It is April 2013 and my best friend in California is sitting on the swivel chair in my bedroom, pushing himself in slow circles and scrutinizing the photos I have pinned over my desk. The vast majority of them are of my boyfriend. I know we look good together, and I’m used to visitors cooing over our snap-happy faces, so I wait indulgently for his verdict. After a moment he speaks:
“I can’t even picture what he looks like,” my friend says. “His face looks so different in all of these.”
I was studying at the University of California, Berkeley. My boyfriend, Chris, was five thousand miles away in England, patiently waiting out my return. I left the country a mere three months after we accidentally fell into a relationship with each other. Long distance had never been part of my plan.
But life is full of unusual twists, and a year after that first hook-up we are on different sides of the Atlantic; and as my friend speaks I realise that there’s really no-one I can talk to about my Chris out here. It’s not that my friends aren’t willing to listen: they are. One of them is in a long-distance relationship himself. But while they can listen to my stories and grievances about my other half, none of them know anything about him beyond what I have told them. Their opinions of him are always going to be fundamentally biased in my favour. They can’t think of him as a person in his own right, only as a vague extension of me.
The fact is that however absorbed in each other you and your loved one may feel, relationships are never just about two people. Most relationships are subject to myriad of outside influences, and when you’re dating someone who lives nearby, you normally interact as a couple with all the other people in your lives. Their input can make a world of difference to the development of your relationship.
Think about introducing a new boyfriend or girlfriend to your circle of friends – feeling that pinch of anxiety that they’re not going to get along with each other. Or what about having that plus-one for the office party, or taking the step of bringing someone home to meet your parents? These are vital moments that typically act as a measure of your knowledge of and commitment to each other as a couple. They provide fundamental markers of how the two of you are doing, and whether you’re going the right way. These influences are important.
If you’re in a long-distance relationship, especially if it’s one that begins with you meeting online, these vital influences are often missing from your joint life. In a conversation I had with my mum recently we were discussing a friend’s relationship that had been going for roughly the same length as mine; when I made a comparison to my own relationship my mum said “but it’s not nearly the same. After all, you two have spent nine months of the past year in different countries.”
You’ve not interacted in the same way, she meant. You’ve not shared a space for the same length of time, you’ve not communicated in the same way as people who live in the same town. It’s less serious.
I wasn’t the biggest fan of this comment at the time, but I couldn’t deny that it made sense. After all, there’s no more reason why my mother should take my relationship seriously, than my friend should feel like he knows what my boyfriend really looks like after seeing a dozen or more photos. Neither of them have spent time with him, getting to know him as anything other than a popular but vague topic for my happiness or angst. Neither of them have a sense of how we work as a couple.
Long distance relationships can be thrilling, overwhelming, and absorbing. They can also be isolating. If you’re miles apart from the person you’re dating, and feeling removed as a couple from the rest of your important relationships in life, how can you go about bringing the outside influences of friends and family into your little world of two?
First off, meet people. When you do see your boyfriend or girlfriend, your first impulse might be to squirrel yourselves away in a little love nest and max out on your time together: resist this. Take your partner home to meet your parents, arrange group outings with your friends, encourage your partner to start forming links – however slim and tenuous – with other important people in your life.
Not had the chance to bring people home yet? Skype can be a huge help: set up the computer while you and your friends are doing something together and get your other half involved. Of course, some things (white water rafting or whathaveyou) won’t be feasible to share virtually together, but Chris once spent several hours helping my friends and I prepare a Thanksgiving Dinner over the webcam to great effect. You can also invite your partner to join in with you and your friends on multiple-person online games.
Why bother? Because while it’s a common thought that relationships should stay between you and your partner, we learn the rules of what makes a happy and fulfilled relationship – and what doesn’t – from watching other people engaging in romantic paths of their own.
From the earliest days of passing notes to your best friend to doubly confirm she really thinks that speccy boy in your chemistry class fancies you, through angst-ridden break ups and giddy infatuation, you grow used to sharing the highs and lows of your love life with other people. Your partner may be the greatest thing since sliced bread, but on the occasions when they’re driving you crazy it’s good to have someone else you can turn to for a satisfying complaining session. Should a relationship ever fail you can seek some small comfort in knowing you have a support network of people (be it friends or siblings or colleagues): who in some capacity joined you for the ride, who are invested in your happiness, and who will feed you endless cups of tea and reassurance that things will eventually get better.
The point is, make sure you are sharing things, not only with each other but with the other people in your lives who matter. Give your friends and family the opportunity to start seeing everything fabulous about the person you’re in a relationship with and vice versa. It’s also interesting for your other half to see you interact with the other important people in your life. Observing how you relate to others around you helps your partner come to understand you better. It’s all part and parcel of building a community around your relationship, gaining a better understanding of each other, and encouraging the people you love to take your relationship seriously.
As with all things long distance, building your network takes time and effort. But if you and your partner are really serious about each other (and if you’re putting yourselves through the total aggravation of long distance there must be a reason), then haul yourselves out of coupledom-isolation. Start to create a network between your partner and other people you love. Just as no man is an island, neither is it really healthy for couples to be their own little island of two in the long run, so start now to build that network that can help you anchor and cement a bond with this person you love who just happens to live miles away.
Emily Burt (UK)
Website: www.berkeley-girl-2012.blogspot.com Twitter: @EmilyPBurt