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Love, Internationally: How to Do Long Distance Relationships 101

There you were, minding your own business when that feeling hit you—hard. Through a quick introduction at a party, on social media, or even on the street, you agreed to a drink with a new someone, then dinner and a walk home followed by a sweet word, a kiss, and before you know it—a goodbye. Your travel and love life had collided and this wasn’t just a quick hook-up. You’ve returned home with the start of a long distance relationship and while your heart may be all good, your head is saying ‘Now what?’

International long distance relationships are tricky and, speaking from experience, it’s downright terrifying if you have no one who can relate. Recently, I spoke with a few traveling mavens who have done or are doing the LDR dance and are happy to share some gems on what happens next. Each one teach one, ladies.

Britani*, 28, met her main squeeze Jonathan via social media, which quickly turned into a series of dates between his native Panama and her home base of New York City. Three years later, they are both living in Panama and getting ready to re-enter another long-distance phase as she prepares to explore another country later this year.

Tracy*, 35, met her love Antonio at a concert in Brooklyn, NY. He always had plans to return to his native Dominica, but those plans became a sudden reality almost one year into their now two-year relationship.

Jackie*, 31, met her love in the air, literally. That plane ride turned into a one year relationship that found her in Asia and him in Australia. Though they recently ended their affair, they remain great friends.

Me. My current relationship is long distance and going great (Hi Dan!) and I can also speak about a previous one year, multi-country LDR that went left and resulted in two friends not speaking for years. [update: I married him on 4/20/16!]

Though our respective stories are different, a few key gems of advice continued to rise to the top during our chats. If the idea of long distance love is on the horizon, sit down and take a few notes.

First, Check Yourself
Take a normal relationship and increase the difficulty level by four, that is a long distance relationship. While a strong sense of self is the most important thing to have when walking into any situation, long distance relationships come with a set of emotional/mental challenges that aren’t for the faint (or clingy) of heart as you are giving up physical and visual contact for a prolonged amount of time. At first that may sound like something you can deal with but if the idea of spending a snowy winter night alone on your couch with your iPhone, Netflix and red wine as opposed to under a blanket with bae makes you cringe, perhaps LDRs aren’t for you yet. For busy women like myself, the daily grind helps a lot but you shouldn’t hide behind being busy. There will be days when your friends can’t hang, the house is clean, errands have been completed and you are left with just … you and you’re going to have to deal with that. Ready?

… And Then Check Your Relationship
Before you start imagining dramatic airport terminal reunions and beach weddings, be honest with yourself and each other about what type of relationship you actually have. A few WhatsApp chats and Skype dates after initially meeting does not a relationship make. As with any other situation, there is a non-committal phase of getting to know one another (aka dating, like people in the same city) and then once you both agree that you like where things are going and seeing other people is off the table, make your relationship official. Whether or not monogamy is your definition of a relationship, the decision to enter into any relationship must be a mutual one. But before you both jump in, consider the reality of a long distance relationship from both an emotional and practical view.

Here’s some good advice from Jackie: Have a gauge of what you and your partner are willing to sacrifice before even considering a long distance relationship because it will require more of your time, money and patience than you can imagine. Budget for spontaneity, it’s the gateway to romance, excitement and bonding with your partner–especially during the times where you both get absolutely sick of video chatting. 

A Long Distance Relationship = Cheating. Right?
Any relationship runs the risk of infidelity. Who doesn’t know of a relationship that imploded due to cheating where both parties lived in the same city or house? This is where the aforementioned check of your relationship is key. According to Britani, this is where respect comes in: One misconception is that you have an increased worry about infidelity. If the foundation is not there and neither person is committed to making the relationship work, then it won’t. There must be mutual respect and trust for each other before going into it. If not, then it’s not worth it.

For Tracy, it’s all about being grown: I truly believe that if each party is mature and already has a fulfilled individual life of their own, that the phrase ‘absence makes the heart grow fonder’ is a better fit.

In short, the more upfront you both are about everything from the beginning, the less you should worry about infidelity. This is for any relationship, long distance or with a person sitting right next to you. If you walk into a situation with worry, suspicion and mistrust, your weak foundation will cause the relationship to crumble.

Which brings us to…

(Over) Communication Is Everything
If you aren’t much of a talker, be prepared for a little shock because if there is one thing you do in LDRs it is talk—a lot. Whether its on the phone, video chat or via text, constant communication is everything. From Tracy: Missing a call or not returning an email or WhatsApp message for hours on end isn’t a big deal in a regular relationship but it can be a deal breaker when there are hundreds of miles between you two.

