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How to Stay Together While Living Apart

Yes, long distance relationships can work. Here’s how.

Last June, I spent a huge amount of time getting all dolled up until I finally felt ready—to sit on my couch.

It was my boyfriend’s birthday and on a regular year, I would’ve gotten dressed up and found him at the lobby of my apartment building. He would’ve been standing at there with a rare snazziness made possible by clothes and products that don’t normally go anywhere near him. We would’ve then gone out to dinner, spent the night together and, come morning, found each other looking “beautiful” even though I’m sure that the night before would’ve completely undone all our efforts to look “nice.” 2020, however, was anything but regular year. And so, there we were, celebrating the arrival of his 30s with a Zoom call that tried to emulate an intimate dinner for two.

Since the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) came into the Philippines, life in Metro Manila has changed dramatically. Establishments were shut down, health protocols were imposed and new norms rose out of the need to cope. For couples who don’t live together (like me and my boyfriend,) this meant migrating more of our relationship online: virtual dates, long phone calls to compensate for the dearth of physical interactions, sleeping with in front of a streaming camera and a slew of activities that characterize a long distance relationship (LDR.)

“When you think about it,” I once told him, “we see a lot more of each other now but I just end up missing you more.”

“I wish I can say the same,” he quipped. And that may have been one of the moments when our distance from each other truly hurt: when it became clear that I couldn’t just reach over and smack him.

“I can get used to this,” he said. And while that too was a joke, it also says something about one of the many understandings necessary to deal with LDR: the fact that, yes, it can work if you give it some time and effort.

When you think about 2020, one of the key phrases that come to mind is “work from home.” In an article written for this publication early this year, it was mentioned that this set up never really prospered before the pandemic. There were lawmakers that tried to make use of it to lessen traffic years ago but it didn’t catch on—that was until business owners didn’t have a choice. Because of travel restrictions and complex health protocols, various companies tried to cope by enabling offsite working options. And people have managed to finally see its potential.

The aforementioned piece highlighted this by telling the story of George Wieneke, an entrepreneur who managed to set up markets and work on his franchising business without even leaving his house. “We should just give a chance to these new learnings,” he said. And the same can be said of human relations.

When you go online looking for tips on how to make LDRs work, there is a high chance that among the first thing you’re going to be told is this: you have to understand that it can work. Is it ideal? Perhaps not for you. But that doesn’t mean that you should give up on it immediately. After all, it’s been around way before COVID-19 originated from Wuhan, China. And, in a country like the Philippines, where manpower is among its top exports, it is far from being uncommon.

Ryan Ocampo, a nurse currently working in United States, is among those who have been involved with it. Before eventually marrying his wife, the two of them had to live apart for more than a year. Ocampo was able to land a job in Texas while his then-girlfriend was pregnant. She chose to give birth in the Philippines (with her family) and he chose to take the job offer in the US. They had to wait awhile before she and their newborn could travel to be with him. Before they were reunited, he shared that life was less than ideal.

“I was all alone,” he said. “And that was frightening. There was a time when I got so dizzy and I was worried that should something be wrong with me, I would have to face it alone. Luckily that situation didn’t get worse.” He had more than luck, however. He also had patience, a trait sustained by the understanding that his situation—while difficult—wasn’t permanent.

In an article this site published last year, psychologist Angela Arriola Yu said that among the best ways to handle mental struggles caused by the pandemic is to reinforce temporariness. “This too shall pass’ is a good phrase to repeat to oneself,” she said. And in a relationship, it is also an adequate thing to say to each other to cope.

But until it does “pass,” there are several other things that couples must understand in order to survive LDRs. For starters, how to take advantage of technology.

In an article by Time, psychotherapist Lori Gottlieb said that LDRs have become much easier now due to the various technological advancements in the field of communications. I’m a millennial; I needed communication for work and school while the world was starting making that big leap into global connectivity so, I definitely appreciate these advancements by virtue of being at the mercy of their predecessors. I also had no problem exploiting them throughout the pandemic.

Messenger’s video call seems laggy today? Why don’t we try Skype? It’s slow? Here’s a Zoom link. You can’t open it? Try calling me via Telegram, or Viber, or whatever. Texts, emails, chat, voicemail—in a span of six months I’ve done them all just to get in touch with my other half. And while it has been tedious, it most certainly helped us achieve the other things we needed in order to keep our relationship healthy. These include constant communication and finding ways to spend quality time with each other. These too matter, according to Gottlieb.

