Brett Donar

Living Apart From My Long-Distance Boyfriend Saved Our Relationship

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Ask anyone ―  a dating expert, your mother, mainstream entertainment ― and they will tell you that long-distance relationships are always a bad idea. They are too stressful and impractical, cause too many problems, lead to too many fights, and they always, always end in heartbreak.

Or so they say.

I have been with my partner for almost seven years, and after all that time, I am a firm believer that absence truly does make the heart grow fonder. In fact, if it weren't for distance and travel, my relationship might not have survived.

My partner and I started dating my junior year in college and very quickly fell head over heels in love with each other. When I graduated a year later, though, that love was put to its first major test: I was moving to New York for a post-grad internship, but my boyfriend still had a few years of school left, so we had to decide to either stay together and start a long-distance relationship or break up.

Despite everything we read and heard, we decided to give long-distance a shot.

Needless to say, it wasn't easy. We had to figure out how to have date nights from two states away, how to talk throughout the day without being obnoxious or overbearing, how to work on our issues without being able to sit down in the same room and hash it all out.

At first, it was just too hard, and we broke up for a few months. But distance does indeed make the heart grow fonder, and we were back together and back to our long-distance relationship soon enough.

Only the second time around, it actually worked: We talked every night before bed, made monthly visits to one another, and even started a couple's book club to make it feel like we had shared activities together, even if we were physically apart. We could live our respective lives — me in New York working on my career, him in Massachusetts finishing his degree — and still share a spectacular romance.

Things went on this way for two and a half years until I decided to give up my publishing job in the city for a career in freelance writing, something I could do anywhere in the world.

After leaving New York, I moved in with my boyfriend for his last semester of college and my first few months as a freelancer, and we formulated a plan: After his graduation, we were going to say goodbye to Massachusetts once and for all and embark on a year of living abroad in Southeast Asia. I was ready to be the next Jack Kerouac and write about my adventures on the road, the next Elizabeth Gilbert and find my inspiration overseas. I was ready to go.

But as they say, life is what happens when you're busy making other plans, and soon it became clear that mine were falling apart.

My boyfriend has always wanted to start his own business, and shortly after graduation, he was presented with an opportunity too tempting to pass up: a chance to start a hydroponics farm with his best friend in our college town.

While in college, he spent his summers working on a local farm, and when he graduated, the idea of leaving the land in favor of an office cubicle crushed him. But farming isn't the most lucrative business, and without some land of his own, my boyfriend knew that harvesting someone else's crops for $11 an hour just wasn't going to cut it. So instead of sticking with what he loved, he spent his last semester in school applying to engineering jobs he knew he would hate.

When his friend approached him with this new business idea, it was like a dream come true for my boyfriend, a career opportunity from the gods. For me, it was a claustrophobic nightmare. If he decided to stay, it would mean our travel plans were out the window and I was quite literally tied to the land I was so desperate to leave.

We had to choose: live my dream, or live his? More importantly, I had to choose: us or the world?

It was a scenario I've seen played out on TV and in movie and books a million times before, and every time I saw someone else go through it, I'd scream: There's plenty of fish in the sea! You go do you, sister!

But when I found myself confronted with the same problem, I didn't find the solution to be so simple. I knew I didn't want to stay put and live in the farming community my partner needed to settle in, but I also knew I didn't want to leave him. I desperately wanted to see the world, but what is the world without someone to share it with?

Of course, I thought about being long-distance again. We had already spent most of our relationship apart, and it was something that worked well for us, so why not go with what we know? What was another couple years of love letters and late night phone calls?

Logically, it made total sense, and we already had the tools and tricks we needed to make it work. But in reality, the thought of spending another few years living in separate apartments, having date nights over the phone, and seeing each other primarily through a phone screen was devastating. Wasn't the whole point of being in a relationship having someone to share your life with, every little bit?

To truly do that, to truly commit, I didn't think was something that could be done on separate continents.

I knew if I stayed, I'd be angry, restless, and resentful. If I left, I'd be lonely, bitter, and distracted. I wanted my happy ending, I wanted a life with my partner, but I didn't want to settle down, to limit myself, to restrict my choices. I wanted everything without giving up anyone.

But that's when I remembered a quote from Madeleine Albright: “Women can have it all, just not all at once.”

It was clear that moving away and embarking on another long-distance relationship was out of the question, but what if we were only apart some of the time? I already had the freedom to travel and work from anywhere as a freelance writer, so it would be easy for me to pick up and go on trips to wherever, whenever I wanted. As a farmer, my boyfriend didn't have the same luxury, but he didn't have the same desire, either.

He wanted to build something at home. I wanted to fill my passport with stamps. If we agreed to do those things separately, couldn't we both get what we wanted?

I thought it was a splendid idea, but my boyfriend had reservations about living apart again. He argued that we were in our mid-20s, and it was time we start thinking about the long-term, about settling down and building a life. I couldn't argue with his logic, but I couldn't shake the itch to pack my bags and hit the road. Something in my soul told me that if I was ever going to be happy, if I was ever going to find my story, it wasn't going to do it sitting at home playing farmer's wife.

That's when we came up with the compromise that saved our relationship: We would settle down in Massachusetts where my boyfriend was starting a business, but for four months out of the year, no more than two months at a time, I would have the ability to live somewhere else.

To make it work, we've created a home base, a place we can do all of those things couples do as they get older — buy furniture and appliances, host dinner parties for friends, plant gardens and hang photos on the wall— and for a quarter of a year, I get to call somewhere else home.

In the last year alone, I have followed some of my favorite author's footsteps in New Orleans while my boyfriend and his business partner broke ground on their farm. I lived, wrote, and traveled for three weeks on the West Coast while he planted his first crops. In August, I'll be taking off for the island of St. John, where I'll spend two months writing a book by the beach while he spends two months building the business of his dreams.

But this year, my boyfriend and I also got a dog together. We had date nights at the bar down the road from our home base where we are slowly becoming locals. We framed pictures, bought couches, built a bed, and, memory by memory, truly started making a home.

We have only had this arrangement for about a year and a half, but already, it has changed both of our lives for the better.

While we've made the best of both worlds, it isn't always easy, but relationships never are.

Our part-time, long-distance set-up means we go weeks, sometimes months, without seeing each other. It means lonely days and sexless nights. It means time differences and miscommunication. It means missed holidays and lost memories, and sometimes, it means really missing each other.

There have been moments of doubt where I've asked myself, Is this really working? Moments where I have even dared to say it out loud to my boyfriend. When I was in New Orleans, I suffered from a crippling panic attack that lasted three days. I couldn't eat, couldn't sleep, couldn't focus on anything except the crushing feeling in my chest. All I kept thinking was, Where is my support system? Where is the one guy who understands how to make me feel better when this is happening?

I knew my boyfriend was always there for me emotionally, but in that moment, with him miles away and me moments from a breakdown, I thought: I need more. And then he called and said everything I needed him to say, reminded me we'd be together in a week, and even offered to fly to New Orleans to take me to the doctor. It wasn't an empty offer, either, and I knew I didn't need more.

I knew I had everything I needed: love, adventure, and a place to come home to.

Our part-time, long-distance relationship means a lot of hard work, difficult sacrifices, and plenty of compromises, but it also means living our respective dreams and having someone to share them with. It means not only finding our individual inspirations, but having support while we do it. It means taking in as much of the world as I can while I'm in it, and it means making the most out of every day we have together when we are in the same place.

It means having it all, even if it means not all at once.