This can be especially true at the beginning when you are still figuring each other out. A good tip? Don’t depend on each other to be mind readers. Britani and Jonathan kept it open to make things work: Make it easy for each other. We would let each other know what we had planned during the day, check in when we got in the house so that the other knows that we are safe, etc. It’s the little things that count when you can’t be next to each other.

With communication comes understanding and with understanding comes a realistic managing of expectations, especially when competing time zones are involved. Even when both of your daily schedules are crazy, resolving not to start or end a day without a text or quick Viber/Tango call offers invaluable peace of mind. Unless you like going down those ill-fated ‘Where were you?’ and ‘What were you doing?’ mental spirals, make sure both of you are on the same communication page because just hanging out isn’t an option.

Communication is also a great indicator of what may be really happening on the other end of the line. Can’t get more than one word answers from bae and when someone asks you ‘What do they do?’ and you don’t exactly know? Britani has some excellent things to watch out for that may be red flags: If he/she never invites you to visit them or they don’t speak to you about their life in their part of the world, etc., something fishy might be going on. Transparency is essential in this situation for the safety and peace of mind of both people involved.”

According to Jackie, it’s what you’re talking about in addition to how often you talk: “We made our relationship work by trusting and prioritizing connecting with each other frequently and deeply. Chatting quickly or sporadically about life’s logistics instead of discussing your feelings, aspirations and thoughts at length will give you a myopic view of one another. My ex and I brought each other into our lives like we were together in person and as a result, we still have an amazing friendship to this day.

One thing to note about hyper-communication—this doesn’t give either one of you permission to police each other’s lives. Things happen, phones die, people fall asleep, minor civil wars break out but once you get into the habit of staying close but far with your words, you know when to worry and when to chill.

Expect, and Respect Your Differences
As in any relationship there are going to be differences. But when two different cultures come into the mix, be prepared for a mix of big and small things which all can turn out to be invaluable learning experiences. With my current partner, I had to learn to pull back on my tendency, and expectation, to eat out. Dan’s country imports a lot of food, which makes sit-down restaurants reserved for special occasions as it’s generally very expensive. And that’s ok, what’s sexier than watching your boo cook dinner and clean the kitchen? Few things. This also allows me to be more respectful of my other friends in his country and not be insensitive when suggesting things to do.

For Tracy, even though they speak the same language, accents can make for plenty of “lost in translation” moments: “Though I grew up in a Caribbean family I am very American. So even though he speaks English, his accent can be hard to understand at times, or certain words/phrases that he uses are unfamiliar to me. I spend a good amount of time saying “Wha? What’d you say? What does that mean?!”

And while Britani could navigate Spanish with ease, it was Jonathan’s dogs and super-organized nature that clashed with her self-described ‘cleanly mess’ style: “I made adjustments so that he doesn’t feel crazy in his home, and it has also helped me improve my organization, etc…Through it all, we voice our opinions and gripes, and we respect ourselves and each other enough that we work to improve our shortcomings and improve how we navigate our shared space.”

For Jackie, her Caribbean-American background and his Australian culture made for some eye-opening moments: “…as a Caucasian Australian, he learned a ton about privilege and the plight of people of color through an African American lens, which broadened his perspective. For me, I learned a lot about how much the American public school system does NOT teach us enough about other cultures, and how the American work ethic teaches us to work our lives away, meanwhile, considering that Australia is quite isolated, young people are encouraged to travel far, and travel often. By the time my (then) boyfriend and I had met, he had traveled to around 30 countries by his mid-twenties.”

While all of these examples are very specific to the situation and were easily addressed, sometimes things will go left when cultures clash. Very very much to the left. Like that one time  I was called a “nigga” by the white friend of my LDR ex and had to calmly explain why that was definitely not ok even though I was mouthing the words to Dr. Dre’s “Explosive” on the dance floor a few minutes earlier. You have to be willing to touch on the touchy at times, especially around class and race. This may never happen, but when different cultures collide, you may be put in a position to educate others about your own.

Long story short, shit happens. And if it’s worth it and your communication is on point, you will deal with it.

Technology Is Your Friend
No international LDR is complete without the following apps:
Skype – Video Chats and Voice Calls
WhatsApp – Free Texts over wifi
Viber – Free Video Chat, Voice Calls & Texts over wifi
Tango – Free Video Chat, Voice Calls & Texts over wifi

Most of these apps are already used by frequent travelers, but they will become your personal friends in a LDR. In addition to the above, there are a whole host of mobile apps dedicated to long distance couples that remind both of you of special anniversaries, updates and more. In Tracy’s relationship, technology is also a way to show affection, with a surprise Digicel Top Up being the perfect way to say “I love you.” Because minutes and data are everything when your relationship’s number one tool is your phone.

