Are you and your partner/s in a long distance relationship (LDR)? Do one or more of you tour/travel for work so that even though you’re not technically long distance, you have to be sometimes? Is your lover about to be deployed for service or go abroad for a project?
Living in the Music Capital puts me in touch with lots of people who tour professionally as a living, and I end up seeing tons of couples where one or more person spends significant time away for work. I also do couples intensives (2-4 days in a row with 4-6hrs. of counseling per day) with partners who are not living in the same city/country but want to meet in Austin to sort things through. I was even in a LDR myself back in the day! All that to say, I have a deep fondness for this work and find that relationships navigating long distance end up with incredible strengths!
While I was putting this together, I reached out to a few people I adore who also know a thing or two about this, so I’ll be sharing some of their insight as well!
So here are 10 of the top tips that are both friend- and client-approved:
1. Learn and share about attachment needs.
Do you know the main ways that you learned to cope in relationships and get your needs met when you were growing up in the world? The messages we get from early caregivers about emotional needs impact what psychologists call our attachment style. I prefer to ditch the word “style” because I believe it’s something definitely entrenched, but actually quite malleable. Think of it like the set of behaviors you do when in relationship with others: Do you like to talk things through or be alone to think before talking? If you’re upset do you want help from others with the feeling or not? What do you do if someone is coming on strong and has a lot of needs? What do you do if someone is aloof and leaves you hanging?
If you’d like to do a quick online quiz to learn more about your attachment wiring, I recommend the Compatibility Quiz from Attached, by Amir Levine and Rachel Heller. Their book is also a great resource if you haven’t had much exposure to Attachment Theory. I also recommend Stan Tatkin’s Wired for Love for a solid primer. You can also check out the “Videos” section under resources here to find more info on attachment. For the topic at hand, oversimplified: if you’re not at all distressed when your partner is away, you might have more of an avoidant attachment, and if you get really upset and dysregulated, you might have more of an anxious/preoccupied attachment. If you experienced developmental trauma growing up, this can also impact how our nervous systems cope with change.
Practically, what I would invite you to do is share one main thing: When you are in the midst of conflict or feeling far away from your partner, what do you need to sense/feel? Dr. Sue Johnson includes a whole set of conversation templates to help you address this in her book, Hold Me Tight. If you have different ways of coping with relationship distress, it’s important that you understand the emotional dance that can happen. Naming it out loud could sound something like: “The more you _____ (action/behavior), the more I feel _____ (feeling/emotion), which makes me _____ (action/behavior), which makes you feel _____ (feeling/emotion), until we’re stuck in our cycle which we’ll call _____ (silly name for cycle).”
Some common enduring emotional vulnerabilities include: feeling like you’re not enough, feeling like you’re too much, feeling like you’re bad/defective, feeling unworthy or worthless, feeling deprived/trapped, feeling controlled, etc. Do any of these ring true? If you’re feeling one of the above, what do you need to experience to get out of it? It might be something as simple as a hug or hand-hold, or you might need an apology and repair process. Get specific and let your partner/s know!
2. Communicate to attune.
Attunement is what builds trust. It’s the act of emotionally tuning into ourselves and our partners. In all relationships we want to be aiming for this level of connection, but it’s especially important when we’re long distance. Especially at the start of a relationship, it can be significantly easier to attune when we’re in close proximity because our neurobiology can sync with greater ease.
The Gottman Institute created a handy acronym to remember the elements of attunement:
So, the more you focus on these 6 caring and empathic actions, the better things will feel in the bond. And the more you attune while you’re physically together in the same space, the more insulated your relationship will be from relationship-damaging conflict when you’re apart.
