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Long-distance Romantic Relationships - A Survival Guide

Perhaps the most compelling evidence that life is fundamentally unfair is the existence of - and indeed necessity for - long-distance relationships. This entry contains a brief analysis of the phenomenon, some hints and tips, and some detailed information on using the Internet to bridge the distance.

Given the large number of people that live within easy travelling distance of each other, it ought to be theoretically possible for everyone (except Australian outback farmers, polar research scientists, explorers, and religious hermits) to find someone geographically compatible; however, this is manifestly not the case. There are a number of theories about this, but perhaps it is nature's way of ensuring variety in the gene pool. Or perhaps it's a case of nature having a good laugh at the expense of a small number of unfortunate humans.

Distance is Subjective

To paraphrase the great Douglas Adams, 'You may think that it's a long way down the road to the chemist's, but that's just peanuts to space'. The point here is that distance as an obstacle in relationships is relative to the capacity of the partners to transverse that distance. Thus, lovesick teenagers who are unfortunate enough to live on the opposite side of a large city with poor public transport  have just as much right to consider themselves in a long-distance relationship as adults in geographically disparate towns, who have access to motor vehicles, airline tickets, or even - in extreme circumstances - trains.

The effect of distance is also dependent on expectation. Thus, relationships that have suddenly had distance thrust upon them may well feel its nasty effects more acutely than those where distance has always been a festering, lurking possibility, or even an inevitability. Therefore, a couple who live in each other's pockets for a while, only to be suddenly ripped apart by the cruel hand of fate, graduation, or a new job, will typically feel its effects more than a couple who are independent of each other and/or expect a physical distance. Relationships which start via the Internet rather than what is naively called 'real life,' start with distance as a given, and expect to have to cope with it. Indeed, it is often the removal of distance that proves to be traumatic.

Solid Footing and Realistic Expectations are Vital

Clearly, it is vital that a relationship is solid in its non-distance guise for it to stand any chance of working over a distance. Several years of cohabiting might do it, a stolen kiss in a disco on holiday probably won't.

Your expectations should depend upon the strength and duration of your relationship so far, and the prospective time apart. Is it for a specified period of time, or is it 'open ended,' perhaps for a long time? With the best will in the world, even if both of you want it to work, it might not. This might not be anyone's fault, but could be just one of those things. This is as true of conventional relationships as well as ones that operate over a distance. Some romantic partners agree on a 'no hard feelings' clause, where both partners agree to try to make it work, but to have no hard feelings if, for whatever reason, it doesn't. Not very romantic, perhaps, but a sound investment in emotional insurance - you will have at least talked over the possibility of things not working out, and explored those feelings together.

Some Types of Relationships Survive Better than Others

Tentative anecdotal evidence suggests that some types of relationship are better suited than others to surviving distance. In general, low-maintenance relationships based primarily on friendship and based on trust, are better suited than fiery, passionate relationships through which the green-eyed monster rampages unchecked on an almost daily basis.

Starting a long distance relationship with Heathcliff from Emily Brönte's Wuthering Heights is not recommended for three reasons. Firstly, he's not a very nice person; secondly, he's just not the type to work at it; and thirdly he is a fictional character.

There are Advantages to Distance Relationships

No, really, there are. As long as you can see each other occasionally, there are some real advantages.

  • You don't get sick of each other or get under each other's feet.

  • Allegedly, 'Absence makes the heart grow fonder', but then again perhaps out of sight is out of mind. It depends on your level of cynicism.

  • You still have some level of freedom, as the relationship takes up less time. You never get that 'come and see me' versus 'finish your homework/watch TV/boil the cat/go to the football/wash your hair' dilemma so movingly and eruditely expressed by Madness in their seminal work on relationships, 'My Girl'. Additionally, you avoid the social stigma of being single, and the associated pressure of friends trying to set you up with someone.

  • For men, it's a way of attaining great kudos with women. They think you're really sweet and romantic. Unfortunately, this bonus dissipates once you try to take advantage of it.

Indeed, such are the advantages of long-distance relationships that it can be difficult for partners to experience a non-distance relationship. Anecdotal evidence from other Researchers suggests that the extra time commitment that a non-distance relationship entails can put considerable strain on a couple, which can be completely demoralising after all the effort gone into maintaining the relationship in the first place.

Other Researchers report that some people seem to have serial distance-relationship tendencies. Could it be that the advantages are such that some people actually seek them out on purpose? Or could it be that the threat of impending distance empowers people to finally declare their love to the object of their affections? After all, they may never get another chance, and the pain of rejection will be short-lived if the rejector and the rejectee are soon to be geographically challenged.

On the other hand, the old proverb that 'absence makes the heart grow fonder' may prove to be true. It might be that a bit of distance will convince you that you never want to be apart again. It can lead to marriage for you, and a sudden desire to vomit for everyone else.

