Whoever said long-distance relationships aren’t hard has undoubtedly never been in one.
Long-distance relationships are becoming more common for many couples due to ‘fly in, fly out’ (FIFO) work, the massive increase in people travelling overseas, and the globalisation of today’s world where living and working in another state or country is easier to achieve than ever before.
But with a long-distance relationship comes lots of unique challenges for a couple. Some couples survive, and other couples don’t last the distance. So why is this?
I recently spoke on the ABC Radio show, The Hookup, to share some of my best advice for long-distance relationships and to discuss if they can work.
In this interview with Nat Tencic, we discussed the following:
- why long-distance relationships can be so hard, and how to know if it’s worth having one
- the big mistakes couples make when in a long-distance relationship
- how to prepare for a long-distance relationship
- the difference between a long-distance relationship in the same country vs. an international separation
- whether an open relationship is a smart move when you’re in a long-distance relationship
- how to manage the need for physical closeness in an open relationship
- the value of quality communication and avoiding over-communication
- how to prepare for a partner to live with you again after a long period apart
We had some exciting callers that shared their long-distance relationship stories, and I shared tips for helping couples navigate this challenging area.
You can listen to the audio of the interview or read a copy of the transcript below.
Click the player below to listen to the interview of Clinton on ABC radio:
Read the transcript of this interview below:
Hey, it’s Nat Tencic with you.
Suppose you’ve had to be away from your partner for any time. You know it’s pretty hard, but what do you do when you’re at a long distance for the long haul? I want to help you with long-distance relationships tonight and making the wrong distance go all right.
Are you finding long distances tough right now? And that’s what we’re talking about right now long-distance relationships.
I’m currently in a state of long-distance, and thankfully it’s about to end, but it sucks, and I wish we’d been better prepared for how difficult it would be.
Some of your questions and comments are coming in – Tilly says the timing of this show tonight is either terrible or amazing because my boyfriend and I have been in a long-distance relationship for about a year and a half since he joined the army. He’s in Brisbane. I’m in Wollongong. I’m on my way home from visiting him this weekend to wish him well on his deployment for the next eight months. I’m already feeling incredibly heart sore and scared about the whole thing, but I’m hoping it’ll go quickly, and he’ll get home safe.
My heart goes out to you, Tilly. And Lucy says, “shout out to my long-distance partner Morgan from Perth. He’s going to be in Melbourne next week. I miss you, and I can’t wait to see you.”
Oh, it’s making me really, really want to see my partner again, and we’re talking about it now. Yeah, because I’m going through it. You’re going through it, and to help us out a bit with this pretty crappy time, honestly, is our relationship counsellor and friend of the show Clinton Power. Clinton welcome to The Hook Up.
G’day, Nat. Great to be here.
Yeah, it’s really great to be with you. Now, as we know, they say long distance is the wrong distance. I mean, I could tell you why it sucks so much, but from your standpoint as a professional, why does it suck so much?
Clinton Power Well, look, inherently, there are so many challenges, even as some of those people calling in and contacting the show are saying because the normal progression of a relationship is disrupted.
You know, when you meet someone in the same city you start to date, you see each other regularly, you get to know each other and then suddenly, when you’ve got a considerable distance between you and your new love, everything in a way the breaks go on.
So all those things are those routines and rituals of connection suddenly get interrupted, and you have to find creative ways to continue the development of your relationship.
But the good news is technology is your friend today. I remember I had a love interest back in the 80s – I was in London, and my love interest was in Sydney we had to send letters, and you’d wait seven or ten days for them to write back, and it was just so painful. But now, with technology, it is so much easier to stay in touch. And there are pros and cons to that.
Yeah, you say that made me think long distance is nothing new. Like wartime letters being written to each other and all that sort of thing, but it’s so much easier now at least you can see someone’s face when you’re talking to each other.
What are some big mistakes you can make when getting into a long-distance relationship?
I think one of them is not making plans to visit because the research shows that relationship quality is affected by how particular long-distance couples reunite.
So, if you go for long periods and you don’t have plans to visit, or you don’t have that next trip booked, it can really affect your relationship satisfaction.
And the other thing that happens over time is you idealise your partner, but we also know the partners who see each other less frequently idealise each other more, and the interesting thing here is that it actually can lead to a greater likelihood of breakup. So you want some idealisation, like thinking of your partner in a really positive way. But if there’s too much, it can actually be dangerous for the relationship.
Yeah right. There’s a question that’s coming in for you on the text line. This one says similar to Dan, who called in a little earlier, “I’m considering moving to the UK for a couple of years when my girlfriend’s visa is up, but I have a good job here in Sydney that might be hard for me to transfer over there. I’d be sacrificing a bit of the progression I’ve made with my career here. What should I do?”.
