Building better relationships when you are apart often presents challenges, but there are little things you each can do in long distance relationships that help strengthen your love and your relationship as a whole. You may not be able to do all of them, or may need to adapt, but be creative and focus on connection and ways to feel connected and to let your partner know that you are thinking of him/her. Use some of these ideas, but more importantly, use them to spark your own creative ideas.
• Create rituals or things you do at a certain time — so you can both do them together or think of your partner doing them. One couple decided that at noon each day,they each would take a moment and just think about how much they love their partner and mentally sent them wishes of love. If you both do it, it feels more connecting. When they would talk to each other, sometimes they would share a couple of the wishes they had made. Sometimes they sent a wish in a text message.
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• Find a couple of games you can play online without being in the same place. There are also a lot of game apps for your phone, iPad or other tablet that you can play together. It’s a way to have fun, and some allow you to chat while you’re playing. Battleship, other grid games you can also do with pencil and paper if wi-fi access is unavailable or unreliable, word games, and more.
• Use Skype or Facetime to connect face to face when you can — even if it is just to say goodnight or good-morning. Some couples like to set a regular time once a day or a couple of times per week to talk for 15-30 minutes. Some prefer to be spontaneous. Some combine the two. Don’t think you have to do it everyday to keep your relationship strong. Too much can make things worse. It can feel clingy and smothering.
A couple of things you can do with Skype besides talk:
• Just gaze into each other’s eyes and face for at least 1-2 minutes without talking — looking into the face and eyes of the person you most love. Notice the details of your partner’s face, remember some of his/her best qualities and the feelings of love you share You can actually increase oxytocin, the ‘bonding’ chemical in your bodies.
• Eat together while you are apart. I know a couple where one was out of town for a couple of months at a time for one year because of a major work project. They agreed to join each other for dinner once a week at 7pm — through Skype. Each would prepare his or her meal, set their table or desk, turn on their webcams and “eat together”. They shared interesting stories or news that they read or heard or something one of them had learned. Once in a while, they would plan a romantic dinner. Both would dress up a little more. She would put on makeup. They each would put a candle or flower on their table and made sure it showed up in the picture.
• Dance together: Another couple I had sometimes put on one of their favorite slow songs with the volume turned up so the other person could hear it and invited their partner to dance — each holding their phone and looking into their partner’s face as they danced. Sometimes it felt romantic and occasionally, they just ended up laughing!
Mix up how you interact verbally — telephone, email, Skype or Facetime, handwritten letters or cards — so you don’t get into a rut.
Whether you talk by telephone, e-mail, written letters, or video, here are some ideas for conversations:
• Talk and dream about your future together. What kind of relationship/marriage do you want to create together? What kind of person do you each want to be as human beings in the world? What kind of partner do you want to be/become?
• Make time for each of you talk about your thoughts, feelings about what’s happening in your life (including being apart!). Don’t say only what happened in the day, although that’s important, but try to tell how it affected you inside. What did you tell yourself about the event or issue. What was it like for you? (Many couples like to do this by saying the best part of their day and what made it the best (how it affected them)— and the hardest part of their day and what it made it so hard (why and how it affected them).
When you are the one talking, practice letting your partner see inside of you, see into your experiences through words. (This is actually one of the benefits of long distance—it requires you to practice sharing your internal thoughts and feelings!) Some people prefer to use email to give themselves time to think about and write what they thought and felt in a situation.
Practice listening and being fully present. Instead of trying to multi-task while you are on the phone, focus your whole attention on your partner with curiosity about what he or she has experienced, his or her concerns, fears, hopes, dreams, ideas. Listen for emotion in the person’s voice. Listen for themes. Listen for what he or she seems to avoid. Listen as if it is the very first time you have met. From time to time, see if you can summarize what you have heard.
Even if you don’t have much to say, be curious about what’s going on for your partner, what she or he is interested in and why. And yes, learning to listen also means listening to topics you aren’t really interested in, but staying present and curious about why it is important to your partner and how it affects him or her.
• Let your partner know upcoming things that are important, stressful, worrisome, exciting, etc. You might have a presentation at work, an exam, a meeting with your boss. Let your partner know what it is, when, how you are feeling about it. As a partner, you can text encouragement that day. Some couples create a shared calendar that each can view so they can encourage and support each other in upcoming events.
