“God, I could never do long distance!” Over the course of a year, I heard that sentence more times than I saw my partner. He lived in Austria. Two letters and 14,203 kilometres away from my country.
We met, fittingly, halfway across the world at a ski lodge in Japan. He was on a work trip with his colleagues, but they weren’t bankers or accountants or real estate agents. They were pilots, and they were leaving the next day. We stayed up long after the bar closed and drank the vending machine dry. The next morning, he messaged me: I found your sock. Guess we have to meet up for a sock-transfer.
So began the most giddying, gut-wrenching year of my life.
We messaged every day for two months before we met again. When I came home from work, he was in the air. When he landed, I was asleep. When I was around to chat, it was 2am in Seoul, 3am in California or 4am in Munich. I felt like an addict, willing that little green Whatsapp banner to pop up, craving confirmation that someone on the other side of the world was thinking about me.
I’m not alone in wanting that contact high. Zoe, 22, has just hit four months of long distance with Joel, her high school sweetheart of five and a half years. “As cliché as it is, communication is key,” she says. “There are lots of calls and FaceTimes. We try to do things like watch a TV show at the same time, so it’s almost like we’re together.”
Joel moved to the Gold Coast earlier this year for family and work. “I don’t think it completely hit me until we were saying goodbye at the airport, not knowing when we would see each other again,” says Zoe. “I think I tried to stay in my little bubble for as long as possible, but eventually it had to pop.”
I don’t know if it’s harder to begin long distance with an existing partner, or to start apart. Moving away means you know what you’re missing, but beginning a relationship with a stranger abroad makes building trust challenging.
Annie, 27, began her relationship with partner David overseas and believes starting long distance is the way to go. The pair met at university, but it wasn’t until a chance encounter in Singapore years later that romance blossomed. “I was not as risk averse when I met David. I didn’t really even think about the distance. I just thought, ‘Well, this is crazy!’”
Like me, Annie waited months before she met her partner in person again. During that time, communication was vital. “We Skyped a lot; Korea and Australia’s time zones are only two hours apart, which really helped,” says Annie. “I think we Skyped every second day, if not every day, and then just messaged throughout the day. I definitely messaged more than I do now!”
When I finally met the pilot again, it was in Singapore. Eight hours from both our homes. I touched down on Thursday night and was back at my desk on Tuesday. We tried to arrange those trips every two months. The first day was spent rubbing sleep from our eyes, the second day was spent trying to be who we’d promised each other, and the third day was agony, knowing in a matter of hours, we’d be alone again.
“I think the time apart is actually almost easier than when you first get together,” says Cathy, 60. Cathy has been with her now-husband Gary for over twenty years, with the first four years of the relationship occurring interstate. “You’re coming from different places and you have very high expectations about connecting quickly.”
The pressure you put on yourself, and the other person, can be overwhelming. “There’s that adrenaline rush when you first see each other,” says Cathy, “but then you wake up the next morning and it’s like, what do we talk about? What do we do?”
Every time something went wrong, I would tell myself to let it go, because I could hear the clock ticking down our time together. Don’t screw it up, I’d think. Then, on that eight-hour flight home, and for the eight weeks until we saw each other again, my mind would go over and over the imperfect moments, the same way your tongue prods at a cut in your mouth. Eventually, the pain is all you can think about.
“Trust is huge, because it’s all you have,” says Cathy. “Especially when it’s a new relationship and you don’t know what’s going on in their life. If you’ve lived with somebody or grown up with them, that makes an enormous difference. If you just met somebody in a bar and had a couple of good dates, it’s not enough.”
As our relationship ploughed on, I could feel something growing inside me – and it wasn’t love. It was doubt. Every time I snagged a lie, I could feel my heart sinking deeper in my chest. At home alone, waiting for that elusive green Whatsapp ribbon, I would think: I don’t know this person at all.
One way to build trust is to see your partner face-to-face as much as you can. It solidifies who they are to you and creates a shared experience that is uniquely yours. Making schedules align is hard at the best of times; trying to meet during a pandemic is chaos.
“COVID-19 throws a lot of surprises our way,” says Zoe. “Right now, I am in Melbourne in lockdown and we aren’t sure when we will see each other next. When you are apart, it’s about showing the other person that you are thinking of them. Plus, gifts. They help too. Who doesn’t love getting a surprise package?”
For Annie, the key to success was having something concrete to work towards. “If you have an idea of where you are going to end up, it helps keep the relationship alive. It’s like, ‘Oh this sucks now, but we’re going to move to New York together in two years, so let’s just hold out until then.’” Cathy agrees that working towards a shared future is what makes the impossible feel possible. “We always had the view that something would happen. When Gary visited we used to look at property, he was always talking about buying here.”
Moving to Austria. Holidaying in Vancouver. Trips to Australia. They were all things the pilot and I talked about, but the moment I tried to grab hold of them – with questions like ‘when?’ or ‘how?’ – they slipped through my fingers like smoke. Then there were the little white lies, pinpricks in the already fraying material of our relationship. His age seemed to fluctuate depending on which month I asked him, he refused to take photos together, and when I finally visited his hometown – where he supposedly had a sprawling 800-acre property – we stayed in a hotel instead. The more my paranoia grew, the less we spoke.
“I’d avoid it like the plague” is Cathy’s resolute answer when I ask her if she’d ever do it again. Annie, too, says, “I am amazed if anyone does it longer than a year. I just think that’s a really long time.” Both women now live together with their partners, and it seems it really is true, what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. The challenges of long distance can help forge incredibly strong relationships that, well, go the distance.
Zoe, who is still on her journey, recognises the importance of putting yourself first. “Focus on what makes you happy when they aren’t there, whether that is your friends, having a spa day, reading a book or going for a walk. You will spend a lot of time on your own, but if you can make yourself happy, then it will be easier. Well, slightly anyway.”
Covid was a mercy killing for my failing ‘relationship’. It poured cold water all over the possibility of seeing each other and patching up this thing we were so clumsily trying to build. Deep down, I felt relieved for the circuit breaker. I turned off my Whatsapp notifications and cleared all the time zones from my phone. Goodbye Zurich, goodbye Capetown, goodbye Tokyo: goodbye pilot.
When people ask me where I want to visit when all this is over, I explain I’m happy to stay in Australia a little longer. I’ve had my share of travel for a while.
Tess Fisher is a Melbourne-based freelance writer. You can watch her antics on Instagram.