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Love and Happiness in a Long Distance Marriage or Relationship
A few years ago I was reunited with my long-lost love. As a recently-divorced man with two small children, I was enjoying the freedom and happiness that life offers when it jettisons a loveless marriage for a world of opportunity. Despite a joint custody split that left me with my kids only half the time, my relationship with my boys was better and stronger than ever and I could not have possibly been happier. The very last thing on my mind was being thunderstruck by the absolute love of my life, but that is precisely what happened.
Donna had been my girlfriend (though she may argue that point) for the last semester of law school some fifteen years earlier. She was always a Florida girl and moved back to Florida from Indiana upon graduation. We made attempts to stay in touch, but in the days before cell phones, social media, and video calling, we eventually succumbed to the distance and drifted apart.
When we re-discovered each other over social media, we moved rapidly from long lost loves to the unquestioned loves of each others’ lives. Imagine my good fortune. I had at long last found my soul mate; a partner to walk through the world with me; the yin to my yang. I was madly in love with the woman of my dreams. There was only one catch—she lived a thousand miles away.
Did I mention she has three sons? Added to my two, we collectively had five boys under the age of twelve and the daunting responsibility of turning them into five fine young men. Because of custody orders, neither of us were able to relocate; at least not for the next dozen years. The obvious and simple solution would have been to wish each other well and remember with fondness our rekindled romance as we went on with our separate lives. The problem with that solution was that we both now realized that we could no longer live without the other. This left only one solution: to live a life together while living separately.
I’m happy to report that we are over three years into this long-distance journey. My beautiful wife Donna and I recently celebrated our first wedding anniversary. All of the kids get along amazingly well and sometimes, to our delight, even all fight like brothers. I’m happier than I have ever been in my life. Without question, this has been the best and most rewarding decision I ever made. But it hasn’t been easy.
Don’t have any illusions. A long distance marriage is hard; very hard. But it can also be extremely rewarding and fulfilling. It is far from the ideal scenario; but with love, patience, understanding (and frequent flier miles), it is possible for a long distance marriage to survive and thrive. This article will tell you exactly how to do it. Follow the golden rules for success and you can live happily ever after (apart).
When we first contemplated how to best tackle this albatross, we reminded ourselves that many married or committed couples, living together, see far less of each other than we could. For example, military families facing repeated deployments, over-the-road truck drivers, couples working different shifts that only pass each other waking up or going to sleep. We quickly determined that we needed to establish and maintain a regular schedule to see each other, and that such a schedule would have to be practically carved in stone.
We started with the framework of seeing each other every other weekend. Joint custody orders with the other parents having custody of the kids every other weekend meant that two weekends every month were available for travel. If you take a Monday off to make a long weekend, then you can be together from Friday afternoon until Tuesday morning every other week. Again, this is not ideal, but we’re not dealing with an ideal situation. What this means is that you will never have to go longer than ten days without seeing each other, and that will be followed by the better part of five days together. In essence, you have stretched a long weekend twice a month into being together for one third of the time; not even beginning to include vacations and holidays.
I’m not suggesting that every couple will have the ability or the means to be together every other weekend. You may have greater parental responsibilities, financial limitations, a greater distance to travel, a significant commute to the airport or a long connecting flight, or you may have to endure a long, grueling drive. Whatever you both determine to be the schedule that works the best for the two of you; stick with it.
Our schedule is concrete; or as close to that as we can make it. Ball games, work deadlines, money, sickness, friends, and even family will all try to chip away at this. But you must stand fast with the schedule, lest you start down the slippery slope of occasional togetherness. Draw a line in the sand that, absent an emergency, you will be on that plane. The schedule needs to be something you can depend on, plan your schedules around, and look forward to. Just get to the other person and everything else will work itself out. We’ve missed exactly two weekends in three years, and they were both miserable, led to hurt feelings, and made us both question whether we were truly the other’s priority.
This framework is the basis upon which everything else is built. We both know with absolute certainty that we love each other and we want to spend our lives together. We are also both resigned to the fact that we will not cohabitate for some time to come, and that being happy while together but miserable while apart is not a workable solution. Most importantly, we know that one day we will live together under the same roof; and that everything we do between now and then should be with an eye toward that ultimate goal.
How Do You get to Happily Ever After?