Clinton Power That’s a tough one, isn’t it, Nat? The question is, is that a deal-breaker? And sometimes there are deal breakers that no matter which way you go, the relationship just can’t survive, you know. And other issues can be negotiated and worked through. So, it’s very much on an individual basis when it comes to those big life decisions.
Nat Tencic Rob had gotten in touch with us during the week, and he’s got a question for you. Here’s Rob.
Rob Hi, I’m Rob. My fiancée’s moving away. Most likely, this ends this year for work which is stressful on its own, but we’re also in an open relationship and wondering how best to prepare for that and make the long-distance relationship work.
What do you think, Clinton?
Okay. That can be a tricky combination. I think open relationships have the best of times and can be challenging. And you know you need to have excellent communication and really clear boundaries, and I think when it comes to long-distance relationships, this is even more amplified. You have to be really clear about how this is going to work. And you need to communicate what the boundaries are. So essentially, you can keep the primacy of your primary relationship at the forefront.
And I think sometimes, when there’s distance, it can be more problematic when negotiating an open relationship, only because you know the threat of jealousy is much higher.
So just keeping things really open, making sure you’re both on the same page and saying this is precisely what you’ve done will make long-distance relationships work.
Yeah, every couple needs to develop really their own ground rules. A mutual understanding of how it’s going to work, but communication is really essential, and even the best couples, the strongest couples that have open relationships, still run into problems sometimes.
Do you think it’s like if you have the open relationship tack here that it can help because you’re satisfying that need for physical closeness that you’re not getting from your partner, or does it just throw more spanners in the works?
Well, it can do that. And for some couples that are really robust, and maybe you know the foundations are really solid, they can negotiate that and be okay with that.
And then there are other couples that are dating long distance and may feel very threatened by that, and actually having an open relationship may not be the best way to go because the safety and security of the relationship are undermined.
It’s the Hookup on triple j. I’m Nat Tencic, and we’re with relationship counsellor Clinton Power. We’re talking all about long-distance relationships and how to make the wrong distance just a little bit better. And some people are asking, and Riley has a question for you, Clinton, and a few people mentioned whether you go ahead with it or not.
Riley says I’m going away to America for six months in May, and my girlfriend is still studying while I’m away. Should I keep a relationship or let it go? What would be best? I mean, the question essentially, is long distance worth it?
These are just kind of make-or-break questions, are they? It depends on the strength of the relationship. I mean if you have a really strong, robust relationship now and then you’re going to be apart for a period of then it’s possible to do.
I mean, look at FIFO workers – lots of married people, and suddenly one partner becomes a FIFO worker, and you know, every month, they’re away for three weeks or even longer. So, you can negotiate. But what we do know is that you need to have certainty in your long-distance marriage. So even if you’re going to be away for six months like Riley, you need to know when you will next see each other. Because one of the worst things that can happen is not having any plans, not having a definite time to meet, and the relationships that don’t tend to make the long-distance ones are the ones where they’re open-ended. There are just no plans. There are no long-term plans and a plan for an end. And so, I think that’s essential.
Contact us if you have a question right now on the Hookup about long-distance relationships. Jeremy from Ballarat, you’ve called in, and you were talking about being away for work. That’s kind of your situation, Right?
Jeremy It’s not as much now as it was, but when I first got married to my wife, I was in the army, and we only spent three months of our first 12 months of marriage together.
Nat Tencic Yeah, and how did you make it through? What were some of your strategies?
Jeremy We communicated a lot. So, we had, at times, three different lines of communication. So, we would send each other letters or packages in the mail. We emailed, and we also had phone calls and instant messages. I think we spent too much time doing that because we ran out of things to talk about.
So, if I was to go away again, I think we would actually leave it to maybe one phone call a week just because we would sit on the phone for ages and there’s nothing to say.
Nat Tencic Yeah. I feel that pretty hard, actually because I’ve had a few calls with my partner where we’ve sort of been like. All right, well, what’s going on? Still on the phone now. So, Clinton, what do you think about maybe giving yourself more to talk about and creating more physical distance?
I think that’s important – your first caller Dan, alluded to this as well – is that even though with all the technology and it’s so easy to instantly communicate now, I think there is a danger that you can over-communicate, and this is what some of your callers are saying is. It’s so easy to contact each other, and you start to have so much communication.
One, you run out of things to say. But also, the quality of the communication may not be as good because maybe you’re washing the dishes, or you’re half watching TV, and you’re half communicating, and so the quality of that connection is disrupted.
