Long-Distance Relationships:

Are They Really So Terrible?

by Ellen Newman

A Parental Dilemma

Dana and Eduardo on the way to Lopes Mendes Beach, Brazil.
I am a traditional person who leads a conventional life. Dana, my 23-year-old daughter, could say the same. She’s our only child, and we were fortunate that she went to college only an hour away, close enough to come home for all holidays—large and small. The closeness also made it easy enough to meet for dinner when she was available. After graduation, we were thrilled when she found a great job and chose to move back to our house in the Philadelphia suburbs to save money for law school. Dana had an idyllic, somewhat old-fashioned, childhood: close friends, some of whom go as far back as preschool or elementary school; beloved family dog; stay-at-home mom who bakes chocolate chip cookies; and adoring dad with whom she shares a love of hiking. One thing about our life, however, is not so conventional: My daughter’s boyfriend lives in another country.

Yes, Dana’s boyfriend (and our future son-in-law) lives in Brazil, which is approximately 4800 miles, or a 10-hour plane ride, away. Dana and Eduardo met in Lyon, France, in January 2012 at a dinner for international students during her very first week there. She was attending Université Lumière Lyon II as part of University of Pennsylvania's Study Abroad program, and Eduardo was spending a year in Lyon in conjunction with his university. Although they intended to end their five-month relationship when she returned home (and they did, in fact, break up as planned the day she left), after a month of discussion and soul-searching, they decided to try to make a long-distance relationship work.

Although we had not met Eduardo when we visited Dana in Lyon (at that point, they had been dating only about three weeks), I had heard many wonderful things about him. Most of all, I knew Dana to be mature, sensible, and a good judge of character. Dana worried about the challenges of being in an international relationship; the extreme distance—as well as language and cultural differences—would make it difficult.

Nevertheless, I thought they owed it to themselves to give it their best shot. Eduardo is willing to live in the United States and adjust to the differences in culture. Compared to that, it is a small inconvenience for Dana to be in a long-distance relationship for a few years and to have to explain it to friends and family. I cannot imagine having my only child live so far away, so I am relieved that Dana and Eduardo plan to live in the United States.

More than two years later, they are happier than ever, and the situation has fallen into place with minimal drama, showing that with a little effort, all things are possible. For example, Dana is fortunate that she worked as a paralegal for an immigration lawyer during college; as a result, she understands the complicated immigration rules regarding international marriages, and she also can obtain free legal advice from her old boss, who remains a good friend. Another bonus is that both Dana and Eduardo excel at languages: They began their relationship speaking French but now converse exclusively in English. Dana has also become quite proficient in Portuguese and has no trouble understanding Eduardo’s friends and family, many of whom do not speak English.

Mostly, however, their relationship has thrived as a result of honest communication, careful planning and scheduling, warm and welcoming families on both sides, daily contact through technology, and frequent visits. Eduardo has visited here for extended periods. One year, he spent Thanksgiving with us (see my article in the fall 2013 issue) and another year, it was Rosh Hashanah (an entirely new experience for Eduardo). Dana has spent Christmas in Brazil (when it’s summer there and 100 degrees!) and will be visiting this year (when it's summer here), before she leaves for law school. Once Dana graduates, they will get married.

A Global World
The world has indeed gotten smaller. My parents, both born in Brooklyn, lived there all of their lives. They rarely traveled beyond the United States; as a World War II soldier, my father never left his base in Scott Field, IL. Both sets of grandparents were also born in Brooklyn and remained there. They traveled to places such as California, Hawaii, Florida, or Puerto Rico and did not feel the urge to travel internationally. My parents told me that the United States (and specifically New York) had the best of everything, and we were already here. Who would want to leave? I remained in Brooklyn during college, where all of my friends were born in Brooklyn as well. I thought I was moving to the other end of the world when I married my husband and moved to Philadelphia, where he grew up.

In contrast, my daughter’s circle of friends has always included people from other cultures, including China, Korea, India, and Latvia. Dana went to Paris for the first time at age 13, and the following year she participated in a student exchange in Alsace, France. Since then, she has visited Germany, Switzerland, Italy, Spain, Morocco, Belgium, Latvia, Poland, Sweden, the Czech Republic, Scotland, England, Monaco, and, of course, Brazil. Technology has also made the world a smaller and easier place to navigate. We correspond regularly with relatives in France and the U.K. through Facebook and e-mail; we no longer have to worry about making that expensive “long-distance” phone call. We also don’t think of a trip abroad as a once-in-a-lifetime event.

History of Study Abroad
The proliferation of college study abroad programs has also drawn people of the world closer together. In 1958, my oldest cousin graduated from Harvard Law School and won a fellowship to study International Comparative Law in Luxembourg. He met a lawyer from Barcelona there who would later become his wife. For many years, he was the only person I knew who had studied abroad or who had married someone from another country. Whereas in the past this type of study was more common among wealthier students, those majoring in languages, or those who won fellowships like my cousin, this opportunity is now an established part of American academic life.

Study abroad programs trace their first roots to Indiana University in the 1870s, where students were invited to attend summer courses that focused on history, language, and culture in Switzerland, France, England, Germany, and Italy. These courses were later offered for college credit.