What is the most important component to a loving and lasting relationship or marriage?
The Golden Rules
Through the past three years, we have laughed and loved, experienced and enjoyed countless things together, and made a million lasting memories. But we have also been sad, hurt, angry, and at times have felt neglected or forgotten. We’ve had more arguments than I can possibly count; but we never start a new argument until the prior one is resolved. And we make every attempt to learn from these battles so we can avoid similar pitfalls in the future. We’ve replayed fights after tempers had cooled, read and absorbed whatever literature we could find on relationships, spoken both separately and jointly with counselors, and sought the wisdom and advice of friends and family.
As I hope all couples do, we have constantly strived for improvement in our communication and our relationship. Many of the issues we have encountered are not unique to a long distance marriage, and the advice could be applied to any couple at any stage of their relationship. Other issues are obviously magnified by the physical distance, and still others are created entirely by our choice to live together separately. The takeaway from all of this reading, talking, and hard work is that we have developed a set of rules over time, and we have agreed to abide by them to the best of our abilities.
Rule Number 1. Always make him or her the priority.
Inherent in any couple’s decision to live separately; be it for children, job, family, or any other reason, you must recognize and understand that you both have made a conscious decision to put someone or something else first ahead of your marriage or relationship. In terms of showing your partner that he or she is a priority, you are starting out with a significant deficit. For a man, this is like digging into the batter’s box with two strikes and Mariano Rivera on the mound. For a woman, I suppose it could be the equivalent of being late for a party while having both a bad hair day and nothing at all to wear—just kidding. Suffice it to say that you are starting out in the hole.
Chances are, at some point you will either remind your partner, or be reminded, of the fact that you made a conscious decision to put that person second. Reminding that person of your joint agreement to do so will not soften the hurt feelings. A far wiser strategy is to focus instead on the issue that is making him or her feel de-prioritized at that moment, and then set about fixing it as quickly as possible. Getting defensive will make things far worse, notwithstanding the logic and rationality or even the persuasiveness of your stated position. When your loved one feels neglected, the right and only answer is to give them the needed attention and love they deserve, forsaking all others. If this means your kids have to make their own lunch, you miss the big ball game, you cancel plans with your friends, or you stay up past your bedtime giving unrequited reassurance; then so be it. Such is the price of the miles between you. Better to have a spouse or significant other who feels respected and cared for than whatever is on the other side of that ledger.
Rule Number 2. Always be available.
When the phone rings, pick it up. Always. Anytime and every time. Even if it is only to say that you can’t talk at the moment. Be the one person in the world that is granted immediate and unlimited access. This, of course, is easier said than done, especially for women who don’t always have pockets to carry around their phones.
The certainty that your partner will be there when you call gives reassurance to a situation that is not, to begin with, overly reassuring. Not only can long gaps in communication lead to jealous thoughts and a wild imagination to run free, but it sends the message that you are either not thinking of the person at the moment or that you have something you would rather be doing.
We both have created custom text message replies on our phones for when we inevitably miss calls. As a prosecutor, I am often in court and unable to answer; but I can certainly send the text response letting her know that and telling her I will call back as soon as I can step out. If either of us is going to be unavailable for a period of time (getting a massage, taking a nap, going to the movies, in a work meeting), we let the other know so we can manage expectations and eliminate worry.
That being said, you can almost always find a second to step out for a quick call. Such a simple gesture shows the other person that you are making them a priority and gives reassurance of where your thoughts are. If I’m having a cocktail and a cigar with buddies from work and she calls, I answer the phone and remind her. If she is eating sushi with the girls, or drinking wine and gossiping incessantly, she answers and reminds me of that too. I don’t mean to suggest that we both spend our time separately drinking our sorrows away; that was just a handy example. As for the fact that women gossip incessantly, I’m just calling them like I see them. We are also very good about taking pictures of the festivities and texting them to each other. Not only does this show by photographic evidence that you are in fact doing what you said you were doing (among our issues, jealousy and mistrust are not among them, but it is self-evident that such issues are common problems inherent in a distance relationship), but a picture of your loved one always makes for a brighter day. But I’ll save that discussion for Rule Number 6.
Rule Number 3. Plan a schedule for being together and strictly enforce it—no matter what.
