I do understand what's so appealing about long-distance relationships. They're romantic, in theory. Distance is a great aphrodisiac, and there's no better sex than reunion sex. Being apart from your significant other makes them seem all the more desirable to you — probably because they're not around to expose you to all of their tiny, everyday flaws.
It's the flaws, though, both large and small, that I find so important in a relationship. Love is real when you know it can exist despite them. This is the deeper, more permanent love that comes after the sheeny gloss of infatuation. It's the kind of commitment that lasts despite geography.
Going long-distance makes the big flaws really apparent: Anxiety, co-dependence, and self-worth come to the forefront. These were the flaws my long-distance relationship brought to the surface, and they increased in size and scale. Eventually, they became too much to manage.
Thinking that the problems would go away once the distance between us closed, I moved back to be with him. As it turned out, we wouldn't survive the same city much better, though it took us longer to realize that. Three years later, we parted ways.
Looking back, I should have known the signs my long-distance relationship wouldn't last were the same ones that meant we would never make it long term. They were definitely there, even if they were difficult to recognize at the time:
1. The Terms Were Indefinite
I have had friends who had long-distance relationships and didn't break up. The secret to their success? They knew how many months (or years) they would be apart. One of my closest college friends dated her boyfriend for only a year before he moved to Chicago to complete his post-doctorate program. They got married last fall.
Even though it was difficult for them to be apart, they were secure in their commitment to one another, and their timeline had an end date. They would be together again in six years, when the post-doctorate fellowship was complete.
If six years sounds like an overwhelmingly long amount of time to be apart, then join the club. Only being able to see my boyfriend every other month for a few days or week at a time would never be enough for me.
It would have been slightly less maddening if I had known how long I could expect this separation to go on. I was already unclear about my own boundaries and comfort zones within a relationship, and not having a timeline made my own limitations all the more blurry.
Although I dreamed about my boyfriend moving from Pittsburgh and joining me in New York, he had no intentions of leaving his job. Once, he sent me a job posting in Princeton, and I allowed myself to flirt with the idea of being able to hang out on weekends. He never applied to the job.
It wasn't long before I became impatient with the open-ended nature of our long-distance relationship. Someone had to do something, so I decided to move back to Pittsburgh for him -- even though I knew doing so would mean I was making a far greater compromise than he was.
I thought I would be OK with it, but I didn't know myself too well back then. Moving back to the city I had just left led to years of resentment.
2. I Was Anxious All Of The Time
The relationship I was in with my long-distance boyfriend had gotten off to a pretty rocky start. We had met the summer before my senior year of college, and he had pursued me even though I had initially not had much interest.
Eventually, I ignored my gut instinct and agreed to go out with him because I thought I was selling myself short. I had a history of falling for emotionally unavailable people. Maybe this was someone who actually wanted to be with me.
It turned out that he was way more confused than he had initially pretended to be, and was actually still hung up on his ex-girlfriend and using me as a rebound. Welp. Nice try, I guess.
If I seem bitter now, it's because I wasn't angry enough then. I allowed him to continue in his wishy-washy behavior toward me for six months. When he dumped me before my graduation, I thought it was for good, so I made plans to move out of Pittsburgh and start anew.
But boundaries were, again, not a strength of mine. A few days before I was supposed to move, he called me up and told me he loved me. I agreed to date even though, by the time we were actually getting together, it would be long distance.
If I had a better sense of relationships then, I would have understood that the early days of a relationship set the tone for what's to come. We didn't have trust early on, what with him dumping me every few weeks or even days. Of course I didn't trust him not to break it off because I was gone.
This insecure attachment put me on constant edge. If my boyfriend didn't text me back right away, I assumed that it was over. If he met up with an ex he had dated in high school, I assumed he was cheating on me.
The power imbalance was completely off, and when I chose to move back for him, it was because I believed my anxiety would dissipate with proximity. I should have known that the anxiety didn't have as much to do with distance as much as it had to do with him.
3. I Was Dependent On The Relationship For My Self-Worth
Honestly, I don't know whether I would have stayed in New York if I hadn't been dating someone long distance.
The relationship was taking a toll on me, but in addition to that, my job inarguably sucked. (I worked at a law office in Soho that specialized in finance, and I literally had no idea what I was supposed to be doing.)
I knew maybe one person in all of Manhattan, and was spending a fortune renting a pull-out couch because I didn't know where to live. Plus, having to go underground to get to work every day was giving me panic attacks. I'm sensitive.
Maybe the difficulties of dating long distance made me zero in on these problems more. Nothing seemed to be going right in New York. It was like my gaze narrowed into tunnel vision, and the only positive thing in my life seemed to be that someone loved me.
There were definitely things I could have done to improve my circumstances: I could have applied to different jobs, I could have moved to an apartment, I could have gotten some actual furniture. But instead, I was co-dependent on my boyfriend to make me feel good.
Rather than focusing on what I could do in the moment to make myself happy, I focused on the near future — when my boyfriend would be visiting next, when I would be visiting him, or the phone call we had scheduled for later that night.
Tying a relationship up with my self-worth raised its stakes. It had to be all or nothing because my self-esteem was at risk. New York or my boyfriend. I chose the latter.
We dated for a few more years after I moved back to Pittsburgh to be with him. The relationship continued on six months after I decided to end it.
In part, that's because of how long it took me to separate my identity from it. But also, it was because I thought I had sacrificed so much to make it work — to be with him.
I had given up on my dreams of New York! I had moved back to a city I didn't want to live in! Shouldn't that mean I would get what I want?
The reality was that what I wanted was much more than that relationship could provide me. I don't regret the fact that I tried to date long distance. I found a limit to my love, which included identifying the place where it starts: with loving yourself.
That won't be something I give up on again.
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