Photo by Sally Lu

June 1, 2021

Navigating borders in a long-distance relationship

By Sally Lu

With more than 90 per cent of the world living under travel restrictions this past year, I went from being in a long-distance relationship to suddenly living with my partner. Talk about a “new normal.”

After cohabitating for five years, my partner left to study for a graduate degree in Washington, D.C. Not wanting to be one-upped, I moved twice — first a transcontinental move to Portland, Oregon, and then an intercontinental move to Copenhagen, Denmark.

Our long-distance relationship was a unique time in our lives where we grew our careers and pursued our professional goals independently. Travel became our biggest solace during our time apart.

(A)synchronous dating 

At first, we struggled to communicate in a long-distance relationship. Having lived together in the past, we were used to a certain lifestyle. We quickly realized we had to change our expectations.

While we never set a formal schedule, we always made the effort to connect at least once a day. We’d try to remember when our time zones overlapped to reach out. Some days, it was a quick “Good morning!” or a check-in later in the evening. Other days, we might have had a longer, impromptu call.

Often, we’d send photos of the cool adventures we were up to and wanted to share with each other. We got creative with the activities we did remotely, like playing video games or watching a movie together.

Despite living in different countries, we established that we still really enjoyed talking to each other. It brightened our days, no matter if it was just a short call or a quick message.

But we also understood that we couldn’t rely solely on each other for all our social needs. My partner threw himself into projects with his fellow students. I was lucky enough to have friends and co-workers in both the U.S. and Europe that I could visit while travelling for work. 

Being in a long-distance relationship tested our trust in each other. My partner and I both had different goals we wanted to prioritize. That’s why we were in a long-distance relationship in the first place. But it didn’t mean we didn’t care about each other. 

Ultimately, we knew the long-distance was temporary. We were always working toward a common goal—our endgame of living together again. This united us and helped us get through some of the lonelier times in our relationship.

Meeting in the middle

Another aspect that helped us through the relationship was travelling. Travel during our long-distance relationship fell into two categories: travelling to see each other and travelling with each other.

One question I’d frequently get was, “How often do you two see each other?”

I consider myself extremely lucky to be able to answer this question in the first place. It’s a luxury to know exactly when the next time you’ll see someone is, especially when it requires expensive air travel.

I absolutely acknowledge that I had this privilege. It helped me set the expectation early on that I’d travel more often to visit him. This was because I had the resources (a stable, predictable job that travels) to do so. 

For our visits to see each other, we’d make long weekends longer by staying for an extra day or two. During these trips, it often felt like we were maintaining the status quo. We’d visit each other’s family and friends to maintain a semblance of what our relationship was like prior to being continents apart. These semi-regular visits forced me to come to terms with the fact that a small, cockroach-infested apartment in Washington, D.C., was my home for several weeks each year.

For long-distance relationships, being far away from each other is both the worst and best part. Depending on where I was for work, sometimes it made more sense to meet in the middle. Once, we ran into my boss at a honky-tonk in Nashville. On another trip, we visited 24 different Christmas markets in Europe. We've even hiked around an active volcano in our travels.

The long periods of time without seeing my partner sometimes made him seem distant and foreign to me. Our trips together would encourage me to lean on him for support since he was the only thing familiar in someplace new.

Despite the effort I put into travel, sometimes I wouldn’t feel like I got anything out of it. Some trips felt amazing—it was so nice to have someone I could reach out to for support, conversations and shared memories. Other times, it was difficult to see what the reward was from hours of logistical planning and effort. 

Long-distanced loneliness

At times, I felt very lonely in my long-distance relationship. It was easy to miscommunicate. I’d often find myself keeping my frustration or sadness to myself, to avoid wasting my precious calls with my partner on expressing anger. It felt so easy to put a wall up and keep my emotions guarded.

Each time I went to see him, I'd fly into Dulles airport and take a taxi from Virginia to D.C. On these drives, I was reminded of how arbitrary borders are. Other than the sign on the freeway indicating that I crossed a state line, I would have no other way to see this demarcation of separate places. In a similar way, these were the borders I was creating for myself. I withdrew and put up arbitrary boundaries for a place that didn’t physically exist.

I realized I had to break down these mental borders I created. It took a conscious effort to reach out every day and let my own guard down. In my long-distance relationship, the biggest challenge was for me to be vulnerable and honest.

But everything quickly changed when the world shut down in March 2020. My partner and I went from not living together to living together again very suddenly. It was a strange shift from saying “I’ll see you in a month or two” to “I see you all hours, all day.”

Living together again has been bittersweet. At first, I missed the autonomy of living alone. Since then, we’ve carved out a time every day for us to work on our own projects and not distract each other. And while I don’t miss being long-distance, I do miss travelling. There’s a lingering mourning of a life that could have been. I imagined my youth filled with exploring new places, experiencing different cultures and many travels abroad.

However, nothing beats being beside the person you love. Our time together has made me appreciate the smaller, mundane things I missed long-distance—things I wouldn’t have necessarily seen when travelling together. We start our mornings with tea together. I can reach over and occasionally steal a bit of his food. I love hearing him laugh when I show him a silly meme. Everything in quarantine almost felt like a new experience for us.

Navigating borders in a new normal

Fortunately, or unfortunately, I still apply my lessons learned from being in a long-distance relationship. When the Government of Ontario announced a state of emergency, all of my relationships with friends and family became distanced ones overnight. I had to learn the needs in each relationship and how to navigate boundaries with people all over again.

Some of it was figuring out the new frequency of how often I should reach out. I constantly questioned if I should keep my distance, or if people desperately wanted to connect but felt too overwhelmed with everything else going on. From my experience, I learned it’s always better to over-communicate than not communicate at all.

My experience in a long-distance relationship forced me to learn creative ways to keep in touch. When I lived in a different country, I would play video games, stream movies or share what I was thinking about buying with friends. It didn’t feel like a huge adjustment moving into a virtual world because I’ve already been living there this whole time.

One final lesson is to have relentless optimism. I’ve learned to live with the ambiguity of not knowing when the next time I’ll see someone in-person is. Living across the world from my partner for so long taught me to always live in the moment and enjoy my time with the other person when I could. Now that my friends and I can’t be together, I still have many fun memories to look back on. It’s kind of ridiculous, but I keep hoping that one day I’ll be able to have brunch with them again.

Among the many kilometers travelled, my journey in a long-distance relationship has helped me understand my own boundaries and expectations for honesty and trust. But it’s also been a lesson in being vulnerable and letting people in. Borders will always have two sides. At the end of it all, my experience helped me learn how to better connect with others but also, ultimately, with myself.

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