Get out your calendars—work, school, kids’ sports, custody, save-the-dates, family birthdays, and whatever else, and sit down and work out your short and long-term schedules for being together. This seems like a simple task, but it is difficult, grueling, and critically important.
You need to put a lot of time and thought into planning your time together. The time and effort you spend in the planning will pay off in the execution. Decide which location you need to be at during a specific weekend based on existing obligations, how best to maximize work holidays and leave balances, and who can more easily get away. For a tie-breaker, go with weather. For example, as I am writing this, the temperature here in Indianapolis is a balmy 8 degrees (up from minus nine last night). Meanwhile, Donna reports 76 degrees in Orlando. Guess which one of us is traveling this weekend? I need to change the furnace filters anyway.
The point is to think about where you need to be on a given weekend. Inevitably, you will miss events with friends, kids’ games, or other activities. But your friends and especially your children should know that although you may occasionally miss things, you have made the choice to live with them for the majority of time rather than picking up and leaving them behind. It is a huge sacrifice, a responsible and selfless decision, and one that people close to you should respect and appreciate.
Plans do; however, occasionally change and you both will need to be flexible, adaptive, and creative in finding solutions to roll with the punches. Two intelligent people can usually come up with an acceptable solution and a way to change travel plans to accommodate the contingencies. However, you must always keep in mind the framework agreement and remember that the weekend together is etched in stone. Find a solution within that framework. Maybe you come a day later and stay an extra day, maybe you travel instead of staying, or maybe you both meet in the middle. Or maybe you miss something important. But being together is important too. As you may recall from Rule Number 1, it is the most important thing.
In the early stages or our burgeoning long-distance relationship, Donna would sometimes be tempted to cancel a weekend together when she felt overwhelmed by the demands on her time, work obligations, her kids’ sports schedules, or the mounting responsibilities of maintenance, bill paying, and management that comes with being the head of a busy household with very little help to share the burden. Despite the trepidation she felt, I was steadfast in holding that she needed to get on the plane. One of you has to be steadfast or you can both be easily overwhelmed by the demands of the day; and it is a very slippery slope.
To that end, Donna traveled here one weekend while suffering from the stomach flu. I was insistent that she come and, truth be told, I think she would have rather had my empathy than my insistence at the time. But I told her to just get on the plane and I would take care of everything when she got here. She managed to stagger her way through the airport and into my waiting arms. I nursed her back to health and we had an amazing weekend. While she did recover quickly, thanks in no small part to my amazing bedside manner, it also served as a rare opportunity for us to grow together emotionally by the simple act of me taking care of her when she was sick.
See the point? Just get on that plane and get there and good things will happen. Stick to the schedule, no matter what. In sickness and health, in the middle of a fight, into the teeth of a snowstorm, right before a big trial, or even if you’re leaving the house a complete wreck. Even—and especially—if you don’t feel good. Just think about who you want taking care of you when you’re sick.
Rule Number 4. Share the small details of your day.
You are seeking to maintain a connection to each other, despite the fact that you may be hundreds, or even thousands, of miles apart. The goal is always to feel as if you are a constant part of each other’s lives. One hugely successful tool in achieving this is to share with each other the small details of the day. As droll as it may sound, knowing what each other had for breakfast, what errands you each had to run, or other such similar details will help you maintain a closeness and feel connected.
You won’t forget to mention the capstone events of the day and those things will and should absorb the majority of your conversation. But knowledge of the little things also matter. Knowing that Donna spent part of Sunday making homemade soup, or her knowing that the dry cleaner ruined one of my shirts, are small but intimate details of our lives that deserve to be shared.
However, you shouldn’t get caught up in a protracted discussion of daily logistics either. In every conversation, you should seek to capture at least a brief moment of intimacy. It’s what I call “the sweet talk.” Before we hang up, we change the topic of discussion from venting about work, our menial tasks for the day, or anything else to the better topic of our relationship. It can be as simple as reminding her how much I miss her or she telling me she can’t wait for our upcoming weekend together; but it is enough to remind us that we love each other and it brings the focus back to what really matters.
Rule Number 5. Schedule time together when you’re apart.