Surround Yourself With Support
The funny thing about LDR’s is the how much they help you view your relationships at home. In short, the support of your friends and family are everything—but don’t expect it from everybody. Says Tracy: “Most of my friends were like ‘Wha?? You don’t really think he’s gonna be faithful do you?’ or ‘You better not be sitting around waiting on this guy.’ Most just couldn’t get why I would make a commitment to a guy hundreds of miles away. I was told that I should date other people and I was setting myself up for heartbreak.”

The truth is, not everybody will get it. And that’s ok—everything isn’t for everybody. When dealing with criticism, consider this: all of my friends who are in healthy relationships with another person and themselves have been nothing but honest, protective and supportive while some of my more single/sadder friends have been less than helpful. Some people just need to work it out on their own before they can make an honest assessment on yours, and thats ok. It helps to go to the people who really know you and can give you feedback based in respect and objective truth. Even when you make moves pretty quickly like Britani did: “My friends and family were/are very supportive. They love Jonathan and know that when I make a decision, it has been thought out thoroughly and I am confident about it. We moved pretty quickly in the beginning. We started dating in December, and I moved in with him 3 months later. Those who were close to me gave me their blessing and trusted that everything was going to be alright, and it totally is.”

As with anything, choose who you confide in, but don’t ignore consistent red flags in the name of love. A great friend is a great ear, and when it comes to the details of any relationship – choose who confide in. You will need them on the days when all you want to do is lay in bed and dwell on the “whys” but instead they drag you out of the house for burritos and gossip to get your mind off of things, just like in any relationship.

Recognize The Worth & The Real
After the sheen of newness rubs off, the first bought of loneliness has been fought and marathon Skype has been completed, you will probably find yourself at a crossroads of if it’s all worth it. Let this be your guide on what happens next. When you know, you know.

And when things start to become real – you both have to be in it. Says Britani: “When long distance is done right, it’s totally worth it, but both parties have to “show up” to make that happen. It’s no fair if one always makes an effort to see the other, and that is not reciprocated. When your mate shows that they are invested in the relationship and does things to keep your mind at ease and make you feel special, let them know that you are appreciative of them and their efforts. Make sure that you are doing your part as well.”

Most importantly, realize that your relationship isn’t any “less real” than anyone else’s. (And anyone who insinuates that is definitely not your friend.) While it’s easy to fall into a fantasy, snap out of. Says Tracy: “Recognize that this is still just a regular relationship that requires the same work that a domestic one does. It can be easy to gloss over issues or romanticize the state of your relationship when you are so far apart. Guard against that because when you finally reunite you’ll be in for a rude awakening.”

Her “worth it” also includes everything she’s learning about herself in the process: “I am growing and learning so much about myself in this relationship. And having a great time doing it. Makes it more than worth it.”

With Britani, she credits her LDR for the success they are having now that they are in the same space: “He is truly my best friend. If I am falling off in my professional or personal life, he checks me and vice versa. We comfort each other, push each other to be better people, and take time to celebrate life and the moments that we have together. Long distance is not easy, but it’s worth it when both people are invested in making it work. We love with no reservations, and communicate what’s going on in our heads often. I think starting off as a long distance relationship made us appreciate our time together even more.”

And even if it doesn’t work out, you can walk away from the experience with a whole new set of insights that can prepare you for whatever the future holds, like Jackie did: “Whether or not the relationship ends with living “happily ever after”, there is tremendous personal growth and insight that comes with committing to a long-distance international relationship, and regardless of the outcome, it can lend greatly to your future relationship(s) – even long-distance friendships! Being in this relationship taught me how deep, passionate love can transcend distance/time zones, and that the “success” of an LDR (or any relationship, for that matter) is really a matter of character, chemistry, personality, mutual respect/admiration, and a desire to take the leap! No half-steppin’!”

Long distance relationships aren’t new, but for single traveling they are very much a possibility if you are open to it. Look at it like this: once you’ve decided that it’s worth it, you’ve got a sweet reason to travel and get to know yourself and another country intimately. It may not be for eternity. but for right now – enjoy the ride and #travelfly!

*Names and some identifying details have been changed to maintain privacy.

Last 5 posts by Shannon Washington

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