Thursday 13: Living and loving long distance

Photo credit.

Yesterday I made two new BFFs: The flu shot ladies at Walmart. Walley World is next door to my gym and since Mr. T and I are on serious budget mode post-wedding (and post me gettin’ canned), I succumb* to shopping with the masses. Not only can I buy greeting cards, groceries, household goods, clothes, automotive parts and shot guns, I can visit my friendly neighborhood pharmacy. As my lovely roomie has been battling plague this week, the hypochondriac in me screamed for a flu shot. Little did I know, I would only get my inoculation in exchange for sharing my life story.

The check-in lady remarked about my wedding ring and asked if I was engaged or married. Then she asked me how long we’d been married. And where we went on our moon. And what Mr. T does for a living. When I mentioned his role as IT director for a health care system in California, she was aghast. Newly married and living apart?? For two years??! She lamented the egregious conditions and promptly complained to the head needle sticker, who asked me the same set of questions in muted horror.

Although I act stoic most of the time–it is what it is, and we make do–I spend a significant amount of time thinking about and discussing the long-distance relationship. Thus, this loooong introduction is meant to preview my Thursday Thirteen thoughts on living and loving long distance style!

1. Purposeful communication.  Without a doubt, I think the number one key to a successful long distance relationship is purposeful and thoughtful communication. Letters, emails, Facebooks, phone calls, text messages, homing pigeons, smoke signals, you name it. For T and me, we typically touch base electronically during the day–Facebook, email, whatever–and talk on the phone every night. Staying up to date, even on the mundane details, helps keep us connected.

2. Frequent, planned visits. I fully admit I’m spoiled**. Most of the time, I get to venture home every other week, spending an average of 10 days apart from T. More than 10 and we start to get irritated with each other, or rather, the limited interaction and pressure of talking on the phone all the time. Sometimes you want to just BE together and sitting in silence on the cell phone just isn’t that satisfying. Thus, I recommend PLANNING a schedule of time together.

Last year when I prepared to embark on the PhD journey, the idea of leaving T for the unknown desert was terrifying. I seriously questioned if I could hack it, and the semester apart schedule seemed daunting. And then, I made friends with Southwest Airlines. Thanks to a monster sale, I scheduled my entire semester’s worth of flights. And you know what? My stress level immediately lowered. I wasn’t faced with the ambiguous, unsettling “I don’t know when I’ll see you again” feeling. I knew precisely when I’d be home again and having those trips to look forward to did a lot for keeping up morale!

3. Keep laughter alive. Funny videos, snarky Facebook comments, silly cards and jokes… Laughter goes a long way to keep relationships healthy.

4. Visit the unfamiliar. I think that part of the pressure of a long distance relationship is the unknown, particularly for the partner who “stays.” When I started my master’s program at Sac State, I came home with so many stories of Miles, TP, Chris, Kathleen and Britt… and I knew T had no idea who these folks were. I could tell that he was curious and concerned about me starting a new part of life that was completely separate*** and foreign. And so, when I moved to Cactus Land, I made a point to share my new friends, coworkers, habits and haunts with T. For instance, after a pumpkin carving event, I sent him pictures and he was able to connect names and faces. During the winter, he came for a visit and I walked him through my normal day at school. I think him seeing the physical space and knowing the people in pictures went a long way to reduce the tension of me living in a separate, distant space. (Do let me know about that okay honey?)

5.  Love notes. Okay, maybe it’s just me, but I LOVE leaving love notes for T. I try to hide at least one every time I leave the house so that later he can find it and think of me. (Granted, my “hiding” is typically putting the note on his pillow under the covers. Me thinks the surprise is past on that one!) The fabulous news? Research suggests that showing affection either physically, verbally or even by WRITING it, can have positive health benefits. I’m talking lowered cortisol (stress) hormones and lowered blood pressure. Start writing love notes people!

6.  Know that not all convos will be epic. Ohhhh, to remember the early days of dating. I lived in Ukiah and I remember talking to T on the phone, marathon style. It was not uncommon that HOURS would pass before we’d hang up. (Seriously, I can’t believe how much time we logged on the phone like a couple of teenage girls!) The other day T asked me if I knew the average length of time we spent on the phone now. I guessed between 35 and 45 minutes, depending on the day’s events. While not an insignificant amount of time, our nightly check-ins pale in comparison to the early days and that’s okay! Sometime there just isn’t stuff to talk about and it doesn’t mean that anything’s “wrong.”

