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Wednesday 17 September 2014

Across the universe: Maia Dunphy reflects on long distance relationships

Long distance relationships are becoming increasingly common, but are they doomed to fail? Maia Dunphy, who knows what it is like to live apart, investigates...

Maia Dunphy

Published 19/06/2014 | 02:30

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Man and woman lying back to back on large heart, both looking at laptop computers
Man and woman lying back to back on large heart, both looking at laptop computers

'Absence makes the heart grow fonder," as we're so often told, in which case, long distance love should be what we all aspire to. But then again, there is also that other little adage; "out of sight, out of mind" (plus no one to take the rubbish out on bin day).

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So which is it? With long distance relationships becoming more common than ever, should we embrace them as viable or consider them as unrealistic as that time we fell in love with a Spanish waiter on a holiday, aged 15?

I am half of a long distance coupling (but for the record, I've always taken my own bins out). I met my now husband six years ago, we married three years later, and still we have never lived together. But I'm not alone. Although our situation has stayed this way mainly by choice, I know many people who have had a wedge (and a few hundred kilometres) driven between them for practical or economical reason. And although, of course, it is never ideal, is it really possible to make love across the miles work in the long-term?

Once upon a time, no, for travel and communication reasons alone. But now with low cost airfares, instant messaging and Skype-sex, is it more feasible or will the same problems rear their unwelcome heads despite all our technological supports?

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One in three Irish families differs from the once traditional model of a married couple living with children, both in a first time marriage. These include never-narried couples cohabiting, same sex couples, single parents, divorced and widowed people and every other permutation and combination of modern love that you can think of; including long distance relationships. In many of these cases – possibly most – it is not a matter of choice, but a financial necessity.

For Ruth* a married mother of two, this story is all too familiar. "I had been happily married for six years before my husband had to move away. He lost his job and after eight months of searching, an offer came up in the UK. The kids were settled in school here and we had no idea if it would be a permanent job, so we decided he would commute." And this is the reality for many couples today.

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But for Ruth it came at a price. "The first few months were very tough and I very quickly began to resent him for not being around. I work part-time and between that and the kids, I was worn out. I have a newfound respect for single mums. Also, it seemed that he had gained a new social life along with a new job. With no family to come home to, he was able to go out with colleagues and I lost count of the number of times I rang him to hear he was in a bar. We lasted 18 months that way before he quit and came home, and I can say hand on heart, any longer would have split us up."

Karen's* relationships didn't fare so well. "My fiancé Brian was given the opportunity to work away in Australia for six months. We needed the money at the time to save for our wedding and a house so we agreed he'd go. I had a good job so wasn't prepared to quit it for the sake of six months. In hindsight, I knew within weeks of him going that the writing was on the wall. We Skyped every other night, but that soon dwindled to once a week, if that, and I'd see him tagged in all sorts of Facebook photos out with other girls. We didn't split immediately and I stuck my head in the sand for a long time, but when he came back home, he told me within two days that he was heading back to Australia and wanted to break up.

"That was three years ago and he's engaged to someone else over there now. I was naïve to think it would be ok because now I see we didn't have enough history together to get away with a long distance relationship so early on."

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Counsellor Bernadette Ryan, of Relationships Ireland (www.relationshipsireland.com), told me: "The origins of a relationship help to build the foundation blocks. The friendship base of a relationship can be quite important, especially later on if the relationship does get into difficulty. Even with FaceTime and Skype, you're not seeing the whole person, and things can get misinterpreted."

But what of couples like my husband and I, who just went straight into the long distance love category? Are we doomed to fail? Should we just chuck in the towel and cancel our international phone minutes now? The answer is no (well, probably closer to 'not necessarily' just in case anyone tries to hold me to any of this if it doesn't work for them).

Bernadette adds: "Although there are extra challenges in a long distance relationship, the advantage is the couple won't tend to fall into taking each other for granted, so there are positives to the situation."

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The most important thing to remember in a long distance relationship is the exact same thing you need to prioritise in a more traditional one; communication. You don't need a PhD in psychology to know that physically touching someone is lovely. Hugs are great, and a pretty fundamental part of any relationship (yes, where hugs can lead is great too, but this isn't that kind of article). Without the tactile elements, more pressure is put on the conversational side of things, which can be tough. It is difficult to gauge mood or body language over FaceTime.

And then there is the social side. I wouldn't expect my husband to sit at home alone every night that we're not together and nor would he expect that of me. It stands to reason if you don't live full-time with your partner that they will be out with people without you. Probably a lot of the time. Jealous types need not apply for this sort of arrangement, because it will end in tears. Snotty, angry tears over Skype.

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To further complicate matters, many long distance relationships aren't even in the same time zones. There are few things more annoying than someone ringing you drunk when it's 9am at your end and you're in the office trying to keep a serious voice in play in front of your colleagues whilst listening to Pharrell Williams' Happy being sung badly down the phone (although if you are in the same time zone and this happens, you may have bigger problems).

The other vital element in a long distance love affair is the end game. You must at some point in the relationship both be agreed on the same long-term goal. A long distance love affair is 90 per cent promises and at some point, you have to deliver on at least some of them. If you're happy to keep things long distance (and many are), then fine. But if not, there needs to be plan put in place, if it is months or even years away.

In my case, I am moving to London at the end of the year to officially put an end to our long distance marriage (by that I mean an end to the long distance element, not the marriage). I have no doubt it won't all be plain sailing for either of us; I'll have to admit to watching Eastenders. Occasionally leaving my clothes on the floor and going to the loo with the door open will be a thing of the past, but I think we'll be ok.

A final word of warning to anyone in a long distance relationship who may be considering spicing things up; a friend of mine dressed up in stockings and skimpy lingerie to surprise her far-away boyfriend with a sexy Skype session. Except in the darkened room she pressed the wrong contact and gave her uncle in Wales something of a rude awakening. She hung up quickly and still hasn't found the courage to call back to explain, but he will be with her family for Christmas this year which should be fun.

* Name has been changed.

First published in INSIDER Magazine, exclusive to Thursday's Irish Independent
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