Michael Herman’s long distance relationship spanned five cities, four provinces, two professional degrees and too many flights, train rides and drives to count over a six-year period.
Most of that time, he was alone.
“It was tough,” said the Newfoundland-based emergency medicine doctor, who now lives with his fiancée. “Just something like making dinner and sitting on the couch and watching Netflix, that’s not something we could do for six years.”
Herman, 27, and his fiancée Carrie Rudolph, 27, are modern-day proof that while not easy, absence can make the heart grow fonder for couples in long-term relationships or marriages, but living apart. These less than ideal arrangements are typically borne out of circumstance — job prospects in one city but roots in another. Relationship experts say these situations can be healthy, as long as both partners trust each other, communicate and don’t cheat. It doesn’t hurt to get creative either — perhaps taking notes from one South Korean couple that use Instagram to document their separate lives in New York and Seoul in split screen photos.
Ultimately, the key to survival is a simple one — focus on the long-game and set an actual end date, said Calgary-based couples mediator Debra Macleod.
“People do not do well living through periods of uncertainty,” Macleod said. “If you don’t (have a plan), it’s very short sighted. There’s no shared vision, there’s no sense of ‘us’ or a far less sense of ‘us’ than if you’ve made a master plan.”
But even the best laid plans won’t smooth all relationship wrinkles.
Macleod said trust issues are the most common problems facing long-distance couples. It’s natural for people to feel insecure when they’re not an active part of their partner’s life, often imagining worst-case scenarios, she said. Keeping in regular contact — even if it’s just a quick phone call to hear the other person’s voice — can help keep those insecurities at bay.
Sex, too, is tough.
“That is the problem,” said Macleod. “Some people get a little frisky on Skype. They meet up when they can ... You’re single in some ways. You’re still having to take care of yourself, frankly.”
In the meantime, committed couples grin and bear it.
“You have to just acknowledge (the situation) is going to be less than ideal, but that’s the nature of the beast,” said Herman, who started dating Rudolph when they were both students at McMaster University — she in undergrad and he starting med school.
The ensuing six years involved a string of cross-country relocations. She moved to Ottawa to study law, then he relocated to Prince Edward Island to start his residency, then she moved to St. John’s N.L. to start articling and then he moved to Sydney, N.S. for work. They were rarely in the same place at the same time.
The relationship revolved around weekend visits, Skype calls and heartfelt gestures — he sent her flowers on Valentine’s Day and once, she took a seven hour train ride to console him after a bad day.
Challenges aside, the separation helped them each focus on their careers and appreciate rare time together, Herman said. Today, they’re finally living together in St. John’s and have been since June.
For another couple, it wasn’t jobs that divided them — it was borders.
Shane Cunningham, 28, and Nick Boles, 30, met in 2009 at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland where she was studying for a master’s in psychology and he was studying for a master’s in Iranian studies. The pair spent nine glorious months together travelling, hiking, and kayaking in the highlands before graduation forced them 2,000 km apart. Cunningham returned to Oakville and Boles went back to Gulf Breeze, Florida.
For the next year and a half, they hunkered into a long distance relationship, madly applying for jobs in each other’s countries. Hitting one roadblock after another, they came up with plan B — move to China.
“We weren’t ready to get married at that point and there weren’t really (other) options,” Cunningham said of the decision to move abroad to teach English.
After a year in Shenzhen, China, they decided to return to North America to focus more seriously on their careers. Boles relocated to Rochester, N.Y, so they could at least be within driving distance of each other. When they got engaged in March 2014 and married in Oct. 2014, it seemed the end of long distance was nigh — until they learned it might take three more years for Boles to get permanent residency.
“It was, of course, very devastating,” Cunningham said. “I think the hardest for me was not feeling like we could start our lives together.”
In September last year, Boles finally received permanent residency. Today, they’re mere weeks into their shared life together in Toronto, which they say feels like an extension of the “honeymoon phase.”
And their tips for making it work?
“Actually talk about how you’re feeling (good and bad), continue to have your own life and include your partner in it as much as you can; get creative — you can only Skype so many times — figure out fun ways to engage with each other or surprise each other even when you’re apart,” said Boles.
But not every distance-tested relationship comes together in a happy reunion.