The first modern study abroad program, however, was sponsored by the University of Delaware. In 1923, French Professor Raymond Kirkbride took eight students to Nancy, France, for six weeks of intensive language study; they later went to Paris to study at The Sorbonne. The University of Delaware had initially refused to fund the trip, but Kirkbride won support with the aid of university president Walter Hullihen, then-Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover, and businessman Pierre S. DuPont. Initially called The Delaware Foreign Study Plan, the program became known as the Junior Year Abroad (JYA) and was so successful it was instituted at other colleges. Today, more than 80,000 Americans study abroad at the college or university level each academic year.

Long-Distance Relationships Take Off
As a result of our fast-changing world, long-distance relationships of every type are becoming more common. In our increasingly mobile society, people no longer stay in one place their entire lives. Businesses relocate; workers often follow. Couples may be offered equally lucrative and promising careers in different locations. Undergraduate and graduate studies can separate loved ones, as can military service. New attitudes and new technology allow people to continue these relationships rather than be forced to break up.

Couples once limited their long-distance relationships to different cities or states, but the number of international relationships has been steadily rising. According to US Immigration News, in 2010 more than 5 million coupleswith one spouse originating from a different country got married. With these kinds of statistics, it no longer makes sense to avoid a long-distance relationship merely because of the challenges. If your child is considering attempting such a relationship, some strategies can make his or her life easier.

Tips for a Good International Relationship
1. Communicate well. As with any good relationship, communication is essential. Neither one of you is a mind reader, so it helps if you are clear about what you are thinking. It is especially important to discuss your hopes and dreams as a couple (see no. 2), as well as anything that might be bothering you. Prevent a misunderstanding or fix it as soon as it happens.

Dana and Eduardo in Times Square, NYC.
2. Make a specific plan for your relationship, including a time frame. Treat your relationship as you would any other special event in your life—don’t leave it to chance. What is your ultimate goal as a couple? Make sure you are both in agreement, decide when it is feasible to be together (e.g., when school ends or military service is completed), and take the necessary steps to make it happen. Even if you have to wait several years, you will feel better knowing that you are making progress toward your goal.

3. Schedule visits on a regular basis. Plan to visit each other regularly, as often as your budget will allow. If possible, take turns so that one person doesn’t incur all of the traveling expense. When you’re together, enjoy every minute! You’ve seen those romantic reunions in airports, both in movies and in real life. This is the moment you’ve been waiting for.

4. Use technology to your advantage. The most common complaint about technology is that it interferes with our lives and prevents us from being present in our relationships. But in a long-distance relationship, it does just the opposite. You can use Skype or Oovoo to feel almost as though you and your loved one are facing one another, talking, hanging out while reading, or watching the same movie together. Communication is easy with any combination of e-mail, text messages, Gchat, Facebook, and ecards, as well as photos and videos sent directly from your mobile phone. Be sure to have important conversations in person or over the phone, though; written communication can be difficult when you cannot hear a person’s tone of voice. Was that comment made in a light-hearted or a sarcastic way? It can be hard to tell from a text message.

5. Know the immigration laws. Do your research! There are government websites (listed at the end of this article) that provide a wealth of information. Legal complications can arise if you are misinformed about immigration policies. Make sure you have the appropriate visa for travel, school, or work. If possible, talk to an immigration lawyer, especially if you plan to get married.

6. Celebrate birthdays, anniversaries, and other milestones. Even if you can’t be there in person, nothing is more romantic than receiving a good old-fashioned love letter in the mail. You can send cards, flowers, food, and other gifts; just remember to mail your package early enough for it to arrive in time for that special day.

7. Trust each other. In a long-distance relationship, trusting your partner is even more important. It can be easy to get jealous when you’re not together. Remember that jealousy is often a result of insecurities or a bad prior relationship—don’t let it ruin your current one!

8. Be positive. Don’t listen to negative people. Remember why you decided this person was special and worth the challenge of a long-distance relationship. Ignore the horror stories that people may tell you, as well as their doubts and skepticism. Assume that things will all work out and a happy ending will be yours.

9. Create a support network. If you are lucky, you will have the support of your family and friends. If not, online blogs and discussion forums are available (a few are listed at the end of the article).

10. Be thankful. You are so fortunate to have found this special person; many people never do. If your relationship is strong, it will survive a few challenges.

We’re living in a more connected world today, which means we have greater opportunities for everything, including love. Let’s embrace that, and be thankful!

Useful Links
The Benefits of a Long-Distance Relationship
A Brief Look at Marriage and Immigration
The Long and Short of Long-Distance Love
Loving from a Distance
10 Reasons a Long-Distance Relationship Will Work
10 Reasons Long-Distance Relationships Are Awesome
U.S. Immigration: Guiding You Through Citizenship, Green Card, and Visa Applications

Ellen Newman, an Associate Editor at Empty Nest, is a freelance editor who recently became certified to teach elementary school in PA. She is looking forward to having her own classroom one day soon. For now, however, she is content to be “the best substitute ever,” as described by her students. Ellen and her husband are empty nesters, although their daughter is living at home until she begins law school in September. When she’s not editing, teaching, or having fun with her daughter, Ellen makes the most of her free time reconnecting with old friends.

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