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Q&A with a psychologist who works with humanitarian aid workers

Lisa McKay Advice, Real-life Stories Leave a Comment

Today I’m thrilled to share an interview with a colleague of mine about her own experiences with long distance relationships. Tania (not her real name) has worked for many years supporting humanitarian aid workers worldwide, and her insights are born from both personal experience and professional observations. Enjoy…

1. How did you meet your partner?

We met when I was working for an NGO and my partner started working at the NGO the week before I started. It wasn’t an immediate attraction on my side, but I was drawn to him, and we soon began a relationship. Neither of us had much hope of it lasting beyond the time that we were in the same country together, but 14 years later, here we still are…

2. What is your current situation?

We seem to have been fated to have a number of long distances in our relationship, over the 14 years that we’ve been together! We have spent three, roughly three-month periods apart when my husband was working or studying in another country, as well as probably over 50 separations for a week or two, when I went on mission travel. We are currently in our longest separation so far, and hopefully the longest ever, as my husband is working in West Africa on a one-year contract and I am in Europe.

3. What’s been one “benefit” of being in a long distance relationship?

Right now I can’t think of any! I hate being apart, but I’ll save the venting for the next question! The only benefit I can think of at a stretch, is that you learn to really appreciate each other – it’s easy to take each other for granted when you wake up and go to sleep next your partner each day. Once they’ve gone you realise not only how much they mean to you, but also appreciate just how much they contribute to easing your day along, both in practical terms as well as by just being there for you, and with you.

4. What are some things you’ve found most difficult about being in a long distance relationship?

I think that I am very aware of the dangers to relationships posed by long distance. Having worked as a psychologist with a large number of humanitarian aid workers, I’ve heard my fair share of stories of relationships which burst apart, or just got stretched too far, through long distance complications. So I guess one of the things I struggle with is a fear of losing my husband, which translates into some jealousy, insecurity and a struggle with the knowledge that it is largely beyond my control. A benefit related to this is that I’ve had to face my insecurities and learn to deal with them – to a degree! Communication is key in relation to this, and of course you need a good dollop of trust!

Another difficulty is communication, when internet connections are poor, or electricity is down and internet falls away altogether; it gets extremely frustrating! Especially as it usually seems to happen on the days that I urgently need to discuss something with him, or have been waiting all day to share something with him, and we can spend an hour repeatedly trying to reconnect having been disconnected, or having fuzzy pixels and robotic, distorted voice conversations, which leave you with not much more than: “How are you? I am fine!”

The other thing I find hard to deal with are the cheerful comments of friends and colleagues, such as “Don’t worry, it will be over before you know it!” and “Oh, six months have passed already? Do you see how quickly it goes?!” and “You must be enjoying your freedom”, or “It must add such excitement and romance to your relationship!” I want to shout back that we had no lack of romance and excitement in our relationship before this, thank you very much, and each week apart feels like a month to me, so no, actually, it isn’t going very quickly at all!

5. Tell us about a romantic or happy moment in your relationship.

We entered the relationship with children already in place, so we had little time alone together from the start. Coming from different parts of the world, and with grandparents on other continents, any chance that we could get away alone together was rare, and therefore extra special. Working in Africa, Europe and the USA has allowed us romantic breaks away together in the Comoros, Florida and the Bahamas, as well as trips to France, Italy and Spain. Now we are trying to meet every 4 weeks, in between my husband coming home for his 8-weekly R&R break, and so far we’ve spent weekends in Paris and Lisbon, which are extra special when you only have 3 or 4 days together before and after yet another long separation.

6. What is something you’ve learned about yourself from being in a long distance relationship?

I’ve learned that I am more vulnerable, more dependent and more insecure than I had thought! I’ve had to learn to relinquish control. And I’ve learned a bit more patience – I can’t say that I’ve yet mastered the art, but I keep working at it!

2e7. Do you have any words of advice for other people in long distance relationships?

I think you have to work at maintaining the threads that make up the fabric of your daily life, by sharing the mundane (‘They came to read the electricity meter today’, ‘The cherry blossom has just come into bloom’, ‘I had a checkup at the dentist’) as well as the big moments. When communication is limited by distance, we tend to focus on sharing only the highs and the crises, but I believe that it’s the little things that keep us connected. For us it is important to chat every evening. With Face time and Skype you get to see each other, which makes the separation a lot more bearable.

Have a couple of back-up plans in case of bad connections and power cuts – a pre-paid phone card, a cheap-rate calling card, or as a last resort, calling each other’s cell phones, despite the cost of roaming, just to briefly touch base. During the day I find that it helps to email each other one-liners about our day, share a bit of news or a joke, just to stay in touch. These little threads help to weave the connection that keep you bound together.

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