Just because you are physically separated doesn’t mean you can’t go on a date together. You can watch the new episode of your favorite show together; cue up the same movie on Netflix, watch the big game together (Come on, ladies; the game is important. And to answer your next question: Yes; they’re all important.), or schedule a romantic encounter—complete with candles, wine, and bubble bath. This process can be as simple as staying on the phone while muted and watching the show together, pausing to talk about key points, or chatting during commercials. Or it can be as advanced as watching the show together on Skype or a similar video calling service. The same goes for normal talk, sweet talk, or even dirty talk.
For those of you who think you may feel silly enjoying a romantic (and by romantic I mean sexual) encounter over the phone (or a video call), think about how intimate the act is when you’re together and how close it makes you feel. As a wholesome Midwestern guy, it took me a little while to get used to the idea, but I soon came to see the benefit. Literally. This is a basic need and an urge that must be satisfied, regardless of the distance between you. If you’re only seeing your partner once every couple of weeks, that is a significant amount of time to not share in such an intimate act with each other. I don’t mean to suggest that sex is the only form of intimacy; but you can’t argue that sex between two people who love each other it is an intimate act; and will absolutely keep you feeling close to each other.
Scheduling time together also gives you something to look forward to while bringing a welcome sense of normalcy to a non-conventional relationship. For example, when Donna and I share the latest episode of Walking Dead; we’re just the same as all the other couples who watched it together on Sunday night. Better yet, we don’t have to wait for a week to watch it, meanwhile desperately hoping that some knucklehead at work won’t spoil it by stupidly talking about how he or she can’t believe what happened, and proceeding to give you all the gory details. And with that show, the details will be gory.
Rule Number 6. A picture is worth a thousand words. A video is worth ten thousand.
Studies by psychologists, neurologists, and other smart, intellectual types have established by viewing brain MRIs while test subjects viewed photographs of loved ones that neural activity in the brain actually changes when viewing the images; releasing a flow of dopamine to the brain. This dopamine arrives and gives the person a feeling of euphoria and reward. Moreover, in a pattern similar to nicotine or cocaine, it makes the person want more. How’s that for a powerful image?
If you couple that science with marketing research that suggests that 90% of information transmitted to the brain is visual; you realize that a single photograph packs quite a punch. This doesn’t even take into account the gratitude you feel from the other person’s gesture of taking the time to send the photo or the love-inspiring caption that accompanies the image.
And if pictures are good, videos are through the roof. Skype or similar video conferencing programs or applications make it possible to see and interact with your loved one in real time. Even the simple act of sharing a menial task like preparing dinner can become an event that keeps the bond between you strong and the emotional connections intact. Something about seeing the smiling face of the man or woman you love grabs your attention and holds it in a way a phone call can’t begin to explore. Looking into his or her eyes reconfirms your commitment and reminds you why the relationship is worth it despite the time and physical distance between you.
So snap away and send those photos. Don’t worry if you’re having a bad hair day or if you don’t like the outfit you’re wearing. Don’t worry if you think you look pale or you have bags under your eyes. The gesture means everything. And remember that love is blind inasmuch as your significant other is concerned. He or she is not scrutinizing the photo with the harsh eye that you did before you hit send—or at all. The other person is just happy to get the picture and, more importantly, the flood of dopamine that comes with it. Now send more. More! I need it!
Rule Number 7. Make the most of your time apart.
Being apart from each other sucks. It’s terrible. But it is an unfortunate component of the long distance relationship (hence the term “long distance”). Know and understand that you would both rather be together, all the time, and if not for the circumstances you would be together every day and every night.
But you can also both agree that there are nice components to being by yourself. For the first couple of years, Donna and I both felt guilty or bad about saying it; but we both eventually realized it was okay to say. A long distance relationship or marriage does afford you an incredible opportunity to share a loving, lasting relationship with someone while at the same time giving you the unique opportunity of establishing and maintaining a level of independence and self-growth that you wouldn’t otherwise have.
The bad parts about living apart are more than obvious and have already been well-detailed here. And that doesn’t even include the problems of running and maintaining separate households, raising kids, and paying the bills. However, you can turn these same challenges into an asset. Rather than lamenting the fact that you have to do everything yourself when most people have someone to share the burden, embrace the fact that you are a strong, competent, independent person who can manage and even thrive in a complex, stressful situation. This should instill a confidence in you and your ability to be a good parent, a good friend, a good employee, and a good member of your community. And I would venture a guess that if you polled a bunch of married couples who live together, an overwhelming majority of them would tell you that the other partner doesn’t pull his or her weight in regards to most or all of the items on that list.
