My last job application prompted me to check single or married. I hesitated, eventually checking off the obvious choice, single.
I didn't feel single. The white space between the two marital-status boxes seemed to better represent me. The in-between space denotes the fairly commonplace status of twenty-somethings -- long-distance relationships. We're often crossing the tightrope from single to married lifestyles.
But we're more single than anything. Living apart from each other, we share our daily lives by way of reflective communication. Here is what I did today . . . This is how my weekend went . . . Most of our conversations are in the past tense on the phone or in e-mail.
These communicative capacities keep us growing together and not apart as the geography implies. I often know he makes chili for dinner that will last him the rest of the week. I just miss the chance to dip a spoon in the pot.
"Most successful relationships come from maintaining individuality. People have to consider the best career and education opportunities to come. And not doing so could damage the relationship, often creating a greater burden than physical distance," said David Niven, author of "The 100 Simple Secrets of Great Relationships."
Before I left Chicago, I felt like an individual with a beckoning career opportunity. Checking single on my application reminded me why I could leave that city and a boyfriend behind. My job in D.C. promised only a year of employment. And after my year in Washington, I wasn't too sure where the next dart might take me. Hopefully I'd be lucky enough in my young professional game to hit another stellar job.
But most of all, I decided I didn't want him to move with me. Twice. That's not fair.
It didn't matter that I had grown accustomed to an in-town boyfriend; I could still start a new life in D.C. The box said so.
I liked sharing my life with him. But I know I can't have it all -- the boyfriend and the job. And I love my job.
Five months later it's surprising how I've grown to love the long-distance relationship. I love it for the career opportunities it has afforded me and him and for the chance to let our relationship's strengths pull us through the lapses of physical closeness. Moving away to start a new job or return to school celebrates the single, differing interests and opportunities each person has in a relationship.
And Niven, who had his own successful long-distance relationship in graduate school, elaborated on a few of the eye-opening benefits.
"Research basically shows long-distance relationships act as a magnifying glass to relationships -- problems appear bigger and strengths appear bigger," said the psychologist at Florida Atlantic University. "And if the relationship is strong to begin with, long distance should have no effect."
Main Events I had tried dating-by-phone for four years in college in my first long-distance relationship. I talked on the phone for more than four consecutive hours one Thursday night. And I traveled more than 16 hours by train and car for a birthday visit that lasted six hours. I've had a little experience in this area. And long-distance romances can become heavily event-oriented. Everything is a big deal. Every time you visit each other there can be hefty travel expenses, cumbersome arrangements and tight schedules. And every weekend visit can be jammed with activities, squeezing in the movies you have wanted to see together and restaurants you have wanted to try, can be worth it.
It's a shot at making the long-distance involvement like any other relationship, or at least on hold for that, knowing the desired proximity and normalcy will come.
Long-distance relationships work between people of all ages. Sometimes even married couples have to make it work for a period of time. So maybe those instances imply that we never lose our singleness, the "individuality" Niven referred to.
Any going-someplace relationship takes gutsy moves that prove you want to be together or can still be "together" while apart. Relationships evolve in different time zones, as they do in different coffee shops and other dating atmospheres. You just have to adopt that coffee shop-style conversation in a long-distance phone call. In a full-blown dating atmosphere, atop the John Hancock building before I left last summer, I said, "You don't feel like I'm leaving you, do you?"
He then told me he wouldn't want to date someone who would deny a career opportunity like the one that lay before me. And neither would I. I wouldn't want to date someone who wouldn't throw me in feet first and watch me swim away for a bit. But daily happiness is hard to leave for something you've always thought would make you happy.
With five years experience researching case studies of relationships, Niven also said long distances are hardest for people who are not rock solid with who they are and what they want from the relationship. So, he said, it's often harder for younger people because they are not as set on personal goals.
Many in my family and countless young professionals I know have made attempting long-distance relationships one of their personal goals. So I guess some of the young people like my 21-year-old sister Colleen Ganey are up to it. Niven sure got the hard part right.
