Ground rules for long distance relationships seem like a recipe for disaster.
You’d be right…
If based on fear, jealousy and uncertainty.
One of the key factors in our success were the ground rules we adopted during our time apart.
We didn’t sit down and hammer them out. They emerged organically from our values and personalities. But, they were well-discussed by both of us, and played a major role in safeguarding and growing our relationship.
Here are the 3 ground rules and how they informed practical decisions in our relationship.
Long Distance Relationship Rules We Lived By
When my partner first asked if we could stay in touch when I returned to Australia (before he asked the all-important “would you consider long distance?” question). I rather bluntly told him that I didn’t really have time for more long-distance friends.
He understood what I meant.
He was trying to finish grad school and establish a new career. I was going to be up to my ears in PhD research and clinical internships. A casual long-distance relationship just for the sake of it didn’t hold any appeal for either of us.
When we realised that we both wanted more than a friendship, we agreed that the relationship needed to have clear definition and intentionality. The clearly understood purpose of our LDR was to discover if we should get married and spend our lives together.
Although much of the time that we spent chatting on video calls in the early days was fun and enjoyable. It was ultimately geared toward allowing us to answer that question. It was great to have a shared sense of purpose for the time and energy we invested into the relationship.
How intentionality worked for us
Given the massive (and massively inconvenient) time difference between us, we decided that scheduling a date night once a week was the easiest way to make sure that we connected regularly and intentionally.
Of course, after the first few weeks, two-hour video calls turned into three hours, then four hours, then sometimes more. Because we realised that we loved spending time together.
Within a few months, daily texts, long emails every few days, and a weekly FaceTime session didn’t quite cut it. I wanted to hear his voice every day, to say goodnight, and to experience a sense of daily “togetherness.”.
So we added phone calls when I was on my way to work and me partner was just about to sleep.
Through this evolution of our relationship, we had to keep a few practical things in mind.
First, being intentional about building our relationship required a financial commitment.
Internet plans and phone plans in Canada weren’t exactly cheap at the time (although this really isn’t an issue anymore!). But investing in these was a huge priority for us.
If you are blessed to be somewhere where you can get plenty of Internet and mobile phone data, it is a great investment in your relationship!
Second, being intentional about our relationship required prioritising time together.
Face it, when the time difference is 14, 15, or 16 hours, depending on daylight savings, there are no consistently convenient times to chat.
While Saturday mornings were good for me, me partner had to reschedule all Friday night plans with friends. Sunday mornings were good for him, but that meant that I was staying up way too late.
Many times, our date nights got in the way of other social events, but we made sure they were enough of a priority not to regularly get put off or pushed out of the way.
Thirdly, being intentional about our relationship did not mean that we became so exclusive that we shut out the rest of the world around us.
We did have to set boundaries around our time together on video calls so that we weren’t talking constantly. We also regularly evaluated whether we were keeping each other from fulfilling the goals and plans that we had as individuals.
Conscious decisions had to be made to support each other’s social lives, volunteer projects, and hobbies, even though we couldn’t really share them.
This was difficult at times, especially as we watched friends who had partners share these aspects of life. But ultimately, we knew that living a healthy “real” life would make our “virtual” relationship healthier too.
2. Honesty and vulnerability
This is an important principle for any relationship, but we felt that it was absolutely crucial for a video-call-based relationship.
It is easy enough to hide your weaknesses and put your best foot forward when you are on in-person dates. It is even easier to do this when it is just the two of you in a highly controlled environment, without many of the outside influences that can bring out someone’s true character (like frustrating traffic jams, poor customer service, family members, etc).
We were determined to truly get to know each other, warts and all.
We tried to value honesty and integrity more than making a good impression. It wasn’t easy to bring up the things that we were less-than-proud about, or to answer each other’s questions with what we really believed, not what we thought the other wanted to hear. But it was worth it to build an authentic portrait of each other’s strengths and weaknesses.
How honesty and vulnerability worked for us
It’s not particularly easy to be honest in a romantic relationship. Despite wanting the other person to know your heart, what you really want is for them to know the best of your heart, not the worst.
A long-distance relationship probably makes this even harder. Planned video dates and short in-person visits make it quite easy to put your best foot forward and engage in some serious “impression management.”