Make the most of your time apart. Get and stay in shape, take up a hobby, or get interested in a cause you care about. The more happy and fulfilled you are during your times apart, the happier and more fulfilled you will be when you’re together. The time apart is a fact of life. It is far better to spend that time trying to make yourself better than thinking about how miserable you are. Take it on faith that your partner misses you and would absolutely rather be with you. Better yet, tell them exactly that so they know without question that you would. But also tell them it is okay to be happy during your times apart as well. It is okay to enjoy time with your kids, your friends, or completely and utterly by yourself.
Even if you don’t have kids, career enhancement aspirations, fitness goals, or a spirit for community activism, you can still focus on some of the good things about being apart. It’s okay. In fact, there may even be a few activities that each of you enjoy that the other would prefer if you enjoyed without him or her. Call them guilty pleasures, selfish interests, or making the most of a bad situation.
Here are a few examples. Donna loves foreign films and period-piece dramas of turn-of-the-century English aristocracy. With the exception of a popular PBS drama with a similar setting, I would almost universally rather watch the grass grow. Better that she enjoys this particular activity during our time apart; thus leaving more of our time together to spend on our shared interests, or better yet, stuff I like. Just kidding.
Donna is also very much a girlie girl; as are most of her friends. And with girls that are really girlie girls come problems uniquely related to girls. She may spend fifty man hours working out problem among her girlfriends that I or any other man could solve over a beer in 30 minutes. That’s just the way they’re wired. And when I learned that she had no interest whatsoever in me solving her problem (thanks Men Are From Mars), but that she just wanted my empathy and my ear, I was relieved of a what I considered a sizable obligation for crafting a solution. She needs and wants to spend all that time discussing those things with her friends, and so do they.
As for me, I like watching two sporting events at the same time while I read about sports on my phone; falling asleep watching SportsCenter; watching stupid, raunchy comedies for hours while I scarcely leave the couch; and pursuing a half-baked part-time career as a fiction writer. Believe me; all of these interests are far better pursued during our times apart. I tried it the other way and it didn’t go over as well as I’d hoped.
The point is, you don’t have to feel guilty for enjoying life while apart from your partner. You should hope that your partner is enjoying life always; even in the moments when there are miles between you. If not, you are both deciding to be unhappy and miserable for a considerable portion of your life. And that just doesn’t work for anyone.
Rule Number 8. Cut each other a break.
Misunderstandings will happen. Breakdowns in communication, misinterpretations, unintended tone, hurt feelings, frustration, and anger are all normal parts of any relationship and will occur. It is inevitable. And while these things occur with the same frequency when you are physically together, the huge difference is that at those times you have the ability to lean over to your partner, take him or her in your arms, look into his or her eyes, and say you’re sorry. When you are face-to-face, there is no misunderstanding the sincerity of your apology.
Not so when dealing with hurt feelings from a distance. With the inability (often) to look each other in the face and apologize, clarify, or empathize; the make-up portion of the misunderstanding becomes far thornier and more complex. A heartfelt apology over the phone or via text message does not have the same effect as a warm embrace; despite the clever emoji you append to the end of the message. In this case, there is no substitute for close physical proximity. The solution: cut each other a break.
Again, start with the proposition and believe wholeheartedly that neither of you wants to intentionally hurt the other’s feelings. If something is said or done that could lend itself to one or more interpretation; give your partner the benefit of the doubt that he or she intended the one that was not an affront, slight, or criticism. This is especially true if that other person is also claiming an innocent intent. Both of you will have bad days. Annoyance, frustration, or even anger regarding the events of the day that are in no way attributed to your significant other will find themselves creeping into your disposition, mood, and even the tone of your voice. This can make an otherwise innocent statement come across as something distasteful or even outright mean-spirited. Chances are excellent that the love of your life didn’t mean what you thought you just heard. A quick moment of clarification, followed by giving the other person the benefit of the doubt, will do worlds of good for the sanctity of your relationship and the peace and harmony of your existence.
I will share with you a hard-won secret to resolving such lapses in communication. When asked for clarification on a point that, if misunderstood, would hurt your partner’s feelings—give the requested clarification. If asked again, re-clarify. Then re-clarify again. Then re-re-clarify. This is nothing more than giving reassurance to your partner who at that moment is desperately seeking reassurance from that person who means the most in the world to him or her.