You might be better off just setting aside a particular time when you could be 100 percent present, really connected, and the quality is improved. On the other alternative is you can do mutual things like you know games or quizzes, playing Words with Friends. That’s one way you can maintain contact maybe you’re chatting at the same time, but you’re not having all this white noise going on because you don’t know what to say.
Nat Tencic I’m Nat Tencic, and I’m joined by relationship counsellor Clinton Power we’re trying to help you with your long-distance woes.
A shout-out to this one, who says my girlfriend just left three days ago to work rurally for three months, and it’s already pretty challenging.
She’s in Australia from the UK on a working holiday, and I miss the cuddling, watching Netflix together on the couch, and seeing each other when we’ve had a shit day. She left me a bunch of little presents hidden in my apartment, which makes me miss him more, but it reassures me that she loves me and is thinking of me.
That’s really cute. If you have a story like that, get in touch. Clinton, there is a question or a comment here rather than from Megan, and I’d like to put it to you.
She says, “I found my sex drive has diminished from my boyfriend frequently being away for months at a time.” One of the big problems with many long-distance relationships is the lack of physicality and the sexual frustration in it. How can you keep things alive and sexually happening while you’re far apart?
Yeah, this is a challenge, Nat. Look again, I think this is where technology is your friend because of that instant communication.
What I recommend to couples in this kind of situation is to create a private channel that’s just for the two of you to support your erotic life. So, you don’t use this for anything else. You can choose what the channel is.
It might be just one dedicated e-mail address you both have access to; it could be a WhatsApp channel. But the important thing is that nothing else is in this channel except the two of you connecting erotically and emotionally, really making this a special place.
So you know you’re not going to say, “oh, the credit card bill just came in” in this channel. You can do that on other channels. But I think that’s important because I’d recommend this to couples who live in the same city as well because this is the upside of a really difficult situation.
You can reconnect with the lost art of writing love letters or even sexy letters – it doesn’t matter – but you can build anticipation, and you know you can share your innermost thoughts and fantasies. There’s a real opportunity here to open up so that if you’re sitting on the sofa with your partner and watching Netflix, you’re probably not going to be talking about these things.
I know that you can invest in some really good devices for video chatting so you can stay connected, which is worth thinking about really.
Clinton Power It’s amazing how far we’ve come.
It’s crazy. Call me if you have a question for Clinton Power. He’s a relationship counsellor helping you with your long-distance woes.
Lucy from Newcastle, what’s your question for Clinton?
Lucy I just was wondering – I’ve been doing long-distance for about two years now, and it’s about time I moved back with my partner I’m a bit worried about the fact that we’re doing long-distance so well and the change is going to come with being back in the same place and doing the same things with him. And maybe things I’ve learned to do on my own I’m going to have to share and adapt now. And some coping tips for dealing with and managing that.
Nat Tencic Clinton, what do you reckon?
That’s a significant issue you raised there, Lucy, because I’ve seen so many couples fall into this trap.
Even again with the FIFO work. You know, if you’ve really got into the routine or if you might have a partner who flies and you can really get into the enjoyment of having your space and your time, and as you say, Lucy is not sharing as well.
And suddenly, if your partner’s work changes and they’re living in the house and in your space, it can be a bit of a shock to the system.
So, I would say expect that it’s going to be difficult, it’s going to be challenging, and there will be a transition period. And the important thing is just to talk to each other about how we’re going to manage this transition because this is a significant change. You’ve gone from having so much space and time to yourself and doing whatever you want whenever you want, and suddenly you’ve got to start negotiating and talking things through with a partner. So, I think communication is the way to go here.
I hope that helps a little bit Lucy.
Lucy Yeah. Thanks for that. Yeah.
Yeah. Talk it out. And I guess making sure that whatever you’ve learned or whatever sort of routine you’ve gotten into while you guys have been apart just say how important it is to maintain some of those things that keep you independent, maybe about a third. I suppose if that’s what you value. Thanks for calling Lucy.
It’s the Hookup on triple j. If you have a question about long-distance relationships, here’s one on the text line it says, “my boyfriend and I got together after I left Canada, and we’ve been doing long distance. We both have our own lives and jobs on separate sides of the world. And I don’t know how it’s all going to end. How do you know when or if it’s worth packing up your life and moving halfway across the world for long-distance love?”
That’s a tough one. I mean, again, it comes back to how much time you have spent together; he doesn’t say it does, right?
No, he doesn’t say no.
Clinton Power I mean, this is one of the challenges I think within international because there’s a big difference between an international long-distance relationship and a local one.
