A real-life look at happy couples who live separately
One reader joins the growing trend of happy couples living apart due to a range of circumstances influenced by modern life — and not just because of COVID-19.
My partner of nine years, Mark, and I come from opposite sides of the earth: I’m from Australia, he is from the UK. Cheap international flights, freedom of movement (except when there is a worldwide pandemic) and modern technology have shaped our identity as world citizens.
It was globalisation that brought us together, then drove us apart and finally offered us a new way to conduct our relationship by giving us the space to question the traditional — and apparently inevitable — heterosexual paradigm of “boy meets girl and they move in together”.
Mark and I moved into a small apartment together after three years. We loved and were committed to each other, but the confines of the apartment, combined with the lack of privacy and the end of weekend visits to each other’s former abodes, meant that over the course of the year the novelty of what we used to have disappeared — which was not unexpected. But it did help us realise the importance of having time and space to oneself — for one’s own sake, but also for the health of our relationship.
Around that time, Mark was offered a job back in the UK and we agreed to live apart “just for a year” and meet at regular intervals. At first, the change was intensely distressing. Our first reunion as a long-distance couple was in New York City. At the end of that trip, I questioned what we had done and felt that we had made a terrible mistake. At this stage, we had no rhythm to being apart. There was so much uncertainty, which is a great breeding ground for insecurity and regret. How long could we go on as a couple while separated by 11 time zones and more than 15,000 kilometres?
Fortunately for us, this risky experiment led not only to positive outcomes for our relationship but also interesting insights about the nature of our relationship, which have come in useful as we manage new challenges.
One such challenge has been the emergence of a worldwide pandemic, which has severely restricted international travel. This is obviously a major problem for us as we rely on regular trips to see each other to maintain our connection. The current situation has highlighted a key risk involved in being in a long-distance relationship; we are more vulnerable to external, random events that are out of our control.
For the first time in our relationship, we have no idea when we will see each other again. While this is certainly the toughest situation we have faced since we initiated our long-distance arrangement, we have also discovered some useful tools. I learned that sometimes it is wisest to put one foot in front of the other and stop resisting what is out of my control. We also learned to take the time to savour past and future experiences by reminiscing about precious moments we enjoyed and anticipating future ones that will now be even sweeter.
Even putting aside these unexpected events, the disadvantages of living apart are obvious. But there are also unexpected advantages, which people don’t often focus on when they imagine this relationship scenario. Living together, it’s easy to take each other for granted. Living apart, you yearn for the other person and see them once again as they really are: a separate entity who is a major part of your life by choice. Living together, you talk about who will do the dusting. Living apart, you do your own dusting and talk about something meaningful that will help maintain your deep connection. Living together, your partner’s face becomes mundanely familiar. Living apart, you see them again with a sense of butterflies and wonder.
We have now been in a happy committed long-distance relationship for almost seven years. Getting to this point took a long time but it has become the new norm. In the last few years, when we have parted ways at the airport there has been a lot less drama and devastation as we disappear for two or three months. Whereas at the start of all this, the main concern was whether our relationship could survive the distance, a different concern has emerged: what will it be like when we do actually decide to live together again? That shift might be as unsettling as the first one (albeit in a different way), with less time to oneself and the need to change established routines.
The key thing we’ve learned from our choice is that if you’re stuck or unsatisfied in your relationship it doesn’t necessarily mean it has run its course. Instead of throwing in the towel, it may be a matter of adapting the relationship to better fit your needs and desires at that particular stage. After all, people’s lives change as they grow older, experience new things and grow as individuals. Our relationships also need to be dynamic enough to evolve and adjust to these shifts.
Our choice has certainly met stigma and pity from some friends, family members and colleagues. “It must be so hard!” or “When are you going to find a solution to this unsustainable situation?” While such comments used to be upsetting, now we find ourselves explaining the benefits of our situation, which often leads to a realisation that we seem to have the best of both worlds.
My experience has taught me that if you love your partner but feel on a fundamental level that you don’t want to live with them — or indeed do want to live with them but can’t because of circumstances beyond your control — it isn’t necessarily a warning sign that you don’t actually love them or that the relationship isn’t going to work. Rather, it’s worth remembering that there is a range of ways to strengthen or maintain a connection with your partner. It’s up to each of us to craft a relationship that works for us and our partner as we navigate our way through life’s ups and downs … together.