I think that being aware that this can be a problem is the first step to making sure that it’s not one. We chatted often about whether we were giving each other accurate impressions of who we were. We also agreed to answer what we called our “hard punch” questions. The questions that were potentially tough and we might not want to answer, but that would help us understand each other at a deeper level.
For us, these revolved around topics such as faith, culture (given that we are an inter-racial couple), family of origin, and so on. In our excitement over the amazing number of things that we agreed on, we had to trust that our relationship was strong enough to have some honest disagreements too, rather than just saying what we thought the other person wanted to hear.
In addition to the “hard punch” questions, we asked each other many practical questions to try to compensate for the things that are impossible to know about someone online. We committed to being honest, despite potential embarrassment, about things like:
- How consistent are you with exercising?
- How much TV do you watch?
- Do you throw your dirty clothes on the floor?
- Are you going to want to have a pet someday?
- Do you leave the cap open on the toothpaste?
(Thankfully, we both truthfully answered “no” to that last one…I hear that toothpaste can lead to serious relationship conflict!)
Sometimes finding a way to ask questions about the serious stuff can be difficult, and sometimes it’s hard to figure out which practical questions need to be asked.
Lolo & Nate’s article on Deep & Meaningful Long Distance Relationship Questions is a great way to get good conversation going about the serious and the not-so-serious stuff.
We also used resources such as Questions to Ask Before You Get Engaged by H. Norman Wright, and we listened to relationship seminars together and discussed them afterward. This helped immensely with the communication process.
Since we did this throughout our relationship, we often revisited topics a few times over the years, and each time we explored to new depths and from different angles.
3. Being in the present, but planning for the future
As has been mentioned numerous times by others on this blog, it is so important to value an LDR for what it is now, not just what it will be. At the same time, it really helps to anticipate and prepare for that time when life will be shared in person. We look back with great fondness at those three years of virtual date nights and short visits.
We definitely made the most of them and are so glad that we laid a foundation during that time for a happy life together now.
How being in the present, but planning for the future worked for us
Although we would like to think that we handled our years of long distance fairly graciously. At times we were frustrated and discontent with the distance.
We were most content when we remembered to “be in the present” and gratefully enjoy the support and companionship that we could offer each other even from a distance. We made the most of our video dates: eating breakfast/dinner together, watching the occasional movie, and talking and talking and talking.
However, we did look forward to the few in-person visits that we managed and also to the time when long distance would be nothing but a distant memory. We tried to use the time apart to prepare ourselves to be even better when we were together. Knowing that we would need to figure out what we wanted “together” to look like.
Two of the very practical things that we discussed before our first in-person visit were our expectations regarding dates and our expectations regarding physical intimacy.
During that first visit:
- What would be meaningful for us to do together for the first time?
- What boundaries did we want to set around the physical aspects of our relationship given our shared faith?
- How much time did we need to “acclimatise” to each other?
For example, given that we had never even held hands (we became a couple after I had already left the city where we met and became friends), it might have been a bit much for me if I was greeted at the airport with a passionate kiss!
Having discussed and decided on these things ahead of time allowed us to be together for the first time after months apart with no awkward moments. In fact, contrary to our expectations, we were instantly comfortable being a couple and it felt as if all of those months of long-distance just fell away. This may not happen in all or even many long distance reunions. But the chances of a smooth transition to doing life “in person” are much higher with a bit of planning.
As I was writing this post and it was getting longer and longer, I realised that these are actually just a few of the many practical tips that worked for us as we tried to live out our shared values and ground rules for long distance relationships.
For us, those rules and values were based on our faith in God and our commitment to live according to our beliefs. For any couple, I believe that finding shared values and living them out together, whether long distance or in person, leads to a sense of integrity in the relationship. What a great way to help a relationship succeed!
What Ground Rules Will You Incorporate Into Your Relationship?
While the long distance relationship rules we practiced felt like they grew organically. It might not be the base for you and your partner.
Our three ground rules are a great starting point but if you want more help, we recommend joining our free support group for long distance couples. There you can ask any long distance related questions and get thoughtful advice from other couples that have navigated similar situations and come out on the other side.