You met him in Bilbao, but you live in Baltimore. She lives in San Francisco and you pay rent in New York City. However you look at it, your Romantic Other is far away.

Long-distance love, wherever it is, may or may not work, depending on lots of things. Some people can't get together enough; for others, it's too much.lack of commitment. Others fling themselves into the relationship precisely because of the lack of commitment. ("The incredible sense of freedom," extols one. "It's the best of both worlds.")

"I have a tendency not to fall in love unless they live 2,000 miles away at least," jokes one woman, and then admits she asks herself, "Do you always look for the impossible instead of finding some great guy in D.C.?"

It appears, at least according to the dozen men and women interviewed for this story, that men may be more willing to continue an ephemeral relationship. Women are more apt to try to tie it down.

But, as one female veteran of long-distance relationships describes it, "There are no rules."

The relationships often start in extraordinary ways, with little resemblance to real life:

A GI stationed in Germany falls in love and returns to Ohio. A midwestern woman studies at the Sorbonne and meets someone from the Middle East.

And in the well-publicized cases of the "Soviet spouses," Americans -- such as Baltimore nurse Elena Balovlenkov -- have met and married Soviets, but have been denied permission to live together by the Soviet government.

"Betty," 35 (who, like most in this article, requested anonymity), has had two long-distance relationships. The first lasted 5 1/2 years and included one period when one was in Florida and the other in South America. They visited each other during vacations and kept a semblance of a relationship going.

"I think long-distance love tends to put you in a fantasy world," says Betty. "One can love the person intensely, but you tend to distrust that kind of relationship more because you haven't had the nitty-gritty of day-to-day."

The initial attraction, some LDLs admit, is the fantasy. Although participants do not enjoy physical proximity, their imaginations are afforded full throttle in letters, phone calls and just dreaming about the Other.

"It's a wonderful kind of thing that keeps you going," says Matthew, a 33-year-old Washington attorney. "It's a private fantasy for no one but you. Not subject to your friends' problems with her or her mother's problems with your family's money. She's all yours."

"I spend 50 percent of my time thinking about him," admits Virginia Quintero, 30, a secretary whose Italian fiance' will be studying out of the country until later this year. "I don't stare at the wall per se, but while I'm doing other things . . . "

"We write quite a bit and call way too much," says Elizabeth Grusky, a 25-year-old marketing trainee at (Estee) Lauder for Men, New York, who met an Englishman while studying at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies in Italy. She returned to the United States and he to Cambridge to complete a PhD. "I spend about $55 to $60 [a month] just on phone calls overseas, and about $15 on postage."

Grusky and her friend are, she says, "committed to getting engaged."

Although it's physical proximity long-distance lovers crave -- and try to simulate in their communications -- the precious visit doesn't necessarily match expectations. Matthew, whose "mushy letters kept the fires burning" with a European woman for more than six years, went to visit her and found "she had neglected to tell me someone else had made her pregnant and she was living with another guy . . . talk about reality intruding."

The longer the absence, says Terry, a 32-year-old Washington magazine editor, "the more you put everything on a pedestal. And when you're together, it's harsh reality. You start to realize it's not a fairy tale."

And reality, to long distance lovers, can be the enemy.

"You get very tolerant," says Betty. "The times you spend are super intense. It's not misleading, but it's not a normal relationship." Lack of shared time, she says, can make it virtually impossible to "grow together."

Elena Balovlenkov, 32, certainly a well-qualified member of the Divided Spouses Coalition, has been separated from her Soviet husband Yuri, 38, since they were married in 1978. She has spent the last seven years raising the couple's two children and importuning the Soviets for an exit visa for her husband.

"It's incredibly difficult," she says. "I really thought we'd have the 'Leave It to Beaver' marriage -- the mortgage, fighting about what schools to send the kids to . . ."

Instead, their marriage has been marked by Yuri's hunger strikes to protest bureaucratic delays and poor telephone communication. Elena, who gets most of her information from friends who travel between the countries, has heard Yuri has undergone "a personality change."

"I wonder," she asks, "if and when he gets out, is the man going to be the same one I married? I'm not the same woman he married. I've lost a lot of the same rosy-eyed optimism."

Tina, 24, a former international student now working on a book, feels "there are no advantages to having long-distance relationships with someone you deeply care about . . . they're difficult and taxing and are only successful when two people are connected with a deep bond. Neither can they continue indefinitely. It's not something you willingly choose."

She is dating someone in Philadelphia and sees him on weekends. After six hours of train travel (Chicago to Ohio) for a former affair, "two hours," she says, "is wonderful."

For some in the long-distance love world, the future may be something to ignore. "You develop the ideal relationship in your mind," says Terry. "You only look at those finer moments . . . "

Nathan, a 48-year-old Washington journalist, had "no prospects down the road" because neither he nor his West Coast lover was prepared to move. "I was willing to continue on that basis," he says, "but she wasn't . . . Maybe men are romantics in that we blow it out of proportion. Maybe men want that sweetie out there."

"Men like to keep their options open," says Matthew. "I think, as a rule, they resist making the hard choice. I think women are better at making hard choices. The problem is, before you make a hard choice, you might have to get rid of your fantasies."

Looking back on his long-distance affair, Nathan declares, "It has not destroyed me. I would say look back in gratitude more than look back in anger, with the cold neutrality of a few years . . . Absence makes the heart grow fonder but it has limits. It does grow fonder at first but it grows less fond."

Years after that romance, Nathan met another woman in Africa. He "wrote her a couple of times and said I cared a great deal for her. But, maybe from that earlier experience, I dropped it out of my mind when I got here. I had learned not to tear my heart out over something."

Grusky has learned to keep an even keel. "We both feel our letters should be filled with day-to-day chat as well as thoughts of world problems because you shouldn't be deprived of that and we don't want to idealize . . . "

Otherwise, she says, "you might make a mistake. What if you discover you both hate each other's habits after you're married?"

The long absences have been "good and bad," says Balovlenkov, whose husband has never seen their second child. "As a woman I can stand on my own two feet, hold two jobs, go to graduate school . . . and raise two children.

"But I can't tell you it's been easy. I had a boyfriend when I met my husband. I always went out . . . I'd be kidding you to say I haven't said, 'This is crazy and I'm going to call a lawyer and get it over with.' But then I realize my frustration has nothing to do with Yuri.

"It's important to realize your own strengths and realize you're married because you want to be."

Betty is now on her second long-distance romance. It was a "storybook" meeting on a bridge in Venice last year, followed by a romantic two-week drive through Italy. But she lives here and he in Paris. "Someone's going to have make big changes," she says. "Either he's going some place or I'm going some place."

About his upcoming visit, "part of me is excited," she says, "but part of me says, 'What if it's not so fantastic?' . . .

"If I had my druthers -- a boyfriend in Paris or one next door, I'd much rather have someone next door. But it doesn't always happen that way."