Overcoming Distance via the Power of the Internet

The pain of long-distance relationships can be greatly relieved by the use of the Internet. Sending a letter is often a very slow business. Telephone calls to foreign countries can be expensive (although cheap phone cards are increasingly available) and difficult to arrange when different time zones are involved. However, the Internet allows us to send messages all around the world cheaply and instantaneously. Not only is it possible to chat online by sending messages to one another, it is also possible to talk to via microphone and speakers. This section is a short guide to three of the easiest means of Internet communication beyond email. Email, of course, is a very useful way of keeping in touch, but can sometimes be a little impersonal, and it pays to remember that emails are only as private as the computer they're viewed on.


ICQ1 alerts users automatically to tell them that a friend is online. This feature is common now and what ICQ allows you to do is let you have a real-time text-based conversation. That is to say, anything you type (connection speed permitting) appears at the same time on your partner's screen as it does on yours. Other versions of an essentially similar kind of beast are provided by Yahoo!, AOL and MSN.

The ability to see one another's typos may not seem particularly meaningful, but the difference between chatting live via ICQ and text-messaging one another can be massive. When you are just text-messaging someone over and over again, it is not uncommon to start writing something, then change your mind, delete it, and start again. In this way words that imply what you are thinking, and how you are feeling, are lost.

One of the greatest problems with having a serious discussion - or even an argument - online, is the flexibility of language-use it encourages. Not being able to see the glint in someone's eye, can make it much, much harder to know whether what that person has just said was deeply sincere, scathingly ironic, just a little joke, or signalled the ending of your relationship.

The instantaneous response of ICQ and other real-time chat programs often helps you follow the thread of your partner's thoughts, and can therefore decrease the number of horrible misunderstandings that can occur.

Running ICQ

ICQ can be downloaded for free. Run the .exe file and after installation, you will be able to create a new ICQ account, which will start searching for your friends among all its current users. Once you have found a friend you can add them to your contact list and will always be able to see whether or not they are online.


Trillian is an amazing little program that impersonates ICQ, Yahoo! Messenger, AOL Instant Messager, MSM Messenger and IRC at the same time. By setting up connections with all of them, you can message someone no matter what service they are using. Whereas ICQ, Yahoo! Messenger, AOL Instant Messager and MSM Messenger are all fundamentally systems based on people only talking to one person at a time, IRC is rather different.

Internet Relay Chat is the mother and father of all Internet chat programs. It has been around for ages and is used by thousands of people every day. It is a lot more complicated (and indeed powerful) than any of the other services mentioned, but it is worth checking out as it can lead you to fascinating places.

Running Trillian

Trillian can also be downloaded for free. Once you have it up and running you can create new accounts or connections for all of the services available from the program itself - it will basically lead you to the relevant registration pages.

Trillian is brilliant because it lets you manage many different accounts without difficulty, and is also named after a character from The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy.


Unknown to so many people, Microsoft NetMeeting can be found among the huge amount of extra rubbish that you get when you install Internet Explorer onto your machine. NetMeeting allows you to connect to someone else's computer, and then net conference with them. It enables you to talk via microphone and speakers/headphones, send text messages, draw basic pictures, and transfer files to the other computer. The drawing program can be particularly good fun - either for drawing terrible pictures of domestic bliss or for playing noughts and crosses.

If you both have webcams you can also video conference, although this will put a lot of strain on some modems.

Talking with someone using NetMeeting is fantastic - if your sound gear is of a good enough quality, then the connection doesn't sound much different from being on the phone and because you are on the Internet, your phone company either won't charge for the time you spend talking to your loved one or, if they do, it will be only at the local rate.

Running NetMeeting

You can find NetMeeting but running a search on any computer with Microsoft Internet Explorer installed on it. Once you have it running, you will need to go to the help menu and select 'About Windows NetMeeting.' At the bottom of the dialogue box your IP address is shown. You then need to email your IP address to your partner, and select Host Meeting from the Call menu. Your partner needs to enter your IP Address into the black box at the top of the window, next to the yellow telephone icon, and then click on that icon. Their computer will then call yours, which will be waiting in a state of readiness to receive their call. After a few false starts you should be net conferencing.

Your IP address changes every time you log on, so you will need to mail or message it to your partner every time you want to net conference, but its a small price to pay.


In summary: what's the advice about romantic long-distance relationships? Generally, try not to. Still - if you do, be realistic and communicate with each other - let your partner know how you're feeling. Watch the phone bills, and don't forget to write. An absence of communication can be misinterpreted - say what you think, say what you're feeling, and say what you're doing and make sure that you're still part of each other's lives! Text messages are also great - actually phoning is not only expensive, but will inevitably take time. A text message tells your loved one that you're thinking of them - which is great to know!

A final tip - send letters, and don't tell your partner you've sent them. Nothing - short of actually seeing your loved one - is better than a letter.

1 ICQ is an acronym for 'I seek you'.