Although, it isn't so hard for many to admit they chose it.
Colleen, still at college in South Bend, Ind., describes her three-year long-distance relationship in college as "a negotiation between independence and commitment. And no one would choose it if they didn't have to. It's the ultimate form of compromise." Before I left I was uneasy about entering another long-distance compromise. He told me the goal of this year was not to be together in the end. I was a little shocked. It was for us to be where we are meant to be at this point in our lives he continued. I felt lucky to know someone who thinks like that.
We are willing to make painful choices. It's a must, especially in your twenties when turning life's corners is a daily occurrence.
My 24-year-old cousin Billy Joern thought back a few years to his three-year long-distance relationship in college and reminded me that "it has to be temporary." If it's not, he said, "you grow apart as people and don't need each other anymore."
More distance can grow between the two of you than the sum of your frequent-flier miles.
However foreboding the concept may appear, rest assured, there is no death by long-distance relationships. But the way things used to be or the way you wish they were come to a dead stop, and the kind of time you spend together becomes defiantly different. I don't eat the non-buttery part of his movie-theater popcorn as much anymore; instead, I hear about a movie he saw with his roommate.
The Phone Connection After my youngest sister Crissy Ganey's first month at St. Ambrose University in Davenport, Iowa, learning to appreciate the little, but fundamental, things like e-mail and phone dating, the 19-year-old advises, "Look forward to that phone call at the end of the day, the last phone call where you pick up and hear, 'Hi Baby. How was your day?' " Isn't that the stuff in any relationship? It's about the enthusiasm. Kristin Kellner wrote about the importance of reminding the other person why you are in an LDR. Say "I love you" before you hang up, if you mean it, she told me one evening. My Fighting Irish sister in South Bend also reiterated that it's a relationship of narration. So speak up through e-mail, hand-written letters and multiple phone calls until you've reached that call-each-other-every-time-something-happens stage.
When the University of Michigan missed repeated field goals in the season opener against Washington, you would have needed an instant reaction by phone too. Calling from my living room in Adams Morgan after every missed kick attempt was worth it to share the moment with him.
As close as you may seem at times, it gets to the point where there are more differences in your lives than just different living rooms. After enough time goes by, you've established different groups of friends, and who is real to you on the other end of the phone may be the phantom caller to the people who are actually in your everyday life -- in the cubicles next to you at work or on the softball field with you after 5 p.m. And the distance you try to disguise with phone calls, e-mail and letters is pronounced.
Having almost never lived in the same city as his girlfriend of two-plus years, 26-year-old Roni Mansur might be my prime source on exclusive long-distance dating. "An element of all LDRs is the fact that both parties start developing separate friend circles. And managing these requires a lot of work: when both of us have commitments on the same week or weekend, and we live an hour apart, and want each other to be at the respective party or social event," he wrote to me. The two-circle circumstance evidences why you check the box for single.
You have your own life. But you share your worlds in order to ward off dueling Zip codes, in order eventually, in theory, to share the same one.
When he traveled from New York to Boston to date long-distance, Dave Levy highlighted a major misconception about weekend visits. We expect them to be flawless, because couples finally jump out of past-tense-speak for a multi-day spell. Togetherness is what you've been waiting for; it's the fabled pot of gold in an LDR.
"And when the weekend's not the best, it's hard to face another week," Dave told me while catching up one afternoon.
"We're so lazy now," my newly married cousin Jessica Cunningham joked about how her married life compares with the long-distance relationship she used to have with her husband when dating him just out of college. "One thing I remember: We made an effort to always do something neat and new. I'd take him to a concert or something." After all of the hard work, negotiation, compromise, independence, prioritizing, and commitment, she said, "you definitely appreciate your relationship more." Jessica told me at the end of our Sunday night phone conversation.
So being twenty-something can be about finding a career you clearly love.
I'm happy to say my colleague on the other end of my long-distance relationship is the one thing that makes sense to me.
And oddly enough, so does the long distance.