How to make a long-distance relationship work


Dear Cathy and Mark,

My boyfriend and I have been together for three years. We officially got together a few months before the pandemic. Thankfully, our love survived it. 

Recently, he was accepted into a graduate studies program in New York. He will be there for two years. I know we have all the tools of technology to help us, just as we did at the height of the pandemic. But somehow, his being in a different country and time zone is making me a little anxious. I’m currently still doing hybrid work and I expect that arrangement to remain at least for the next six months. Can you give us some guidelines on how to make this long-distance relationship (LDR) work? — Anna

Related: Single parent, 52, wonders if she should date again

CATHY:  Thank you for your letter, Anna. If I were to summarize the five tenets that make an LDR work, it would be these: Communication. Creativity. Clarity. Consistency. Care. Let me describe each one as it applies to your relationship. 

The two of you survived a pandemic which, I am certain, imposed tremendous strains and restrictions on your relationship just as it did on so many other relationships over the last two and a half years. Congratulations for surviving it beautifully! And now this new challenge of geographic and time zones is upon you. Fortunately, your boyfriend will be in the East Coast where there is a 12-hour difference with Manila. Why do I say “fortunately”? Because it will be simpler for the two of you to figure out the time difference:  9 a.m. in his side of the world will be 9 p.m. of the same day in yours.  

Navigating the time difference adeptly and carving out time for each other each day to communicate will be essential to the success of your LDR.

Communication, the first C, is key if you want to make your relationship work. Maintaining constant communication should be your No. 1 priority to ensure that you are always on the same page as your partner.

Creativity is also crucial in sustaining an LDR and making it thrive. Think of ways to include each other in your day-to-day lives. Make the weekends count and make them something that the both of you will look forward to. For example, just because you are not physically together does not mean you cannot watch a movie together! You can set up a Zoom call and from there share-screen your favorite film, TV series or K-drama. 

Take advantage of the tools that technology has given us. Zoom, FaceTime, or video calls bring you together in a more intimate setting.  Meals can be shared even while on opposite time zones. Mark and I used to have a ritual called “brinner”—breakfast in his side of the world, dinner in mine. There are so many ways to be creative!

Clarity is important to avoid jealousy and false assumptions. Be clear with what you want and need and say it in a calm and kind manner.  Avoiding petty arguments is very important in a long-distance relationship. In a healthy relationship, you or your partner must not be second-guessing the other. This will be very stressful, more so if it happens in an LDR. When in doubt, ask, and then discuss the issues like two mature adults who love each other. 

Consistency is very important. Will you be talking every day? How much time will you be spending together virtually on weekends? These things need to be clear and laid out. Because you are apart, you have lives that need to be lived in separate time zones. You can still be a part of each other’s lives if you are intentional about your activities, both together and apart. If things need to be adjusted because of work or life responsibilities on certain days, then have the maturity and flexibility to adjust, knowing that it simply is what it is. 

Care (and love), of course, is the backbone of your relationship. Even when apart, there are so many ways to show that you care for your partner and are thinking about them. Don’t hold back from telling your partner how much you care about them. Send care packages or flowers when they least expect it, old-fashioned mail, etc. Go on dates when there are milestones to be celebrated. It is very common now to see couples on virtual dates in their favorite restaurants or date places. 

Make sure every occasion you and your partner spend together is special. Relationships take work, but when you love someone it really isn’t difficult. Sharing a good time and building memories when you are together and apart helps give you and your partner something to look forward to the next time around. 

As Charles Dickens wrote, “The pain of parting is nothing to the joy of meeting again.” God bless you both. 

MARK :  Anna, congratulations that your love “survived” the pandemic! Congratulations also to your partner for going to graduate school. Undoubtedly, the next two years will be busy and challenging for both of you. 

An LDR that is done well supports the notion “Absence makes the heart grow fonder.” Without hard work and intention, it could atrophy to “Out of sight, out of mind.”   

The keys to a successful LDR, like all relationships, are trust, communication and spending intentional time together. 

Trust has been defined as “firm belief in the reliability, truth or ability of someone.” I’m guessing that over the past three years you have developed enough trust in one another to want to continue investing your time in this relationship. It’s normal to experience some fear wondering whether there’s enough “glue” in the relationship to hold it together thousands of miles apart. Time will tell.

Excellent communication is essential for any relationship to work, especially in an LDR. Having mutually agreeable and clear expectations on what days, times and methods you will communicate with one another is critical. With Zoom, Facetime, texting, and email, this is easier than ever before. 

Cathy and I found ways to adapt to the 12-hour time difference between the United States and the Philippines. We set up “brinner dates” several times a week. I would be eating breakfast in the US at the same time she was having dinner, or vice versa—thus “brinner”! We’d set up our phones at the dinner table and Facetime with one another while eating, and catch up on our days.  It was just like we were across the table from one another instead of in opposite sides of the world.

Be intentional about your time together. We had weekly “SunDates”.  Each Sunday we got dressed up, just like when we were going out on the town together, and had a virtual date. 

An excellent way to start is going through the book “Eight Dates” together. This practical, powerful book by renowned marriage and relationship experts John and Julie Gottman walks you through having eight dates together. Each week there are readings and questions to discuss during your date. It covers the most critical topics that lead couples to a joyful relationship, such as: trust and commitment, conflict management, work and money, family, and children, etc. 

Additionally, we sent daily texts or emails to encourage one another and made sure that we celebrated special events together virtually, like birthdays, anniversaries, and holidays. 

I believe having intentional time in the virtual world strengthened our relationship as we focused on what matters most to us in our time apart. 

It’s also important to have a “back together again” time planned. It helps to have a countdown to when you’ll be reunited. When you’re back together, plan some “down days” where you can just relax and not be in go mode all the time. Enjoy and cherish one another’s presence again.

Helping one another be the best you that you can be is what ultimately makes an LDR work. Focus on building up one another so you can enjoy an LTR—a long-term relationship. Best wishes to you both!

We’d love to hear from you. Please email us at [email protected].

Cathy is in private practice as a grief, loss, and transitions coach. She is an author of four books, two of them on grief. 

Mark has been a registered nurse for 47 years and is an educator specializing in end-of-life care. He was director for training at the second largest hospice in North Carolina in the United States. —Ed.

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