When we hear that a couple live 11 time zones apart and can afford to come together only once in a long while, it’s natural to offer sympathy for the pain. We should more fairly envy them for their luck.
Whatever our longings may indicate, it is simply a lot easier to love someone who isn’t there. Far from an unfortunate necessity, living apart should be recognised for what it truly is: an advantage.
So much goes right when we live a long way away:
- online or over the phone, we never assume that the other person should be able to read our minds without us having explained what is in them. We accept that we will have to describe our days, as well as our desires, in words and pictures. We can’t help but do that thing that holds couples together: communicate.
- We accept that the other can live without us – and therefore make the effort to be the sort of people someone would freely choose to be with. We work at it.
- We never have to find out how much it can tarnish love to be with someone who has a different idea of a cutlery drawer or the correct way to suspend a towel. Too often, when we’re cohabiting, we locate the difficulty of our relationships in a very erroneous place: we think that it is the wrong person we’ve mistakenly got together with, rather than keeping in mind that we’re with a pretty right person trying to do an exceptionally tricky thing: share a home. It may in the end – strangely – be a lot easier to love than to share a bathroom.
- Apart, we can sample the gentle suffering of loneliness over the intense rage of suffocation.
- We can benefit from what jealousy otherwise prevents us from admitting: how much it helps us to feel like desirable, potent people to be able to go out and flirt with someone else for a while without too many questions being asked: in other words, how profoundly loyal a whiff of surface disloyalty helps us to be.
- We appreciate. It’s a strange quirk of our minds, but we only ever notice what’s missing: the money we don’t have; the weather we long for; the car we don’t yet own. Yet once anything is securely in our possession, it disappears. We only see – in the sense of notice – what isn’t there. The best way to lose ownership of something is to own it – and the surest way to forget your partner exists may be to ensure they’re beside you every night.
Our love stories are suffering from a mistaken cultural hierarchy. Just as the book is often wrongly thought more important than the essay, so the live-in relationship is too readily assumed to be superior to the long-range version.
And yet, without ever meaning to do so, the long-distance relationship may simply, despite all its evident challenges, throw up some of the absolutely ideal conditions for true love to thrive. We should be wise to imbibe a few of the lessons life normally only teaches us when they’re in Sydney and you’re in Vancouver – and carefully import them into our lives, even with the people unfortunate enough to be right next to us.