7. Trust is key. You know, I honestly spend zero minutes a day worrying about what T’s doing. I listen to a lot of my undergraduate students complaining about their boyfriends or wondering if their girlfriends are sneaking around because a text message isn’t returned immediately. What a bunch of wasted energy! If you’re committed to a person and a relationship, you have to trust that they are, too. Reading into delayed messages or phone calls is simply a recipe for heart burn and a precursor to conflict.

8. Reduced-pressure visits. As you know, my love has a teensy obsession for all things aviation. Part of that tradition is Airport Day. Every Saturday he has breakfast with the dudes at Aviator’s, tinkers on projects, shoots the breeze, flies, tinkers, gabs, eats lunch, tinkers, yaps and then comes home after dark. People often act aghast when I say T still hits the airport on weekends when I’m home.  First off, a girl has to get homework done some time! Second, to think of spending every single moment together from dawn to dusk is a little much. There are things to do and other people to see. And that’s OK! Removing the pressure to spend every moment together makes it easier to interact without feeling like “we have to.”

9. Because… not every interaction is roses. In case you were wondering, you don’t get a magical every-moment-is-Hallmark button when you start a long distance relationship. People still get just as angry, irritated, disappointed, etc. as with “normal” relationships. And, they get just as sick. I’m talking head cold and stomach flu sick here people. A couple weekends have been pretty damn snotty, but putting things into context and realizing that not every visit has to be “perfect” is helpful.

10. Discuss local travel plans. I don’t joke when I say that T and I rarely fight. Neither of us like the feeling very much and so we find ourselves negotiating or talking (ad nauseum) to reduce misunderstandings. However, I can barely think of a time when he was more mad at me than when I didn’t answer his phone calls for a few hours last spring. I was having dinner at a friend’s house and left my phone on silent. While I was enjoying dessert and coffee into the wee hours, he was getting ready to call the sheriff. I told him it would be an early dinner and when midnight rolled around without a call from me, he got terribly worried and then more than a little peeved to know I wasn’t stranded somewhere in peril. So, new rules: Phones on, travel plans to be discussed and updated regularly. While that may sound big brother to some, I think it’s important to honor the boundaries and stress levels of others. In kind, I ask T to call me after flying. He’s a safe, competent pilot, but I’m still a ridiculous worry wart!

11. Quality versus quantity. Since we did the hitching, people often remark “It must be like a honeymoon every time you come home!” As there are no innkeepers making me breakfast, fun flights across the country or extravagant dinners (usually), I’m going to say “uhh, no” on that one. However, it does feel true that our time together on weekends tends to be more focused and mindful than when I’m home for extended periods. (Except when we’re sick or grumpy, of course) Perhaps the next step is to continue that mindfulness no matter what states we live in! (Yay for having a life time to figure that out.)

12. Occasional grand gestures. During college I dated this guy for a few years and we always spent summers apart. Well, I will never forget our first extended break because the boy sent me an I-Heart-You pizza. Yes, a real Round Table pizza with “I [heart] U,” spelled out in olives. The gesture was so sweet, and memorable, that I still recall it a decade later. Similarly, I remember the time that Mr. T surprised me by sending two dozen red roses to my office at the hospital. With chocolates. And a cute teddy bear. I still have the dried flowers and the bear and the chocolate (on the hips) years later.

13. Eyes on the prize. The only thing that makes this journey bearable is the knowledge that it is TEMPORARY. Extended temporary, but still. Although I know academics who have spent decades quasi-commuting to be with spouses, I know that my sentence in the desert is a short one. Having an end time, like having a definite travel plan, helps to reduce my anxiety and gives me a big, fat goal to visualize. Speaking of, if all goes well, only 8 more months of living apart!


* It’s such a tenuous walk at Walmart. On the one hand, I don’t agree with their business practices and contributing to the vast truckloads of cheap Chinese crap with which they fill their monstrous warehouses. Yet, on the other hand, I’m making do on a TA salary and let’s face it, groceries are cheap. Hopefully, like my Ramen noodle phase of life, this too shall pass!

** My friend Holly was recently reunited with her husband who was on deployment in Afghanistan or Iraq (forgive me Holls, I can’t remember!) for more than a YEAR. They got married in July and he left in August. He spent a week or two of furlough at home and that’s it. Sooo, I totally put my situation in context and try to avoid whining too much. 10 days apart from my sweetheart ain’t nothing compared to deployment!

***In the end, he met and became friends with all of those folks, so it worked out!

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