And for the person seeking reassurance; once it is given to you, you need to accept it. The second most important three-word-phrase in any relationship (after “More beer, honey?”) is “I believe you.” Those three words can stop a derailed misunderstanding cold and put it right back on its tracks.
That is the essence of cutting each other a break. Even if you did mean to snap; if momentary frustration got the better of you, or you said something in anger that you didn’t mean, you can apologize and take it back. It will happen and it doesn’t need to ruin an entire day or even an entire conversation. Take a step back; maybe even a few minutes to cool off; then reconvene. It goes like this: apology, apology accepted, kiss and make up. It is simple to say, but exceedingly hard to execute. That’s why cutting each other a break is a rule; not just a helpful suggestion.
Rule Number 9. Never fight over text or e mail.
As mentioned in the prior section, demeanor is often poorly reflected or captured over text or e mail. Unless you intend to say bad things, that is. E mail and text messages capture thoughts such as “You’re an asshole!” exceptionally well. It is the well-intentioned sincerity that often goes unnoticed, or misinterpreted altogether.
Consider this: Donna and I are in an argument. I say something that hurts her feelings, we have a few cross words, and we both get off the phone with the issue unresolved. A few minutes pass and I decide (remember this is a hypothetical) that she’s right. I really am an asshole. So I type out a heartfelt text message relating my epiphany; something like, “You’re right. I am an asshole.” This shows her that I thought about the argument rationally, looked at things from her perspective, came to an understanding, and offered her an olive branch. Everything is fine, right?
Or, I decide that I was right and she was wrong and that she had no right to be mad at all; let alone call me a distasteful name that she knows I hate. So I grab my phone and stab out a text message back to her; something like, “You’re right. I am an asshole.” A little sarcasm for her to let her know I don’t appreciate being called names. That ought to show her. Now the fight is on, right?
The point is, never fight over text or e mail. When I hear the ping on my phone that signifies a text message from my beloved, I know it will not be a message telling me that I am a distasteful part of human anatomy. It is hopefully a picture, probably something sweet, or at least an update of her day. I try to always do the same for her. We have created a Pavlovian response to the sound of a text message notification. Better to save the fighting for in person, or at least on the phone, so you can immediately clarify what you meant. “No, when I said you were a genius, I was being sarcastic.”
Rule Number 10. Do regular, domestic chores when together.
You are seeking a sense of normalcy in an otherwise unconventional relationship. No doubt you have on occasion found yourself envying those couples that are able to share the minutiae of everyday life. To do so would somehow make your situation seem more normal. Doing regular, domestic chores together accomplishes that as well as anything. And they need to be done anyway.
When you and your loved one do such things as go to the grocery store together, work on a project in the yard, run errands, wash the car, or put away the laundry; you are fulfilling the sense of being a normal couple, which is sometimes a fun fiction to pursue. It reminds you that you are each one half of a mixed set and that you are working together toward a common goal. Circumstances may have you separated by miles for the time being, but always remember that you are still a team; albeit with two cable bills.
We used to call our weekends together “highlights.” Imagine every other weekend without the demands and challenges of parenting. What could be better than two people, madly in love, with a weekend all alone? It seemed like every weekend was a romantic getaway, which was fun and exciting for a while. But ultimately, we were putting off things that needed to be done and the reality came crashing down. But it wasn’t a bad reality. Not only were we able to accomplish things in half the time by doubling the labor force, but the sense of shared responsibility and commitment strengthened our bond to each other and to the home we will eventually share every day of the week.
This is in contrast to the early days of our time together, when Donna would stress herself out over trying to make the house perfect before my arrival. She would sometimes go so far as to hide baskets of clothes or stacks of paper (which I would always find anyway). After discussing this, we came to the realization that we are not visitors in each other’s homes. We are partners. It’s okay if the house isn’t perfect, the laundry isn’t done, or the sink is full of dishes. In fact, it’s a great opportunity for some teamwork; not to mention serving as a reminder that your partner has a lot to do around the house and for the majority of the time has no one there to share the burden.
These errands and chores are not excursions that take away from the enjoyment of your time together. Rather they can serve as a dose of orderliness in a disorderly situation. They can strengthen your bond to a home and to each other. At the very least, they will leave your loved one with less to do after you’ve gone and make his or her life just a little bit easier.
