy-I-literally-cannot-even days when I just need a hug or the silent, loving presence of Homeboy next to me. So on those crappy days, it's hard to translate his acts of service and words of affirmation into something I understand as love simply because I don't speak those languages (like seriously, acts of service don't even show up anywhere on my radar; what is that, even?) and really only need a hug and his presence to make everything better. And a cup of tea. And an entire bar of chocolate. Or two. Or three. Thankfully Nathan speaks my chocolate love language, even if he eats half the chocolate he buys me for Valentine's Day. Not bitter.
Being in a relationship that lacks a majority of the comforts I thrive on (nearness, the ability to plan trips at least three months in advance, and certainty and control, to name a few) has forced me into a realm far beyond my comfort zone that's more like a million miles away from my safety box. I'm constantly learning how to communicate better, how to make myself open up when I'd rather shut down, how to engage with conflict rather than hang up the phone and hide under my covers with Parks and Rec, how to communicate what I need, how to ask for what he needs, how to read him when there's such an annoying lack of nonverbal communication (thanks horrible wifi connection & relying on computers to connect somewhat face-to-face). But even though it's uncomfortable, challenging, and awkward at times, I know that not being able to hug after a fight means that we can explore different ways to express our appreciation for each other, and that once we're (finally) living closer than 1,200 miles apart, our relationship will already be founded on the principle of clear, intentional communication.
Let me say, though, that distance makes the time we get to spend together so much sweeter. It may be short and chock-full of adventures and cooking and double dates and shredding the gnar and racing each other in the rain to the nearest Starbucks (I won that one), but the normal things many couples get to do on the regular, like holding hands, hugging, and, heck, simply being within two feet of each other, is seriously a million times more enjoyable because of all the time we can't spend doing those things together. Even ridiculously hard workouts are wonderful because we cheer each other on and can experience the same pain (maybe we should put ourselves through the hell that is Fran together, because he'd be there to hold my hair back while I vomit from exertion, and laugh about it afterwards). I laugh louder (because he's somehow funnier in person?), smile wider, feel more at peace with him around. It makes our time apart worth the risk, even if the days apart amount to triple digits and general stress over whether we'll actually be able to spend any time together in the next six months.
Though it can be frustrating to coordinate time and efforts to create space for quality time, we've been able to explore creative avenues for spending intentional time together 1,200 miles apart that go beyond a daily phone call. Instead of getting bogged down in the reality that we can't go out on the town together, we've discovered an alternative to the date nights our friends get to have with their significant others: cooking video chat dates! We'll choose a recipe, buy the ingredients, and then cook the same meal from our respective kitchens. Thankfully, the recipes we've chosen have not been simple, 30-minute meals, which means more time to harass Nathan for taking 20 minutes to figure out how to mince garlic, more time to laugh, more time to catch up, and more time to admire his ridiculously cute face. Finding ways to actually date long-distance takes creativity and thinking outside the box, but has changed my way of thinking about what a traditional date - and even a long-distance relationship - looks like. And it's proved that you can date intentionally long distance, despite the lack of obvious resources and opportunities. All it takes is a little commitment and some creativity.
Because we've had to adjust to less-than-ideal circumstances and risked our relationship on the uncertainty of living apart in worlds that seem to only contradict each other, I can say that I honestly believe our relationship would not be as strong if we were in a "normal" relationship unbound by distance, different time zones, and discrepant careers where we both have to acquire approval in one way or another to leave. Though parts of it really suck and though some days leave me feeling utterly depleted and frustrated with our current situation, the distance is teaching us how to fuse our respective independent personalities with the requisite interdependence a relationship needs while we're both pursuing our futures and supporting each other in our career advancements and dreams. I'd definitely love to live in the same state, at the very least. Same city? Yes, please!!! But I'm grateful for this period of getting to know each other in a space that requires uncomfortable growth we would not go through were we conveniently closer. I know that we'll be stronger as a couple for all the days we've spent apart, growing closer together.