It is a hard thing to imagine being in a long distance relationship with someone that you can’t even see face to face on a regular basis. I never understood how long distance couples were able to do it and I suppose somewhere in my mind I told myself that they couldn’t, that it wouldn’t work and would just end in disappointment. I mean, I used to get grumpy if I didn’t see my boyfriend after one week, let alone weeks, months or even never.
We’d been together for seven years and were one of those happy “practically married” couples that would annoy our friends with our apparent romantic success in life. Not that everything was picture perfect – we’d had our fair share of rocks and knocks along the way, challenges to overcome and just plain old getting pissed off at each other for trivial reasons. So when I made the decision to move overseas, I told myself that this would just be another challenge for us to get past. After all, you don’t stay together for seven years to let a little thing like distance ruin everything right? But I still didn’t feel very confident and even though my boyfriend was being perfect and supportive and optimistic, I knew he was feeling the same way.
I have always wanted to move overseas. My dad was born in England and I grew up hearing stories about his home country and his travels around Europe in a vintage VW campervan. I guess even since I was young I had always planned to leave South Africa one day. My twin sister had recently moved to England herself with her fiancé and I missed her and was itching to join her as soon as I could. So when the possibility of a job opportunity came up in London, I wanted to throw myself at it.
My boyfriend has always known how much moving overseas meant to me and has always been willing to follow me anywhere. At first we excitedly talked about our possible new life overseas but it wasn’t long before we realised that it just wasn’t going to be that easy. He didn’t have a British passport like I did and the immigration laws are so strict it basically made it impossible for him to follow me. Even if we were married we would still have to be separated for at least six months and have a certain level of earnings before he could even apply for a visa. Despite this, my boyfriend never once asked me to stay behind, instead he wholeheartedly encouraged me to take the job, knowing what it would mean for us. So, with his encouragement, I accepted the job and made quick preparations to leave the country and join my sister in London.
Saying goodbye at the airport was difficult. For some reason it just felt so final as I went through security and saw him start shrinking away into the distance. The thought of not seeing each other for months made me feel hollow, like a gaping hole was opening up in my chest. If it felt so terrible now, how would it feel when we were actually apart?
I suppose looking back I was being a bit over dramatic. It’s not like the old days where I would have to wait for weeks and weeks to receive that elusive love letter. The airplane had free wifi and after a few minutes we were chatting away on Whatsapp as though everything was completely normal. It felt really good that he was never far away even though we were oceans apart.
At first things were going really well, we Skyped all the time, chatted away on instant messaging, I sent him photos while I was out and about sightseeing and he sent me photos of himself hanging out with all our friends, who I was missing too. I started to think “Hey, this isn’t so bad, we can make this work”. But after a several weeks the messages became less frequent and I started to miss him a lot. It was cold and wintery where I was and every night I climbed into the big double bed alone and stared at my cellphone waiting for replies to my messages.
I became more and more disheartened as the effects of being in a long distance relationship settled in, thinking that this was the inevitable ‘drifting apart’ I was so afraid of. And then that sadness started to turn to anger and frustration. How hard was it to reply to a message? To pick up the phone or to Skype? Surely he could manage at least that? These thoughts began to consume me so that when I finally did get a reply I was more irritated than happy. I’d only been gone a couple months after all, how would things be in four months or six months?
It all erupted in an argument one day, when teary eyed and heartbroken I asked him if he even missed me at all. It wasn’t long before I realised that he did miss me, more than anything. As hard as it was for me to leave, it was just as hard for him to be left behind. But just because we were apart, it didn’t mean that life stopped, for either of us. I had a new job and lifestyle that kept me busy and he was still doing his grueling shift work and studies back home and it kept him busy too. I hadn’t expected him to keep in touch with me 24/7 before and it was unreasonable for me to expect it now that we lived in different countries. Our lives goes on, even if they are further apart than they used to be. It didn’t mean we loved or missed each other any less.
We decided to make special times to talk, so that we didn’t put unreasonable expectations on each other. It’s not like we have a calendar filled in with scheduled times or anything as rigid as that, but we try our best to make some special time to Skype, or Whatsapp or even play some online games together when we are both free and not stressed out with life in general. Sometimes we chat for ages and sometimes it is just a quick conversation because we have nothing interesting to talk about. But making that time is important, just a little bit of time put aside for only him and me and nobody else.
While I wouldn’t call myself an expert in long distance relationships, I have learnt a few things the hard way. The most important thing I have had to learn is acceptance. I have had to accept that our lives are separate and that right now we are walking individual paths. I am not able to be central to everything that happens in my boyfriend’s life, how could I be when I am miles away? We both have to get on with things and trust each other to make our own decisions. I have also had to accept that I am not going to get a ‘to-the-minute’ update on what is happening in his life while I am not there. To sit staring at my phone or email waiting for calls and replies puts a lot more strain and unreasonable expectations on both of us. Trust is a big thing or your head will start to fill with doubts that will start to weigh heavily on your mind. Trust that he loves me and misses me, trust that he will still be loyal to me. I know that if I start to doubt these things then an uneasy negativity will start to creep in to our relationship. While it isn’t always easy, it is important for us to be optimistic. Counting the hours and days we are apart will only start to depress us both so instead we keep our minds focused on the good things, we are both still young and in love and have a lot of exciting things ahead of us to look forward to.
I have also learnt to cherish other things that may not have seemed so important before. He can’t hold me and kiss me in person but he can ask me how my day was and tell me he misses me. Something small like that, that once would have just been a sweet everyday gesture, can mean the world to you when you are far apart and know that there is that special person out there who gives a damn about you.
Just like before, we are still not perfect. We still have normal couple fights and disagreements, we still have ups and downs but we try to work these out just like we did before. When you’re in a long distance relationship and apart, it is easy to hang up a call or turn off your phone and stay angry, but that won’t solve anything, it will only cause that negativity to creep back in and make the distance seem a hundred times worse. We always worked things out before and we try our best to do that now too rather than dragging out a fight.
Most importantly, I feel we definitely appreciate each other now more than we ever did because the moments we are in contact with each other are a lot more precious. I have a new and great respect for my boyfriend for being so supportive of me going overseas and for staying optimistic and strong even though it is hard. It isn’t easy to be in a long distance relationship and I don’t think it is for everyone. I think it takes even more commitment, trust and acceptance than a normal relationship, but for us it is worth the extra effort because even if we are separated by distance, we both want to be together. It is as simple as that.
I guess I can understand now how some people can have a relationship with someone online that they have never met. The power that just a few words in a message or email can have over you can be quite incredible, and just because you can’t physically be together doesn’t mean that you can’t still have a strong bond and connection, and it doesn’t mean you can’t fall in love or stay in love.
I will be visiting home in a few months and I can’t wait. I don’t expect a dramatic teary eyed reunion like in the movies. It isn’t as though we have been strangers. We talk every day. And while the inevitable goodbye will still be hard, I know that being apart is just another challenge to overcome and, as cheesy as it sounds, together we can overcome anything.