My friends, Olivia and Curtis Roush, had some lovely thoughts on communicating while one person is on tour because Curt plays in the band, The Bright Light Social Hour, so Olivia is typically in Austin working on grad school for social work while he’s out on the road. I want to make a point to say that everyone is different when it comes to frequency of communication when touring—for some people, they need every day multiple times per day, but others are good every few days with a morning/goodnight text thrown in there. Olivia shared:
“Sometimes it can be challenging to talk on the phone everyday when the guys are traveling, but we make sure to text each other good morning each day and check in throughout the day. We send each other photos of funny or interesting things we see during the day and try to FaceTime every couple of days. Although Curtis doesn't like all the driving he LOVES to play shows and it makes me really happy to see. For me, the time apart allows me to focus on school, catch up with old friends, and other things that I love.”
We are the stewards of our lover’s’ hearts—the more accessible, responsive, and emotionally engaged we are, the more secure our bonds will be. Curt added that “thinking about snuggles” is what helps him when he’s away, which actually melted my little counselor heart. If a goal of emotionally attuning acts like a golden thread through conversations, you’ll have your best shot at weathering some of the difficulties of LDRs.
3. Find a couples counselor who does intensives.
Especially if you live in separate locations and/or would like to ultimately decide if you should move to the same place, I highly recommend finding a couples counselor who you can see periodically. As I mentioned, I offer a package for couples like this that allows us to assess the strengths and growth-edges of the relationship, make plans for how to care for everyone while distance is at play, and ultimately discern if/when/how to get everyone to the same place. If you’re looking for a professional like this in your city, you might have some luck looking for therapists trained in: Gottman Method, Emotionally Focused Couple Therapy (EFT), or Psychobiological Approach to Couples Therapy (PACT).
If you live in the same location but one or more of you travels long distance frequently, I still recommend establishing a relationship with a couples counselor. If everything in the relationship is generally going smoothly and you just need some support figuring out how to manage the distance, an intensive might also be an ideal way to work! You can bop in for an assessment and some strategic, solution-focused work to help everyone have a better experience during separations.
While we’re here, if you’re a partner who ends up staying home while your lover travels, I can’t recommend enough that you find your own individual counselor and/or consider joining a support group, especially if there’s ever been a relational norm violation (e.g., “affair,” “infidelity”) and/or your attachment wiring looks more anxious/preoccupied. I’ve got lots of resources and blogs here if you’re looking for more information on how to heal trust.
4. Cozy up with the connection, disconnection, reconnection cycle.
I’d love to share a quote from my friend, Kallie Pitcock, who is a brilliant seminary student and seasoned military spouse. When I asked her what the secret sauce is for surviving deployments, she said:
“Before the separation we work to build memories and bonds (go on a trip, see a therapist together, make special date nights…). During the separation expect experiences of distance and gaps in communication… For the reunion often [there is] intense anticipation and desire for physical reconnection, quickly followed by distance and discomfort in daily routine. There is a long period of reintegration depending on the length of the separation. We lean back into planned memory making dates and permission to mess-up and step on toes. It is a roller coaster, an ebb and flow of connection and disconnection.”
When I think about this wise response, I can’t help but think of Dr. Jean Baker Miller’s definition of relationship: ongoing cycle of connection, disconnection, and reconnection. The partners I see doing LDRs or periods with long distance seem to flourish the most and avoid the most distress when they get comfortable with the idea that they are not always going to be in connection (or disconnection). You can try asking: How can we take care of ourselves and each other when we’re in disconnection? In reconnection? In connection?
5. Remember: small things often.
I see a lot of couples struggle when they do communication exclusively in giant, marathon bursts like a snake eats, trying to tackle the task of connecting emotionally/sexually/spiritually, sorting out logistics, and also making repairs at the same time. Of course because of the nature of the beast and time constraints, there will be occasions when you need to do those marathon conversations—I just recommend trying not to bite of more than you can chew at once, especially while you’re apart.
My friend, Zac Catanzaro, who is a touring drummer in the band, Walker Lukens and The Side Arms, lent his two cents on this:
“As cliche as it sounds our secret sauce is good communication. Partners can feel left out when you’re traveling to a new city everyday, projecting nothing but fun and adventure on social media. We found that the key for us is oversharing. Everyone relates the important stuff but I’m more talking about the seemingly unimportant; the inside jokes, what you had for lunch, the annoying promoter from the night before, etc. The more details and communication shared throughout the day, the lower the chance anyone feels neglected or ignored, which tend to be the common emotions causing separation based fights. It took a couple tours early in our relationship to figure it out but I can’t remember the last time we fought while apart.”
