Poets have written about it, bands have sung about it, Hollywood has made movies about it: long-distance love has been a well-documented trial of the heart for as long as people have travelled and felt Cupid’s arrow. It’s also increasingly common in this age of cheap flights, digital nomads, TEFL teachers and footloose travellers.
But long-distance love can be an isolating and challenging experience, so how do couples make it work? Lonely Planet writer James Bainbridge, who had a continent-spanning relationship between London and Cape Town, asks couples for their tips and offers his own advice.
Editor's note: Please check the latest travel restrictions before planning any trip and always follow government advice.
1. Have an end in sight
I met Leigh-Robin in a bar on Cape Town’s main nightlife strip, Long Street, and we kept the fire burning after a few days of cavorting around the pretty Cape Winelands. A couple of months later, Leigh-Robin came to visit me in London, then we lived in Istanbul for a spell and finally I followed her to Cape Town. Nine years later, we’re happily (if sleep-deprivedly) married with two young children.
During those early days of Skype sessions and separation, it was encouraging to have an end to the long-distance chapter in sight. We had a goal to work towards, first her visit to London, then Istanbul and finally Cape Town, all times when we would actually be on the same continent. Without those concrete goals, the relationship might have eventually started to feel like an abstract, virtual affair, removed from our everyday lives. But we made it through that phase and, true to the globe-trotting nature of our courtship, we’re passing on the travel bug to our kids.
2. Share a dream
Illinois-born Jennifer Gilmore has lived the travel dream through teaching English around the world, spending over a decade in nine countries from Turkey to Chile, the Czech Republic to Japan. Given this globe-trotting career, it was perhaps unsurprising that she added long-distance love to her visa stamps, when she met Tanzanian Fabi Mwaikokoba while on holiday in Zanzibar.
“What has made our long-distance relationship bearable is our shared belief in our dream,” Jennifer writes from Uganda. “We are apart because it's best for our careers and we’re both saving money, but our long-term goal is to buy land, build a house, grow a farm, and rent bungalows in mainland Tanzania. We both want this, and we're willing to make sacrifices to get it. When the distance between us gets particularly difficult, we talk again about our plans, recommit to them, and remind one another that we are apart so we can live the life we want to live for the rest of our lives.”
3. Read a good book
Technology is a huge help in sustaining long-distance relationships, whether it’s lovers WhatsApping sweet nothings or grandparents keeping in touch with their grandchildren on Skype. Cory Booker, New Jersey senator, reads books aloud over FaceTime with girlfriend Rosario Dawson. He also sends the Hollywood actress a song every morning. They enjoyed City of Thieves, David Benioff’s novel set in St Petersburg during World War II, and their list of books is likely to get longer still.
4. Share core values
Having a shared spiritual belief was central to the transatlantic courtship of London-based digital developer Paddy Keane and American jewellery designer Christine Casil.
“The distance also fortuitously encouraged me to think about marriage, as I couldn’t afford the trips to the USA and back, so the relationship developed sustainably while having some helpful pressure to make decisions,” says Paddy.
Trips to Christine’s home patches of New York and Hawaii and Paddy’s spiritual home, West Cork, kept the magic alive, as did Facebook and FaceTime, but Paddy ultimately credits a higher ideal.
“Having shared core values and efforts in trying to cultivate a Buddhist-centred mindset and a desire to help local communities came into play.”
5. Play Boggle
It’s no surprise that Lonely Planet’s travel-loving writers are wise in the ways of long-distance love. American author Alex Leviton says that, while catching up digitally is great, it’s even better to “find something to do online. Play a game, make lists, read or watch something together.”
Her story bears this out, beginning with meeting the love of her life at a castle in Spain. “I was working on the Lonely Planet book Calm at the time, and writing out my research in Google Docs. We'd have dates “in” Google Docs, chatting about not only our day or our lives, but also the research. Chatting on Skype was fine, but it wasn't real life. This way, we had a chance to connect over a shared experience, talking about music or nature or meditation or whatever else I was researching.”
The couple still applies this lesson when Alex is on the road. “We play games over text message now when one of us is travelling. Whoever stays home takes a photo of our Boggle board and we play a few games before the later person's bedtime.”
6. Find the same headspace
Love also crossed the pond for British filmmaker Patrick Steel. The transatlantic couple has converged on Edinburgh, a fittingly beautiful place to live happily ever after, but Patrick says it was sometimes challenging to make the relationship work across time zones.
“If there is a time difference, try and find solid time to catch up properly when you are both in the same headspace, rather than snatched moments between other events. WhatsApp is a great invention for keeping in touch day to day so you are both invested in each other’s lives.”
7. Be open in correspondence
Travel writer Alex Leviton’s use of Google Docs was certainly unusual, but imagine the complications if both partners were peripatetic Lonely Planet writers. This happened to American authors Ryan and Alexis Ver Berkmoes, who met at a writers’ conference and “spent years long-distancing it”. Now living in California, the couple found a particularly writerly solution to the separation.
“Have an open heart in your correspondence,” says Ryan. “And in our case, we only corresponded at first: no text, no calls, no Skype, no FaceTime. Pure epistolary romance – there is a benefit to that, too. Then, once we got going as a couple we incorporated the other forms of communication.”
Work still takes them overseas, and they are mastering the various aspects of long-distance love, from trying to speak every day to managing transitions.
“We’ve come to understand that inevitably we get a bit lone-wolfish when we’re apart and that it’s okay if there is some friction in communication at reuniting because we have to relearn to be a couple/duo.”
8. Watch a movie
Designer Matthew Wainhouse and analyst Lenka Smitova are pragmatic, respectively saying “it just requires a really good internet connection” and “it takes tons of nagging over the phone.” Lenka lives in London, while Matthew can be found renovating their house in Slovakia and snowboarding in the High Tatras.
“One thing we often do is both watch a movie, by pressing play at the same time and wearing headphones – if you get it right, it's almost the same as really watching a movie together,” he says.
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This article was originally published in December 2019 and updated August 2020.