I vividly remember the first time I saw him. I was quite lost, trying to juggle driving on a dirt road while also looking at my GPS, and arrived at a farm gate at the edge of the small Klein Karoo town of Barrydale. He was the friendliest person I’ve ever met, and with this huge welcoming smile he proudly showed me his guest house, his farm and everything that he had built over the last few years. I stood no chance, I fell for him instantly.
In new relationships, it’s easy to deny the very obvious logistical hurdles. When we met, I was still living in Claremont and the nearly four hours and over 300km between us seemed like a mere drive around the block. But of course, things change, and as reality slowly starts to sink back in, you find yourself juggling a job, a relationship that requires a lot of clear communication over a distance, friends and family, and of course your own wants and needs.
This is my experience, my advice, and my honest account of the long-distance relationship that changed my life.
Like I mentioned, when we first started dating, I was working in the city and keeping ridiculous hours – partly because the job was so demanding, but also because if you live in Cape Town things like the traffic, for example, dictates a lot your schedule. I had also just emerged (yes, emerged) from a year long self-initiated hiatus from relationships and dating, and was terrified of starting something where I would potentially get hurt – again.
But because of the distance between us, I was able to go through that initial head-over-heels-in-love phase with minimal disruption to my work life. I found it much easier to cope with this new relationship, because he was essentially inaccessible to me during the week, while weekends became more important.
Another great thing about long distance relationships, and this is something that I had to teach myself to love, is that you essentially have two hometowns.
So, when I moved out to Stellenbosch, I not only cut the travel time between us by nearly an hour, I also tried to make my apartment a second home for him, just like he had made the farm a second home for me. This was truly hard for me at first, and still something I struggle with today, but for the most part I’ve made peace with the fact that we have two small temporary living spaces, as we move towards one day having one bigger permanent space in the same town. But I’ve come to love both Barrydale and Stellenbosch as homecoming spaces in their own right.
We really try to see each other every weekend. Which takes a lot of commitment from both of us and while I work a normal 8 to 5 office job, in the hospitality industry they don’t really take weekends off. Despite of this, the very best feeling in the entire world is travelling to the person you love. It is a weird mix between anticipation, joy and elation, together with just a hint of frustration at the fact that you do not get to see him every day.
And once you arrive, trust me, you make the most of the few days you have together. We try to fit in a whole week’s worth of activities in one weekend, which can sound quite exhausting, but I believe that we have become very good at maximising our time together. For us, this always includes taking time to sit down and talk next to the braai or just listening to some music enjoying each other’s company.
So, if you have never been in a long-distance relationship, I can understand that communicating over the gap can seem quite daunting. I believe that over the last two years of dating, we have developed communication skills between us that take other couples longer to get right because it is a bit of an adapt-or-die situation. Either you teach yourself to communicate openly and properly, or you will end up fighting over the phone for hours. I’m not saying that we are now perfect communicators – far from it – it is just a bit of a steeper learning curve.
We mainly communicate via WhatsApp and by calling each other. Neither of us is a fan of Skype or FaceTime and we rarely send voice notes. But this is just what works for us.
The key is to make the other person part of your life, even if they are not physically present.
If I can give just one little bit of advice, it would be to create habits between the two of you. Whether this is sharing a pic of your dinner every night or sending a message first thing in the morning or not going to sleep with sending an emoji – I find a lot of comfort in these mundane little gestures that let you know that everything is okay.
Of course, it is not as simple as that. Odds are that weeks will go by where every phone conversation will be a frustration, where every message will ooze with longing and where you will actually start to avoid any communication. In my experience that frustration usually builds and explodes in a massive fight. I constantly need to remind myself that if I’m feeling frustrated, he must be feeling as frustrated, if not more, and that I need to calm myself and rather speak to the frustration and not the person.
Another hurdle we’ve faced is a difference in personality that gets amplified by the distance between us. I am an obsessive planner. I love planning days, weeks and months ahead of time. I love finishing task and giving myself a mental kudos every time something gets done. He, on the other hand, rather takes each day as is. He loves changing his mind on a whim and I think he actually gets excited by this easily adaptable world that he has created around himself.
Even if this was not part of his personality, the nature of both his career and the farm mean that things easily change, and that things need to be attended to in real time. So, while he lives more reactively, I find comfort in living proactively. There is no quick fix, or easy tip or even workaround. As with every relationship, a whole lot of compromise needs to take place which means that I will plan some things, but a lot of stuff I need to leave up to fate.
Another piece of advice would be to set clear relationship goals. We want to live together in six months’ time, or we want to buy a house together in a year. Chances are that you might miss that deadline because life happens, but at least you work towards your relationship together. Once again, communication is key, if you’ll be missing one of these deadlines, it needs to be communicated and new goals need to be set.
I often feel like we’ve been spared a lot of ugly because we only started dating in our late twenties, which for me meant a relationship with a lot less confusion. We are baseline compatible and straight forward people, and communicate as such. But there is a side to long distance relationships that no one can prepare you for and that is the loneliness.
To me, the absolute worst kind of loneliness is the kind where you are enjoying a night out with friends and are suddenly reminded of the person you’d rather see at that exact moment. And no matter how much you enjoyed, or will enjoy, the night, that small space reserved in your heart for that one person you love cannot be filled with anything but their presence.
Being lonely amid a crowd of friends can be terrifying, but seeing the impact all the travel has on your significant other’s life and health can be another horrifying experience.
Where you want your relationship to be the best part of their day, the distance does take its very ugly toll and you always have to be conscious of where you have to catch each other when one of you might start slipping.
We’ve never had any issues with trust, but a lot of long-distance relationships fail because partners do not trust each other. The weird thing about trust is that you need to give it in order to get it and over a distance this is truer than ever. And to me, it does come back to sharing your life with your partner, even if they are far away, and vice versa.
I wouldn’t trade him or our relationship for anything. We have worked hard at it for the last two years and we continue to do so every day. While a lot of these relationship frustrations often end in resentment, we are always actively working on counteracting this. And that is what I think makes a long-distance relationship work – a lot of patience, understanding, communication, sacrifice and whole load of unconditional love.