Sure, it may seem small, but that text of the ridiculously yum sandwich you had is what we call in Gottman Method a “bid” for connection. Remember when there was “poke” on Facebook? I don’t have FB, so maybe it’s still there, but that’s basically what a bid is. Following in Gottman language, we can “turn” toward, away from, or against our partner’s’ bids for connection. Turning toward means engaging them and responding. Turning away is basically non-response or stonewalling—human nervous systems especially hate this and it goes back to infancy. And turning against is basically responding like an asshole; acknowledging the bid, but kind of shitting on it. Turning against would be like if your partner texted a pic of the delicious sandwich and you responded, “That’s the worst looking sandwich ever. Ew.”
6. Pick out some “together apart” activities.
This is especially helpful if you live in separate cities! I recommend picking activities that are easy to do while you’re FaceTiming or Skyping. Probably the most common one I hear is replicating “date night,” where you plan to cook the same meal in your separate locations, but livestream the process for each other, then eat “together” over the phone/computer. Phone sex, which looks more like video chat masturbation or sexting these days, is another great option! Obviously just be sure to safeguard your privacy.
I’ve even known a few couples who like to exercise together when they’re apart! Pop in some earbuds and go running “with” your lover, even though you’re running down different streets. This is also a great option if you live in the same place but one person tours! Having a bath is another experience that’s pretty easy to do together apart.
Just be sure to keep an open line of communication about how these types of activities make you feel—I know more than a few people who actually end up feeling worse if they're doing something they like to do with their lover but lover isn’t physically there. If that’s you, save those special things for when your together and try one of the other tips!
7. Lean into support networks, family, and friends.
This one is so obvious, but I had to include it. My main recommendation is to identify the one person or handful of people you love and trust the most, and let them know that you may need to reach out to them for support. Try something like, “There’s probably going to be a time coming up when I’m just absolutely miserable and I probably won’t be super fun, but I’m really going to need you to just meet up with me and do something mindless. Can our code word for when I need you like that be _____?” It’s also helpful to ask a friend to join you for self-care; e.g., do a yoga class together, go for a walk, get some pampering. Having someone to help hold you accountable for taking care of yourself is priceless. Actually, you can hire a counselor, so it can be super affordable!
One slippery area in this domain is that partners can sometimes end up talking with friends or family about their relationship issues in too much depth. Of course it’s fine to reach out for some comfort and support. It’s another thing to create a dynamic where you go and complain to someone outside of your relationship about all of the issues within it—in counseling we call that a “triangle;” you’re in a relationship with one person, but you triangle in a third person to unload stress onto. “Hey, I’m having a hard time. I really miss my partner and they have been unavailable for the last few days,” is an example of a healthy name-it-to-tame-it when you’re talking with friends. If it feels like your partner is persistently not responding, accessible, or emotionally engaged, talk to your partner about it because they’re the one who can actually help.
One other slippery spot that military spouse, Kallie, brought up is related to taking care of personal needs with friends. She said, “The entirety of this roller-coaster has been stabilized by friendships, community, and faith. While these other friendships and relationships are intimate emotionally for us they are not physically.” I think it’s a great idea to have a conversation with your partner/s and just ask, “What is intimacy?” Because that line can get crossed really easily if we don’t co-create shared understandings. If you’re in an open relationship, just make sure that you’re staying on top of communication so that if you’re usually with another partner while primary partner is away that things stay nice and balanced.
