Most people don’t begin a long-distance relationship thinking it’ll be effortless, but even if you enter into one with your eyes open, you might find it a lot harder than you anticipated. As much as you try to prepare mentally and logistically for being in a romantic relationship in which you are separated from your partner by a significant distance, there’s a good chance you’ll face challenges you hadn’t previously imagined. That doesn’t mean that long-distance relationships are all doomed to fail (they aren’t), nor that they are more trouble than they’re worth (that depends on the situation).
A lot of the advice on “best practices” for long-distance relationships centers on the fact that “communication is key.” And while it definitely is, it’s more nuanced than that. To begin with, there are many different types of communication, not all of them productive. A lot depends on how you say something, and not just on what you’re saying. Plus, there are plenty of other things to keep in mind beyond communication. Here are some tips from relationship experts on how to better maintain a long-distance relationship.
Let’s get this one out of the way first, because alongside—and as part of—the “communication is key” tip, the other piece of routine advice is to take advantage of the technology at our disposal, which right now means Zoom and FaceTime and other face-to-face chat programs. Yes, being able to see your person (virtually) can really make a difference. We covered Zoom dating pretty thoroughly a few months ago (you can read that article here), so right now we’ll focus on other, less-obvious strategies.
What’s the point of investing time and energy into a relationship that doesn’t have a specific endpoint? While that doesn’t necessarily have to mean marriage, you should have some kind of plan involving one or both of you moving to a common location at some point in the future.
“A long distance relationship cannot thrive in perpetual limbo,” Rachel DeAlto, chief dating expert for Match tells Lifehacker. “What’s the plan to eventually unite? Are those talks happening? The tough conversations have to occur eventually.”
A lot of anxiety in long-distance relationships can stem from not hearing from your partner when you expect to. Are they OK? Are they upset? Did you do something that hurt them? One way around this is to learn (or at least become familiar with) each other’s schedules, according to Kimi Park, the in-house dating expert at Kippo, a social dating app that connects individuals both romantically and platonically through the shared interest of gaming.
“It’s important to know when your significant other is working, sleeping, walking the dog, etc. so you don’t continuously bother them while they’re away or [feel] like you’re being ignored,” she tells Lifehacker. “Being aware of each other’s schedules can also help you feel like you’re part of each other’s day-to-day lives.” Park recommends letting the other person know what your schedule looks like on a given day day, and keeping each other updated with major changes.
Sure, you can look forward to in-person visits (although thanks to COVID, that’s not necessarily a possibility right now), but those tend to be few and far between. So in addition to the big things, put in the effort to make smaller (but still meaningful) things to look forward to.
“Think of your relationship as morning, noon, and night, not just weekends or after-work check ins. You need to mix it up,” Tammy Shaklee, an LGBTQ relationship expert and president of H4M Matchmaking tells Lifehacker. “Each of you should propose something to look forward to.” She recommends setting up video call dates for activities like having coffee together, catching up while outside on a park bench, or virtually cooking a favorite meal.
Because there are no standard, universally accepted “rules” to long-distance relationships, it’s entirely possible for both parties to have different expectations in mind. “Managing expectations is also essential,” DeAlto says. “How much communication is expected? How often will you see each other? If one person has an ideal image of the relationship that they aren’t sharing, it’s setting up for disappointment.”
According to DeAlto, long-distance relationships need to make up for the lack of physical intimacy with increased emotional intimacy—which means communication should be deep and meaningful. “It doesn’t have to be every conversation, but vulnerability and real conversations about real topics can help couples to stay connected when they are far apart,” she explains. “All couples— but especially long-distance couples—need to focus on speaking to each other from the heart over the head.”
While knowing their daily schedule and creating emotional intimacy are absolutely important, it’s also crucial to give the other person space, Park says. “Unless you’re married or living together, you wouldn’t be with each other 24/7, so don’t expect your virtual relationship to be that way either,” she explains. “Although you may find yourself more attached to your phone or computer than usual, remember to take a step back and pause your conversations throughout the day. This will help you treat the relationship as you likely would in person and won’t make either partner feel like they’re getting boxed in too early.”
Being long-distance means not having the usual opportunities to get to know a person’s friends or family, or seeing your mutual friends. Shaklee suggests scheduling time for you and your partner to meet up for a virtual coffee or glass of wine with other important people in both of your lives. This will help you feel less isolated and give you the chance to interact with other people as a couple. “Let them support you in this long-distance relationship and continue to get to know this partner,” she adds.
If you have something you need to discuss with your partner involving perennially difficult topics like religion, politics, or one of your exes, Shaklee recommends scheduling a phone or video call instead of attempting the conversation via text.
According to Shaklee, people in a any relationship should be each other’s cheerleaders. She suggests finding ways to support and encourage each other’s goals related to things like work, health, or fitness, and periodically checking in on these goals.
Along the same lines, Shaklee also recommends finding kind and caring ways to check in on each other’s happiness. You can start by asking yourself whether you’re happy, and whether you think your partner is happy too. Then, she says, ask yourself how you could have been a better long-distance partner that day/week/month.