Earlier this week, I shared three core values (or “ground rules”) that my husband and I based our three-year long-distance relationship on:
2) honesty and vulnerability
3) being in the present, but planning for the future.
These ground rules not only helped shape how the relationship functioned overall, they also guided many of the practical day-to-day decisions we made about the relationship. Each LDR is unique, with its own specific goals, strengths, and challenges. However, perhaps a deeper look at how our ground rules informed practical decisions in our relationship will be helpful for other LDRs.
Here’s how they played out for us…
Given the massive (and massively inconvenient) time difference between eastern Australia and eastern Canada, Nick and I decided that scheduling a Skype date once a week was the easiest way to make sure that we connected regularly and intentionally. Of course, after the first few weeks, two-hour Skype dates turned into three hours, then four hours, then sometimes more, because we realised that we loved spending time together. And within a few months, daily texts, long emails every few days, and a weekly Skype session didn’t quite cut it. I wanted to hear Nick’s voice every day, to say goodnight, and to experience a sense of daily “togetherness.” So we added Viber calls while I was on my way to work and Nick was just about to sleep.
Through this evolution of our relationship, we had to keep a few practical things in mind. First, being intentional about building our relationship required a financial commitment. Internet plans in Australia and mobile phone plans in Canada aren’t exactly cheap (although they are getting better in recent years), but investing in these was a huge priority for us. If you are blessed to be somewhere where you can get plenty of Internet and mobile phone data, it is a great investment in your relationship!
Second, being intentional about our relationship required prioritising time together. Face it, when the time difference is 14, 15, or 16 hours, depending on daylight savings, there are no consistently convenient times to chat. While Saturday mornings were good for me, that meant that Nick had to nix all Friday night plans with friends. Sunday mornings were good for him, but that meant that I was staying up way too late. Many times, our Skype dates got in the way of other social events, but we made sure that Skype dates were enough of a priority not to regularly get put off or pushed out of the way.
But that brings me to a third point: being intentional about our relationship did not mean that we became so exclusive that we shut out the rest of the world around us. We did have to set boundaries around our time together on Skype so that we weren’t talking constantly. We also regularly evaluated whether we were keeping each other from fulfilling the goals and plans that we had as individuals. We had to make conscious decisions to support each other’s social lives, volunteer projects, and hobbies, even though we couldn’t really share them. This was difficult at times, especially as we watched friends who had partners share these aspects of life. But ultimately, we knew that living a healthy “real” life would make our “virtual” relationship healthier too.
2) Honesty and vulnerability
It’s not particularly easy to be honest in a romantic relationship. Despite wanting the other person to know your heart, what you really want is for them to know the best of your heart, not the worst. A long-distance relationship probably makes this even harder. Planned Skype dates and short in-person visits make it quite easy to put your best foot forward and engage in some serious “impression management.”
I think that being aware that this can be a problem is the first step to making sure that it’s not one. Nick and I chatted often about whether we were giving each other accurate impressions of who we were. We also agreed to answer what we called our “hard punch” questions – questions that were potentially tough and we might not want to answer, but that would help us understand each other at a deeper level. For us, these revolved around topics such as faith, culture (given that we are an inter-racial couple), family of origin, and so on. In our excitement over the amazing number of things that we agreed on, we had to trust that our relationship was strong enough to have some honest disagreements too, rather than just saying what we thought the other person wanted to hear.
In addition to the “hard punch” questions, we asked each other many practical questions to try to compensate for the things that are impossible to know about someone over Skype. We committed to being honest, despite potential embarrassment, about things like: “How consistent are you with exercising?” “How much TV do you watch?” “Do you throw your dirty clothes on the floor?” “Are you going to want to have a pet someday?” “Do you leave the cap open on the toothpaste?” (Thankfully, we both truthfully answered “no” to that last one…I hear that toothpaste can lead to serious relationship conflict!)
Sometimes finding a way to ask questions about the serious stuff can be difficult, and sometimes it’s hard to figure out which practical questions need to be asked. Although it wasn’t published in time for us to use during our LDR phase, Lisa McKay and Michael Wolfe’s “201 Great Discussion Questions for Couples in Long Distance Relationships” is a great way to get good conversation going about the serious and the not-so-serious stuff. As a Christian couple, we used resources such as “101 Questions to Ask Before You Get Engaged” by H. Norman Wright, and we listened to CDs from relationship seminars together and discussed them afterward. This helped immensely with the communication process. Since we did this throughout our relationship, we often revisited topics a few times over the years, and each time we explored to new depths and from different angles.
3) Being in the present, but planning for the future
Although we would like to think that we handled our years of long distance fairly graciously, Nick and I must admit that at times we were frustrated and discontent with the distance. We were most content when we remembered to “be in the present” and gratefully enjoy the support and companionship that we could offer each other even from a distance. We made the most of our Skype dates: eating breakfast/dinner together, watching the occasional movie, and talking and talking and talking.
However, we did look forward to the few in-person visits that we managed and also to the time when long distance would be nothing but a distant memory. We tried to use the time apart to prepare ourselves to be even better when we were together. And we knew that we would need to figure out what we wanted “together” to look like.
Two of the very practical things that we discussed before our first in-person visit were our expectations regarding dates and our expectations regarding physical intimacy. During that first visit, what would be meaningful for us to do together for the first time? What boundaries did we want to set around the physical aspects of our relationship given our shared faith? And how much time did we need to “acclimatise” to each other? For example, given that we had never even held hands (we became a couple after I had already left the city where we met and became friends), it might have been a bit much for me if Nick had greeted me at the airport with a passionate kiss!
Having discussed and decided on these things ahead of time allowed us to be together for the first time after months apart with no awkward moments. In fact, contrary to our expectations, we were instantly comfortable being a couple and it felt as if all of those months of long-distance just fell away. This may not happen in all or even many LDR reunions, but the chances of a smooth transition to doing life “in person” are much higher with a bit of planning.
As I was writing this post and it was getting longer and longer, I realised that these are actually just a few of the many practical tips that worked for us as we tried to live out our “ground rules” and shared values long distance. For us, those rules and values were based on our faith in God and our commitment to live according to our beliefs. For any couple, I believe that finding shared values and living them out together, whether long distance or in person, leads to a sense of integrity in the relationship. What a great way to help a relationship succeed!
A note from Lisa: Dawn, thank you for sharing so deeply and thoughtfully through this series about your story and how your “ground rules” guided your relationship and decision-making! Readers, it’s your turn now.