8. Check expectations for reunions.
Queue Radiohead: “Baby’s got The Bends, oh no.” For some people, it takes a hot minute to transition from being separated to reconnecting. If you’re a highly sensitive person, just expect things to take a little bit longer when you’re reuniting. But movies certainly don’t do us any favors in terms of curating a set of romantic expectations when it comes to reunions—blissful makeouts and sex, running into the arms of our lover and being picked up and twirled around—you name it! In my experience, most partners than not need a few hours or days to sort of adjust to the new emotional altitude.
The trickiest situation is if one partner needs some time to reconnect and the other does not. This can definitely stir up conflict and leave someone feeling unwanted. I recommend talking about the reunion before it happens and discussing rituals that you can do to make things feel easier. If one person needs more space to get back to feeling connected, make sure that whoever doesn’t need/want space is pouring in self-care.
While we’re already talking about checking expectations, that’s just broadly a solid recommendation, especially if the style of long distance is more in the vein of touring where there’s a high degree of chaos and change. I really see LDRs as a vehicle for the evolution of relationships and everyone in them—if it’s tough for you to manage, I invite you to ask yourself, “What is being called to evolve within me?” When I was talking to my buddy, Jack O’Brien, who is also a touring musician with The Bright Light Social Hour, he shared a refreshingly vulnerable perspective:
“When our days are a cycle of traveling, performing, being anxious about performing, blowing off steam after performing and recovering—all with zero privacy—communicating with your partner back home can be seriously daunting. Making the effort to call, text, or sext at least once a day really helps us stay connected and keeps my spirit from leaving orbit. I also try to meditate daily to focus on gratitude for my partner.”
I think it’s just worth mentioning that grace is a gift we can all give in all directions when we’re navigating LDRs or times of separation—whoever is out on the road can empathize with what it’s like being home and experiencing FOMO, and whoever is home can empathize with the whirlwind nightmare that can be touring. Let’s just acknowledge that maintaining a relationship long distance is more effort and work, and give each other extra appreciation for not only being in a love relationship—which is arguably the greatest challenge of a lifetime along with being in a parent-child relationship—but doing it with all kinds of silly constraints!
9. Make sure you know your partner’s’ primary love language.
This is such an old school model, but if you haven’t taken the Love Languages Quiz, I recommend stopping what you’re doing and checking it out. I see a lot of partners working their asses off to show love, but the effort gets wasted or only partly absorbed by their lover because it’s not in their love language. We all have a primary one: quality time, words of affirmation, gift giving, acts of service, or physical touch. But sometimes the way we show love and the way we feel loved looks different! In distressed relationships, it’s super common that everyone has mostly/only been trying to show love the way they feel love.
It’s super easy to take the results and integrate them into the relationship when you’re apart! If, for instance, your partner’s love language is acts of service or gifts, you can send a letter or care package or have their favorite meal delivered to them. Words of affirmation are especially easy to rock long distance! If your partner loves quality time, FaceTime is your best friend.
The tricky one for long distance is obviously physical touch. With tech advancing so rapidly, there are actually a number of items that can help you bridge that gap! Here’s a list of some of the best sex toys for LDRS in 2019. “Pair” is an app that lets you “kiss” your partner by pressing your thumbs on the screen; you can feel a little vibration so it’s pretty cute. There are actually a ton of apps that are being designed with LDRs in mind because so many people are meeting online these days that it’s more likely you meet someone not in your city. Here’s an article with some cool ideas to try!
10. Practice emotional bank accounting when you’re together and apart.
Imagine a bank account in the heart of your relationship. Every positive, loving, affirming, appreciative thing you do is a deposit to that account. Every negative, critical thing is a withdrawal. This is yet another concept from The Gottman Institute. The Gottman’s found that during conflict, the ratio of (+) : (-) in these terms needs to be 5:1 to keep the relationship feeling good. If you work on keeping things in the black, it actually cushions and insulates the relationship for times of stress and conflict.
What I find is that the partners who capitalize on their time when they’re together—get back in the routine of date nights, do work in therapy together, find a balance with intimacy that’s mutually-satisfying—tend to do better not only in normal day-to-day conflict, but during the ups and downs of long distance.
Take care of each other!