Janet Joy Wilson, 51, spent nine years in a cross-Canada marriage, raising her son and building a career in publishing in Toronto while her husband worked as a professor in Halifax. They initially expected the arrangement to be short-term. But with both partners building thriving careers and Wilson caring for aging relatives in Ontario, the separation became permanent.
“It was a lonely situation for both of us,” she said, recalling teary goodbyes at airports and phone calls that were a poor substitute for real-life intimacy.
The family made the most of summers and holidays together — spending Thanksgiving and Christmas in Toronto and March Break in Halifax — but time apart exacerbated their differences. Even minor things like differing preferences for peanut butter — she likes organic and he prefers sweetened — became more pronounced, said Wilson.
“If you only have a minimal amount of time with your partner ... and there are disagreements, it takes away from what time you have together and it seems that much worse,” Wilson said, adding well-intentioned plans easily get derailed when time is tight. “All of a sudden the romantic weekend that you have in your head gets totally screwed up because — life! ... The kitchen sink needs to be fixed, the boy has a cold.”
Last year, they separated on good terms. Wilson said she doesn’t have regrets or blame distance for the split, but their reasons for separation had more to do with personal issues she didn’t want to get into.
For others, modern day technology is helping bridge the divide.
“(Skype) is like a little portal into his place,” said Amanda Shendruk, a Toronto journalist whose Canadian physicist husband is based in the U.K. “It’s not the same as being together but it can help. It makes things significantly easier.”
Now 10 months into a long-distance marriage, Shendruk, 30, said strangers often ask if she and her husband are separated. After she explains their situation — he’s working abroad temporarily — younger people typically say “cool” but her parents’ generation have trouble wrapping their heads around it. She doesn’t mind the curiosity, but is excited for the time apart to end — not least because paying rent in two cities is getting expensive.
While long-distance isn’t ideal, there are advantages.
Couples who need to focus on their careers can do so without distractions, said Kevin VanDerZwet Stafford, a registered psychotherapist in Guelph, who said the separate-but-together couples he sees as patients are usually in their mid-30s. Sometimes, they’re living in different cities during the week and together on the weekend — an arrangement he sees as sustainable.
If nothing else, it forces them to get creative.
For instance, last Thanksgiving Alexis Dearie, 40, didn’t want her husband, a pilot in Timmins, to miss the family holiday so she Skyped him.
“We put the laptop at the end of the table so he could feel like he was part of the meal,” Dearie said, letting out a whoop of laughter. “We ended up having to move him to the counter because there was so much food.”
Dearie’s husband, Jeff, returns home to southern Ontario for just a few days each month in an arrangement that’s been ongoing for two years. For them, the physical separation has actually been a boon to their relationship and Dearie said it feels like dating again.
“You can get so muddled up in the day to day with kids and activities and friends and things,” she said. “This is sort of stripping all that away and just saying, OK — going back to the basics of what we actually liked about each other to begin with!”
From a distance
Couples mediator Debra Macleod has these tips on keeping your long-term long-distance relationship healthy and happy:
Get a hobby: Try to cultivate outside interests to help pass the time so you are not always focusing on how lonely you are when your partner isn’t around.
A united front on social media: Couples might consider merging social media accounts to show outsiders that they are indeed together, albeit geographically separate. This also lets partners show each other they’re not hiding anything online.
Be understanding: If a partner has insecurities, address them respectfully. Don’t whoop with laughter when your spouse asks why you have photos with that attractive co-worker. “It doesn’t mean your partner’s controlling or paranoid, it just means they’re human.”
Limit opposite sex — or same-sex — socializing: Macleod knows this isn’t a popular tip, but says it’s worth cutting off social relationships with other men/women you might be attracted to. “You have to be respectful in terms of how these things look to your partner,” she said.
Have a master plan: Don’t let long distance drag on forever. Have a discussion with your partner about how long you’re going to be apart and consider working towards a deadline.
Check in: Even a quick “good morning” text or voicemail shows your partner that you’re thinking about them. A phone call is even better, but if you don’t have anything to chat about that day, it’s OK to keep it short. Aim to communicate daily.
Resist nagging: Don’t spend your rare time together fixing leaky pipes or mowing the lawn. Couples should focus on enjoying their time together, not catching up on chores.