• Every now and then, tell or e-mail something you love or appreciate about your partner and why. Tell them what touches you about that quality or behavior.
• Fun and interesting questions: Another thing several couples I know have enjoyed are using one of the following books (or something similar) and take turns answering 4 or 5 questions at a time. Some varied it by trying to guess out loud how their partner would answer it — and then listening to their partner’s answer.
Sometimes you might not have time for a long conversation:
When you have those times of exams, work project due, crunch time, etc., let your partner know that you are up against a deadline . . . . but ALSO say when you will get back to him or her to talk more (Example, “I’m going to be swamped the next 3 days finishing my project/case, so you may not hear from me – but that doesn’t mean I won’t be thinking of you. I will call you on . . . . .” Then, if you can’t, at least send an e-mail or text message ahead of time to explain that you can’t and say again when you will. You might agree to send in a ‘check-in’ text once a day.
• If you have a sexual relationship with your partner, find creative ways to play with that on the phone, e-mail, or even Skype or Facetime, if possible. First make an agreement to keep it just between the two of you so it is safe and you don’t have to worry about your partner sharing sexy e-mails or photos with others. Talk about the boundaries you each want before you do anything like that. Playing sexually by telephone is usually the safest if either of you has privacy concerns about videos or photos.
• Listen for things your partner wants or likes – if he or she mentions a book or a CD they heard about, write it down and send it as a surprise. Keep an ongoing list of ‘surprises’ that are things your partner has said they like, want, or want to try. For example, if you have a conversation and talk about picnics you had as a kid and how fun that was, write it down in a reminder list on your smartphone and then plan a picnic for the next time you will each other in person.
• Take your partner on a video tour of a favorite place in the city where you are — a beautiful park, a favorite restaurant, etc.
• Send ‘care packages’ — something you know your partner enjoys — a poem, homemade cookies, a drawing (it can be kindergarten level!, a handmade card, a picture of you, etc. If you have children, let them send notes, drawings, etc. They can also participate in some of these other activities.
• If you are apart because of military deployment, many of these things can still apply, but it is also important to express some of the range of intense emotions you both have. Sometimes you don’t want to go into great depth, or you cannot, but still let your partner know if you are having a hard time and to just think of you more. It is especially challenging to process the stress of war. Some find it easier to write. Some days you want to say more and some days you don’t want to say much of anything. Sometimes you cannot reveal certain things because they are classified. Help your partner be with you and understand by helping him/her understand as much as possible.
• Find ways to do fun little things. For example, there are websites where you can send a photo of yourself or the two of you together and have it made into a puzzle which you can send.
• Find ways to do the same thing at the same time, even though you are apart. For example, pick a movie you both have wanted to see, each of you go to the movies as close to the same time as you can (or rent it and agree to watch it ‘together’ and then call after and talk about it. Or have your own ‘book club’ or even discuss an article.
• Some couples have created a shared online journal where each can see the other’s writings and add their own thoughts about it. One couple I know entitled theirs, “The Story of Us” and wrote about fun memories, goals they had for their life together, a list of adventures they each wanted to take or places they wanted to visit, other things they thought would be fun or exciting. I think they used a site called livejournal.com There are a lot of journal sites, but make sure you have the ability to share — and can restrict who you share with!
• Be creative in ways to let your partner know how much you love him/her, that you are thinking of him/her, and that you are dreaming of spending your life together.
A CAUTION WHILE YOU ARE APART:
• Be mindful about relationships or friendships with others of the opposite sex (or same sex if you are gay). Most affairs, emotional or sexual, start very innocently — sharing a coffee or drink, meeting for lunch, chatting about work or family or about your dreams in life. Sometimes when you are apart, you may spend time with co-workers or fellow students. Sharing hopes, dreams, problems (‘Seeing inside someone’) builds emotional intimacy, which builds feelings of connection. It is easy for something innocent to become someone you think about regularly and that can then lead into an affair, even when that was never your intent in the first place. Keep those relationships in group situations rather than private meetings or conversations. Remind yourself about your commitment and respect for your partner. Would he or she be OK if they knew what you were doing, thinking, sharing, or fantasizing with this other person? If it starts sliding into an emotional affair, let the person know you need to focus on your own relationship and work/school — and that the calls, texts or meetings will need to stop.