Rule Number 11. Create and preserve memories together.
Take pictures of the things you do together. Take lots of pictures. Remember that you are making memories together. As stated earlier, the power of photos is nearly immeasurable. A captured photo of you and your loved one together not only accomplishes this goal, but also reminds you of a memory you made together.
To some extent, your relationship is at least partially in a holding pattern until sometime in the hopefully-not-too-distant future. This can lead to a tendency to constantly look ahead toward the time when you will be together. The problem with this tendency is that you forget to live in the present moment. You are already living your lives together, and you should take opportunities to document those shared moments. In fact, I would venture that the photos you display in your home and office of you and your loved one, or your blended families as the case may be, are no different than any other couple or family who spend every night under the same roof. In fact, you are likely more mindful of the memories you are making now and more likely to capture those moments.
To that end, on the last day of every vacation together with our blended family, I create a slide show containing the best photos from the trip and set it to background music. We force the kids to suffer through the show and they always start by grumbling. Sometimes they try to run away. But we force them to watch and soon they are all laughing and commenting, and we are all reminded of the fun times we’ve just shared together.
You should absolutely look forward to and plan for a future together, but don’t forget to enjoy the present—both when you are apart and especially when you are together. These photos are constant visual images of the person you love; surrounding you in your home. It’s a far, far cry from having them under the same roof, or under the covers with you, but it a powerful visual reminder of the person in the world who matters the most to you.
Rule Number 12. Meld.
Even though you have different households, it is still vitally important to meld everything together as much as possible. By that, I mean such things as a joint Netflix account, shared phone plans, a family plan for auto insurance, and the like. Not only does this make financial sense, but it also further reinforces togetherness. Besides, I can see what shows Donna has been watching and find out if she is sneaking ahead of me on House of Cards.
While it may be impractical to have a shared bank account (and many married couples living together don’t even have this) and you may even need to have different sets of rules for each home depending on a wide array of circumstances, the goal should still be to blend everything together as much as possible.
Now guys, this may mean that you have to sort through a bunch of period-piece dramas about British aristocracy in the instant queue until you find the movie you are looking for (almost certainly a raunchy comedy or a mega-action flick), but the sense of unity that comes with a shared account is worth the hassle. Right?
And ladies, the same goes for you. Having to wade through the Hangover franchise and a host of Vince Vaughn movies just to find Hopes Float In a Bottle, The Notepad, Desolate Housewives, or whatever the tearjerker du jour happens to be is a small price to pay, right? Besides, you get to keep all the Kohl’s cash for yourself.
Another aspect of melding is not only blending the things you like to do, but the food you like to eat. You have to find a common ground when together so you don’t fall off the wagon every time you’re together. For example, I happen to be a very big fan of sausage. No offense to beef, but sausage is nature’s wonder food. I also subscribe to the maxim that if there is no meat involved, you can’t call it a meal. Donna also eats meat, but while she may want a filet with steamed vegetables, I prefer tater tots on the side; preferably fried. And while she loves eggs with greens for breakfast, I demand sausage. Or bacon. Maybe bacon is my top choice. Anyway, the point is that we find a restaurant where she can get what she wants to eat and so can I. The solution is obvious: McDonalds. But maybe I wasn’t listening.
Meld also extends to activities such as exercise. I am a runner. I hate running and have hated it since I was a young child. I will continue to hate it until I can’t run any more. I try to run a couple marathons a year and that takes a fair amount of running for preparation. Besides, I need to burn off all that sausage. And bacon. And as luck would have it, Donna loves, almost more than anything, to go for long walks outside.
As you might imagine, the very last thing I want to do after a hard run is to go for a walk later that day. So we meld our exercise together. We walk together for a mile (warm up), then do our own thing for a prescribed amount of time, then we walk a mile cool-down together. We both get the workout we need while also taking care of one of the things Donna loves to do. Sometimes we go for a walk later too, but that’s only because I’m the greatest husband in the world. And she bribes me with sex.
Rule Number 13. Be there at the drop of a hat.
