It was June of 2014 and I was on Month 6 of living in New York City. I had previously been touring with a show and had lived out of a suitcase from Birmingham to Bangkok and everywhere in between.
I was not a stranger to long distance relationships. I was doing it with all my friends, my family and even with my college boyfriend for a while there. But just those words…
were enough to send any lady into a fit of panic.
At that moment, long distance had been used as an excuse for romances ending, miscommunication and never-ending games of telephone tag and I couldn’t think of anything less palatable. Even traveling from Harlem to Union Square for a guy had most everyone (including me) saying “I dunno, you guys live so far away.”
Hilarious, now that I’ve just completed my 3rd year of loving a South African.
I got a lot of side-eyes and words of caution from many friends and family when Wouter and I became an item. Now that we’ve entered our 4th year of being a couple, our first year of living together, and are patiently navigating the US marriage process from our Pretoria apartment, I have some very positive things to say in the name of long distance.
Being in a long distance relationship requires an incredible awareness of your own communication patterns, and a lot of understanding and compassion for your partners. It teaches you to communicate honestly, clearly, and directly, while giving your partner the respect to do the same.
For me, I learned the value of speaking with no hidden agenda. Not only did my loving fiancé not process my different tones due to a language barrier (at the time), he also couldn’t see me, my facial patterns, nor my non-verbal reactions. All these small facial movements are such a key part in understanding how your partner is feeling. Since I did not have ANY way to communicate where my head was at except for talking, that’s what I did. I learned not to be afraid of asking for what I needed:
“I need you to verbally tell me how you feel about me.”
(I am an Words of Affirmation person if you’re familiar with Love Languages. If not, I highly suggest getting the book The 5 Love Languages: The Secret to Love that Lasts)
I learned not to be afraid of saying exactly what I was feeling:
“I am upset because you really hurt my feelings when you said ___ earlier.”
And I learned not to play games. No games. I learned to know myself so he didn’t find out the hard way. Instead of waiting for him to mess up, or dropping hints, I had to simply say:
“It makes me so happy when you simply text me ‘goodnight’ before you go to bed. I would love if you would continue doing that.”
These are all skills that we now use in our every day relationship, and boy can I just say it has saved us a lot of fights and anger. We are both allowed to communicate openly and compassionately. We are both aware of how precious and powerful words can be and we use them with love and/or caution depending on the situation. People can forget that communication is often the cornerstone of a relationship, and having the opportunity to master our communication skills early is something I’ll never take for granted.
Sometimes the mentality aboard cruise ships it is “whatever happens onboard, stays onboard.” Now, I’m fully in support of living your best life and doing what makes you feel good, but not at the expense of another person. You see a lot of things below deck including a ton of infidelity, but at the end of the day, with honest communication under our belts, it didn’t become an issue.
My thinking is that if we spend all our time looking for something better, we’ll never be happy. I am by no means saying you should settle! Find the person who treats you like the rockstar you are, and who encourages you to be the best version of yourself! Settle for nothing less. But reminding yourself to be grateful for the people you have in your life will make you a much happier person.
We are so trained to expect instant gratification these days, and living on a ship changes nothing about that. Every day you meet and interact with a hundred beautiful, interesting people from all over the world, it’s no wonder ship romances are alive and well! Sometimes it’s amazing (how I met the guy of my dreams), sometimes it’s just fun and exciting, and other times it can make an already established relationship difficult. You see other options and wonder “would that make me happier?” My question to myself was always “am I willing to give up the beautiful connection I already have?” My answer continued to be “No.”
I should also note, we had a very clear understanding that if one of us wanted to end it, there would be no faults. Ship life, long distance, different countries…that’s hard work! No one should be forced into it! Both of us understood that of all the options, we were both very inconvenient choices for the other. Keeping this in mind released us both of the long distance burden, and ultimately allowed us to see the positive things we were both willing to struggle for.
3. Prioritizing Each Other
We learned to actually set “Us time.” When the only time you get to talk from separate ships and in different timezones is when both of you are in your cabins at the right time, prioritizing is a must.
We learned that we had to make space for the other, and to be compassionate if there was a mixup or a change of plans. We learned that setting aside specific time to talk about goals, dreams, frustrations, and complaints, was ridiculously important. It helped that we didn’t have much access to internet because we could be fully tuned-in to each other.
Being on land and attempting the same “us” time works a little differently. Since we are both aware of how it makes the other feel, we try to fit it in regularly. We’ve also taken up the habit of either putting down the phone to listen intently, or to tell the other that we need just a moment to finish up a task before we can be all ears.
Not knowing when you’re going to see the other person can add some serious stress to an already stressful situation. One thing that became a constant practice was finding the positive in an sometimes lonely relationship.
We learned to be grateful and excited for the times we could see each other. Whether it was for 5 hours when our ships docked together, or it was 5 weeks when I visited South Africa. Whatever the time, it was better than nothing! We have learned to be extremely grateful for when we’re together, and that carries over into our land life. We are so happy to be able to do our own laundry, make our own coffee, fix our own breakfast, and wake up to each other every day. There is nothing better than a few years of long distance to make morning breath seem sexy.
On a different note of positive thinking, we also learned to communicate more positively. We tried to incorporate positivity into our phone chats. Attempting to talk about the good stuff and not just the bad. No one likes to listen to someone complain, especially when you only have a set number of minutes available on your ship phone. We found the funny in our situation, even claiming that “the universe” wouldn’t give us a break!
Of course, there were still tears, frustration, and even sometimes anger. We still make an effort to find the positive, especially now as we deal with the US visa process.
I’ve read a few posts claiming that long distance relationships make you lose touch with reality…make you dependent. I had a very different experience.
Being dependent on other people is a primal instinct and is actually GOOD for us. The way you and your partner attach to each other is important, and learning how to navigate that dependance is incredibly eye-opening (my favorite book about this is Attached: The New Science of Adult Attachment and How It Can Help You Find—and Keep—Love). Having people to rely on, to believe in, and to talk to is a very basic human need. Wouter quickly became my “person,” but he was not the only person in my life. I practiced living fully without him. I found things that made me happy that didn’t include him. I practiced having my own goals that I was working towards, and then I had this amazing partner to go home and tell it all to.
We are not two halves of a whole. We are two individual people who choose to take this journey together.
That is my personal experience with long distance relationships. Please know, I am not saying we are perfect. Absolutely not. We face the same challenges every couple faces, whether they have tried long distance or have never experienced a week apart. My only intent with this post is to encourage others that long distance is not a death sentence. We now have some different tools, thanks to our time apart, that we use in our daily life to make our relationship more peaceful, more loving and more compassionate.