In the same article referenced above, she mentioned that the small, seemingly insignificant moments in life that you share with your loved ones are just as important as the big ones that tend to stick with you for years. This is why she advices couples to share details with each other.

I’m inclined to agree. Throughout our relationship, I usually appreciated it whenever my boyfriend shared with me the minor bits of his day. These made his distance feel less apparent. It also gave me the impression that he wanted to talk to me and that he trusted me. In return, I always tried to listen to what he had to say even though I didn’t always understand what he’s talking about. I ask questions, I engage him and I do my best to make him feel that whatever he’s trying to tell me matters. It also helps that he too is a good listener, not the kind to invalidate my feelings.

We also go out of our respective ways to have fun with each other. I’m not much of a gamer anymore but just a while ago, I was duking it out in Mobile Legends (ML) because he loves to play it so much and I want to bond with him. Almost every night since I started playing, he’d invite me to a match. On his end, his friends have been shocked at how much he knows of RuPaul’s Drag Race. He knew I love the show so he started watching it. In other words, we do what we can tocommunicate and connect with each other.

Having been in a situation somewhat similar to mine, Ocampo believes these are necessary, that you always have to try and connect with your partner to bridge the gap in these trying times. Another person who thinks this is our contributing photographer Aden Michael Manalo.

Like me and Ocampo, Manalo also has a notable amount of experience in an LDR setup. As a matter of fact, he was in one way before COVID-19 started ruining lives. Living in Batangas, Manalo is now in the third year of his relationship with Paolo Gabrielle Pasion, a fellow photographer who lives in Quezon City. And he admitted that ever since the pandemic began, their already challenging relationship became more difficult.

“It was hard especially during the first four months of the enhanced community quarantine,” he said. “We couldn’t see each other. We had frequent misunderstandings and quarrels because of stress; stress caused by the work from home setup which was new here in the Philippines and then there’s COVID. Sometimes, we’d even have tiffs that would last for a week.”

All things considered, however, Manalo and Pasion continue to make things work through various means. For instance, Manalo would often take the opportunity to visit her no matter how taxing the trip may be. And both of them would always take the time to reach out to each other in spite of their busy schedules.

“We make it a point to always talk to each other for at least 30 minutes to an hour before bed,” he said. And this, understandably, contributed to endurance of their relationship.

Last December, this publication released a feature on homesickness during a pandemic: what it is, its causes and how one can deal with it. Among the tips its subjects shared is consistency. This makes sense given the current situation we are in. When COVID-19 came, it practically dissolved the norms we are used to and the best way to remedy its effects is by doing things that return a sense of order in one’s life. This is why it’s also important for people in LDRs to be consistent with their partners. It provides a sense of predictability which often leads to feelings of security.

The writer of the feature, Angelo Cantera, has had experiences with homesickness and he supported this idea by talking about the familiarity of his home city and why he thinks they matter to him. “The sensations of this region have relentlessly assaulted me growing up,” he wrote. “And, since I’m still alive, I reckon that I’ve associated them with my continued existence.  Imagine life as a corridor. If so, they’re like the pillars of a still seemingly endless path I’m currently treading. So, to perceive them is to have an assuring suggestion of what may come next (which is essentially just more time in this world.)”

Relationships tend to have a similar need. When you don’t live with your partner, consistency makes it easier for them to feel assured. And isn’t that really what some relationships are for? Do we not end up with certain people because they give us a sense of home? That certainly is the case for me and my partner.

On the evening of his birthday, we had dinner in front of each other. I was ate pasta and he ravaged a steak—not different from what we would’ve ordered had we gone out. After that, we watched a movie through a shared screen and played a few games (ML in particular.) I don’t know exactly when it happened but sometime after winning several matches with him, after hearing him and his tacky jokes, I realized I was actually having fun and that it was already around four in the morning and we were still playing.

“I didn’t even notice,” he said when I mentioned the time. He then turned his eyes back to his phone and invited me for another match.

I suppose this is the essence of LDRs and all the hacks I mentioned earlier. They’re there as a response to this difficult time; they are there to help you go through it seamlessly until you—and everyone else—can get to that much awaited point when it’s easy to once again be together.

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