Long Distance - Can It Work?

by Raja Fernaliz Raja Harris
University of Warwick

Original article appeared in The Sunday Star on September 12, 1999.

No, I'm not talking about long-distance learning, a growing trend in higher education today. I mean relationships, and romantic ones specifically. While other students studying abroad might feel obliged to tell you about choosing the right university or just generally about life abroad, I've decided to take to share an aspect that is close to my heart. Relationships. Yes, the ones that go on between the two sexes. Or if you prefer, even the ones that go on between people of the same sex.

I remember that sultry afternoon in August 1997 when I was at the airport sending my boyfriend Wan off to the US. He was going for two-and-a-half years, while I was set to go to England for three years. We had been an item for little more than a year. Emptiness, desolation, a sense of being abandoned--these feelings washed over me in a blur. It was surreal, but the day we've dreaded for months had finally arrived.

Shakespeare sums it up so beautifully, "Parting is such sweet sorrow." I'd promised Wan that I'd be brave. Quivering chin and all, I tried my best to stop the tears. After all, what's a little distance? We'd have the telephone, the e-mails and letters. I was pretty sure that a couple of good old-fashioned letters would make me feel better.

But I caved in as soon as he started to say his goodbyes to his family. I couldn't help it. My brother swears I didn't cry as much when my cat died when it was unfortunate enough to position itself in the path of the car as my father was backing out of the garage. The cat was as flat as a pancake, but I didn't cry as much as I did that day at the airport.

Those farewells were said just over two years ago. I've survived and live to tell the story. And contrary to popular belief, long-distance isn't as bad as some people make it out to be. It's just been subject to bad press, probably the exaggerations of the jilted lover. Like normal relationships, a long-distance one can either fail or succeed. To fail in this type of relationship is taking the easy way out, succeeding in one is the real challenge.

Judging from my own ups and downs of the past two years, I have developed a list of criteria for long-distance relationships that work. To do so, the relationship must match at least two of the first three on this list (item four is a must):

  • BEHAVE like responsible adults. Be mature. Childish behaviour like extreme jealousy is a big no-no.
  • HAVE a firm foundation. Is your relationship based on friendship and genuine affection or just the fact that you think he or she is cute?
  • HAVE open communication. Do tell the other person what you expect, what your limits are. Outline the basis of your relationship clearly.
  • RESOLVE to make it work. Do you both want it to work? That's the real question.

The advantages (yes, you read that right) of a long-distance relationship, drawing from my own, do exist. It served as motivation to save up for a ticket to cross the Atlantic. I've been to America twice since I've been in England and covered the East Coast.

While he's been over here, we've visited interesting places in the country and in France and Italy. If we were studying in the same place, we might not have the means to travel as much in two separate continents.

And another one, which I think scares most people out of their wits, although they'd rather not admit it, is the fact that a relationship like this is a good test of commitment. Distance weeds out the unfaithful among us and tests the endurance of true love.

Problems definitely start even before you leave. Some of us are just so wrapped up in preparations, special dinners or kenduri with relatives and friends (and relatives' friends and friends' relatives), last-minute runs to the corner shop for some forgotten spices and so on, we often overlook one of the most precious people in our lives.

Preparation is important, I admit, but making your significant other feel significant in your time of major transition is imperative if you want to establish a positive long-distance relationship.

When you first get to university, you would inevitably feel lonely, possibly even a little lost. That's normal, you'd feel just as lost at a local university. I was quite distressed when I didn't see a familiar face for the better part of my first week here.

I was meeting new people, trying to get things in perspective and living on my own. I was friends with the outrageously fun-loving Brits on my corridor before the week was out. It's understandable that you won't have the time to keep in touch with anyone from home in the first week or so. Make this clear to your partner before you go to avoid the invariably hysterical You've-found-someone-else confrontation.

Then there's the how-many-times-a-week-on-the-telephone agreement to be sealed between the two of you. Be reasonable, agree on days or times to call and stay within your budget. There's no use running a huge overdraft to pay for a massive phone bill. You could just as well spend all that money on a ticket home for Christmas. Or go on that European backpacking trip you've been dreaming of ever since you can remember--together. And appeal to your partner's sense of flexibility. That's to avoid the You've-been-out-all-night-with-another-bloke-and-forgot-to-call-me fight.

A cheaper option to calls would be the Internet, that wonderful technological invention that's been one of the major factors that I've not jumped on the single bandwagon when faced with the challenge of distance. There are chat rooms where you can chat for as long as you like without breaking the bank. Do make use of e-mails to communicate as well, they're almost as good as letters.

Having said that, I do treasure something tangible like the cards and letters I get in the post. Nothing replaces the feeling you get holding a piece of something he had thoughtfully written for your pleasure. And nothing tops an I-miss-you-much card he has sent simply because he misses you.

Choose your words carefully. The strain of being apart and not seeing each other for a long time may result in the both of you reading too much in a few spoken or even worse, written words. I remember the spectacular fights we've had in chat rooms and over the phone because I over-analysed the things my poor unsuspecting boyfriend said. He swore that he didn't mean it like I had interpreted it.

Most of the time, I'm sure he's telling the truth. But I just can't help it. It's the distance, the frustration of being so close yet so far over the phone lines. When he forgets to mention just how much he misses you it doesn't mean he doesn't, so don't start the You-don't-miss-me-so-you-are-over-me argument just yet. The obvious need not be said all the time, although it's nice to hear it once in a while (read everyday).

Getting too carried away with preserving a relationship has to be the silliest thing you can do. Do not go to extremes and make unreasonable demands on each other. You'll wear each other out long before you graduate. The idea is to love and be loved in return, don't let that turn into something ugly with petty arguments that are blown out of proportion into a bitter quarrel.

Learn to let go. This has to be the hardest bit I have had to learn but the fact that Wan has a separate life from mine was quite unbearable at first. You have to accept the reality that you'll have separate sets of friends and he might go out with other people while you're not there. Having fun does not have to include you, so accept that graciously and make sure you go out and have fun too. Set your limits. Some couples are exclusive while some work better in an "open" relationship, although I doubt I'd be able to digest the latter. Different couples have different ideas and priorities, make sure both of yours don't greatly differ.

Try to earn money part-time. This is your passport to seeing each other often. Part-time jobs are lucrative over in Britain and the United States, so do try to get a weekend job. I estimate that working six weekends for 16 hours pays for a ticket home, and I'm not joking. You could set it aside for a holiday to wherever that tickles your fancy. Going on holiday with a group of friends is great, especially if he is there with you too.

Finally, don't set out thinking it won't work. I thought mine wouldn't and I am ashamed to admit it. It's the thought that you'll be apart that drives most people crazy. I know it drove me crazy. Once you're apart it's easier to deal with.

Give it a chance, it might just work for you as it has for me. My friends are amazed at how well everything has turned out for me. Who am I kidding? Even I'm amazed!

In a funny way, I think being apart has actually been very healthy for our relationship. It's made us focus on the best things about each other and we've dealt with the tough times by learning to communicate our thoughts, fears and hopes so well to each other. So for those of you in a long-distance relationship, don't despair, be strong for it can turn out to be an exceedingly rewarding experience. Isn't love supposed to conquer all?

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