Holidays, special events, and family emergencies are times in our lives we need to be together with the people we love. The holidays and special occasions should be captured in your mid-range planning, but emergencies, by design, happen when you least expect them. And I can tell you from experience that living a thousand miles away is not a satisfactory excuse for not being next to the woman you love holding her hand when she is in a situation where she needs her hand held.
A couple years ago, one of Donna’s sons was hospitalized for several days. I made the wrong assumption that she would ask me to come there if she needed me. She assumed I would just come. I eventually did go, but rather than being the first one there by her side as I should have been, I arrived after the crisis had stabilized. That was way too late.
The price of airfare be damned—get yourself there right now. Have contingency plans in place for coverage for kids, pets, plants, and work. Don’t go back home. Don’t pack a bag. Just get to the airport. This single-minded determination will show by your actions what thousands of words can’t—that she or he is your priority and you will literally drop everything to be there when needed.
After you go there at the drop of a hat, without being asked, stay there for as long as you are needed. This is exactly what you would do if you shared a zip code and it is one of the few situations where money and miles just don’t factor in. At all.
Rule Number 14. Remember to say I miss you.
Of course you miss each other. It is not only inherently obvious in the situation, but you’ve told each other a thousand times. You would do well to tell him or her a thousand more times, lest you risk your significant other deciding that you really don’t mind being apart after all. In fact, you might even prefer it.
I don’t mean to suggest that each phone call should be a litany of how terrible it is to be without each other, but a gentle reminder that you are missed will carry a lot of weight. It not only reassures you of your importance in the eyes of the love of your life, but serves as a reminder that the distance is hard for both of you. In fact, the words “I miss you,” may even rival “I believe you” for second fiddle to the ultimate three-word phrase.
As an illustration, I have become so good at Rule Number 7 (Make the most of your time apart), that Donna has at a few vulnerable times questioned whether I prefer a long-distance relationship. My counter to her was to explain that just because I’m not always talking about how miserable I am doesn’t mean I don’t miss her terribly, because I do. The simple fix is just to tell her.
I try to tell Donna at least once a day that I miss her, love her, and am thinking of her. I tell her those things because they are true, but also because I want her to know that she isn’t alone. It sucks for both of us, and I miss her every bit as much as she misses me. Unless Notre Dame football is on. Just kidding.
Rule Number 15. Make decisions jointly.
Finally, remember that you are part of a team, even if you don’t see your teammate staring back at you from the huddle at that moment. No matter how capable you are at making quick, sound decisions, it is hugely important to make those decisions jointly.
This goes back to the first rule on the list. Making unilateral decisions sends the message to your partner that you don’t require or even particularly want their input when making decisions. I can tell you that Donna will almost universally support my decisions; though that is not at all the same thing as her not wanting to be consulted. Remember that girls love to talk about problems. They need to talk about problems.
Even if you already have a particular solution or decision in mind, it warrants discussion with the love of your life. Remember, this is a strong, intelligent, capable person. You’ve decided to hitch your wagon to this person so you must at least value his or her opinion. Just think how lucky you are to have a person who is almost as smart as you to look at the issue with a fresh set of eyes. Okay; maybe even smarter than you. He or she may have a better way to do it, a reason not to do it at all, or something in between.
Joint decision making also gives you both a sense of ownership in the decision. It reinforces that both of you are on the same team and you are both working in the same direction.
The Golden Rules For a Successful Long Distance Marriage or Relationship
Always make him or her the priority.
Always be available.
Plan a schedule for being together and strictly enforce it; no matter what.
Share the small details of your day.
Schedule time together when you’re apart.
A picture is worth a thousand words. A video is worth ten thousand.
Make the most of your time apart.
Cut each other a break.
Never fight over text or e mail.
Do regular, domestic chores when together.
Create and preserve memories together.
Be there at the drop of a hat.
Remember to say I miss you.
Make decisions jointly.
Hopefully these rules will give you and your partner a starting point for your own journey. Whether you follow these rules to the letter, ignore them completely, or use them develop your own set of rules, my hope is that you have gained some insight into what it takes to maintain a happy and fulfilling long-distance relationship. It can be done. Whatever set of rules you decide to go with, always remember that you are a team and you are working toward a common goal. And at this risk of being redundant—or repeating myself—remember to always make each other a priority, stick to your schedule for being together, cut each other a break, remember to say “I miss you,” and always, always show your partner by your words and your actions that he or she is the most important person in the world to you.