Local is so much easier because even if they’re in another city, maybe you’re in Sydney, they’re in Adelaide, you are a few hours away, there’s a flight, there’s less pressure, you can spend more time with each other, and you can surprise each other which is an adorable thing to do when you’re in a long-distance relationship. To create little surprises that you can turn up on their doorstep.
But when you’re on a geographic separation, it’s a lot more challenging. Of course, there’s the expense of just travelling, and when you have the time together, it can feel pressured because you think, oh my god, I’ve only got a week or two weeks I’m not going to see them again for six months. So, it does put a lot of stress on the relationship.
Yeah absolutely. And I mean, there’s a time difference as well, which is difficult if you’re trying to get it on a good talking routine together. What are some of the ways to deal with that, particularly the international ones that can keep you maybe from having to just, you know, make a move and spend time with each other to keep the spark alive?
It can be beneficial to have what I call rituals of emotional connection. So like you were saying, Nat, maybe you work out what is the kind of ideal time that when I’m in a good space, and you’re in a good space, and it might, you know, depending on where your partner is might only be a window of like an hour or 30 minutes in a day. But it’s essential to find that because one of the challenges many people have internationally is that you know one partner is going to bed as the other partner wakes up. Hence, one partner is always tired, and the other partner is constantly refreshed, and it can colour your interactions.
So just talking about how we can find a time that works for us, and that can be our ritual, so we’re going to connect every day.
But if you’re able to even have a little ritual around going to sleep, that can be helpful maybe you even have a quick video call before one of you goes to sleep. Going to bed is a vulnerable time, so that can be helpful just to have that little connection. But there are a lot of challenges with the international long-distance relationship.
Yeah absolutely. I mean, yeah, I know. I mean, you those long those in-person visits, especially in an international sense, but even when you’re doing it locally, they’re so important. Really. How do you make the most of those visits?
Clinton Power Look, I think there are two things you need to do. The first is that you plan for something fun, including novelty and mystery. You can create anticipation, you can kind of, you know, tell your partner got a surprise for you, and you know, kind of you build up the excitement. That’s a great thing because it helps each of you look forward to the next in-person visit and get excited about it, and when you have that time, you maximise the time together. So maybe you do something adventurous, or you do something you wouldn’t normally do.
But I also say there’s a balance here because if you’re only doing something unique or something fun or novel, that’s not real life. So, it can be helpful to do some ordinary stuff as well so I can. So, let’s go to the shops and get the groceries and stay in and cook a meal, and we’ll sit on the sofa and watch a movie tonight. Because that’s what real life is like when you do live together. And you’re not skydiving every day of the week when you live in the same city as your partner. So try and find a balance between the two.
Nat Tencic It’s the Hookup on triple j, Nat Tencic with you, and I’m joined by relationship counsellor Clinton Power. We’re talking about doing long distance and how tricky it can be, and many people are going through it. Bit of a shout-out to Josh. He says it’s funny you should mention long distance. My mate Andy and I are just driving home from Canberra after a weekend of visiting our long-distance girlfriends, or maybe having a friend who’s also going through it can be a little bit of a galvanizing thing for you.
Paul from Melbourne, you’re looking for help on a tough decision around a long-distance relationship. What’s going on?
Paul Yeah, pretty much. I’ve been dating this girl for about a year, and she moved to Thailand to work in the Elephant sanctuary. And I’ve started seeing someone while she’s been overseas. And she’s moving back in about a month, and I don’t know what to do right.
Is this an extra-consensual relationship?
Paul No, no.
Nat Tencic And are you guys still together?
Paul We’re still together. But I don’t want to hurt her, but do I tell her or pretend it never happened?
Nat Tencic Clinton, what do you think?
Clinton Power Which relationship are you leaning towards, Paul?
Paul Well, I love my girlfriend so much, but I enjoyed the other one.
Clinton Power So it sounds like you are torn between the two. Is that the case?
Clinton Power Well, this is a really sticky situation you’ve got yourself in. The big issue here is that, as Nat said, it wasn’t consensual and not something you agreed on. So whichever way you go, if you decide to be honest with your partner who’s coming back from Thailand, that will potentially cause a lot of pain and grief for you and her.
It’s the Hookup on triple j. Jack from Geelong has a question for you, Clinton.
Jack says, “My boyfriend and I have a different type of long-distance relationship. I’m a rotating shift worker on the railways. We find it hard to find time with each other. It takes a toll on our relationship. How can we combat this for a more fulfilling relationship?”
Clinton Power This is hard. I’ve worked with many couples with what I think is almost like a modern disease, Nat. People struggle to find time for their relationship – time together. And they don’t necessarily have to be shift workers or have a long-distance relationship.
And the consequences are pretty severe because, over time, you start to feel that you’re not the most critical person in your partner’s life. That kind of sense of primacy and priority dissipates and harms the relationship.
I’m not sure what the solution is for Jack, but I would encourage him to sit down with his partner and brainstorm and talk about how they can start finding some more quality time because no relationship can operate in a vacuum. You do need to spend time together you need to have fun. You need to do novel and interesting things. There are probably also times when you need to just talk about the logistics of life and the practicalities.
You know, who’s paying the bill? Where are we up to with this? And then there’s a check-in, how are we going, how’s our relationship going? That’s a meaningful conversation to have every now and then. And I think if you’re even struggling to have a date night, you know, every once every couple of weeks, that can be problematic.
Nat Tencic Yeah, so just like making sure that you can make time for those sorts of date nights, and yeah, I mean, I wonder what if Jack and his boyfriend are living together as well because at least if you’re even physically in the same room most nights, then that helps a bit. But yeah, it’s a tricky thing to deal with.
Clinton Power It is, and sometimes you know it can be about quality, not quantity. So, I often encourage couples to have problem-free time for just 30 minutes a week you – need a minimum of 30 minutes – put it in the diary so it’s scheduled, and it happens. The only reason it wouldn’t happen is an absolute medical emergency. And you do something fun, or you can take turns deciding what to do.
But it can be as simple as going for a walk in the park. But the idea is during this time, you don’t talk about problems, you don’t talk about issues, you just enjoy each other’s company, and even that 30 minutes a week to incredibly busy people can make a big difference.
Nat Tencic Lauren from the Gold Coast, how did your long-distance story work out?
Lauren So I met my ex while I was travelling in Ireland. So, I was there for the last two weeks that was over. He came, joined me and was doing all the touristy things.
Two weeks passed; I returned to Australia, and a week later, he booked tickets to come and see me. And he got a working visa, and a month later, he joined me, came, and stayed with me. For about nine months of the year, we did long-distance again. I went over there for Christmas, and then yet again, it was just a long distance. So probably about two years of our relationship, most of it was long distance.
Nat Tencic Yeah. Did you decide to? Did you decide to call it, or did he decide what happened?
Lauren By the end, it just got to the point where both of us didn’t feel like we were in a relationship anymore. It became more platonic than romantic. So, it was a mutual thing.
Nat Tencic Was there anything, in particular, you would have wanted to change that would have kept you guys together or do you think it was just kind of an inevitable part of being long-distance?
Lauren Towards the end, I think it was just becoming inevitable because they’re both uni students, and then obviously, the time difference between Australia and Ireland got too much. So, he was waking up his partner was going to bed. And yeah, the communication towards the end definitely reduced itself quite a bit.
Nat Tencic I’m sorry to hear that. Clinton, is there anything else you can do to keep that from happening and keep yourselves from growing apart with the distance?
Clinton Power One of the essential things that I think is critical is you have to develop a long-term plan. So if you get through the honeymoon stage and you know this relationship has legs you’re both serious about, it can be precious to discuss your future. Maybe it doesn’t have to be set in stone, but to talk about where you want to be in a year, two, or five years, or is marriage on the cards? Do you want to have kids? Because those long-term plans can help you have a sense of purpose as a couple. And I think this is an essential thing in a long-distance relationship: feeling that you are aligned and heading in the same direction.
It can help you get through the tough times when you feel lonely or sad or miss your partner. And I find that when couples don’t have something to look forward to or they’re not making plans for the future, the relationship sometimes can start to dissipate, and people drift apart because they don’t have that sense of motivation and purpose.
Nat Tencic Hey Lauren, thanks for calling in and sharing your story. We appreciate it.
It’s the Hookup. Thanks so much for all your calls and texts on this topic. And thank you so much to Clinton Power for joining us tonight.
Clinton Power My pleasure.
Do you need relationship help?
If you need help with your relationship, contact Clinton Power + Associates on (02) 8968 9323 to discuss your situation and find out how we can help.
Since 2003, Clinton Power has helped thousands of couples and individuals as a counsellor and psychotherapist in private practice in Sydney and online in Australia. Clinton regularly comments in the media on issues of relationships and has appeared on Channel 7, The Sydney Morning Herald, and ABC Radio. Clinton’s eBook, 31 Days to Build a Better Relationship is available through his website or Amazon. Click here to take Clinton’s relationship checkup quiz to find out how well you know your partner.