Long-distance relationships can begin in many ways – a random meeting or a parting of ways, mid-romance, due to work, school, or other factors – but I want to focus on relationships that begin and are, to some degree, maintained “virtually.”
Having experienced a physical connection and then leaving your partner or would-be partner is very different from starting and maintaining a relationship where you’ve never physically met the person. A number of questions aren’t answered: Are you attractive to me? What do you look like when you laugh? How do you move? How do you hold yourself? Do you look away when you talk, or do you keep eye contact? These and a myriad of other characteristics – some seemingly small, some dauntingly large – remain the province of imagination until the fateful in-person meeting takes place. If indeed it ever does.
There are uncertainties stacked upon uncertainties. If you feel something toward this person, is it real? Do they actually feel something real toward you? Should their promises be taken seriously? These “reality” issues can add dramatically to the uncertainty already inherent in any budding romantic relationship. Without the bond of in-person contact, your relationship may seem to hang by a thread. You may feel at times as though you’re walking a tightrope where a single verbal misstep could send you plummeting to the ground. Virtual relationships can start and rage like brush fire, and go out just as suddenly. You may imbue all forms of imaginary qualities to your discorporeal partner, some of which are wildly optimistic or otherwise distorted.
To make matters even more interesting, your inaccurate perceptions are often powerfully aided by the other’s half-truths or outright lies about themselves. Your six-foot, darkly handsome man might scarcely clear five and a half feet and be missing most of his hair. Your beautiful princess might weigh just slightly less than a water buffalo and not offer much of an improvement appearance-wise.
On the other hand, a solely virtual relationship does offer a few uniquely charming possible advantages: 1) the absence of physical contact forces you to focus on getting to know the person verbally, which can encourage a more in-depth communication; 2) without the distraction of physical attraction, you can develop a strong friendship based solely on your personalities rather than on sexual chemistry; 3) dates are generally less expensive and more practically convenient.
As one who’s gone through this myself, and have witnessed many others brave this ghostly territory, I hope I can offer a few thoughts, suggestions, and caveats.
Before you embark on virtual dating, I’d recommend performing a gut-check. Are you prepared to be honest about yourself and your intentions? How well do you trust your ability to detect bullshit (because you likely will need it)? Also, how comfortable are you with verbal communication? How satisfying do you find long email and phone exchanges?
If you’re not confident that you know what you want or are prepared to be unflinchingly honest – or if you are not a big fan of long and meaningful conversations – then you’re probably going to be very disappointed by the experience (though you probably will be disappointed by in-person dating as well, if this is the case!).
But if you’ve decided to give it a go, there are a few simple steps you can use to save time and offer yourself some degree of protection. If you’re a woman, and your opening exchanges indicate the possibility this might go somewhere, request several current and clear photos that leave little to the imagination (well, one or two omissions will probably be okay), or talk to him via webcam. Google the dude. If you are about to meet him, consider an online investigation, which isn’t terribly expensive. You want to make sure this person is, at least geographically, physically, and job-wise, whom he says he is. If you’re a man, I don’t see any harm in doing the same.
You will want to take this dialogue to phone and/or webcam sooner rather than later. That will answer some important questions about your personal chemistry.
You should ask lots of questions. This is no time to be shy.
You should attempt to meet your virtual partner/prospect in person as soon as humanly, perhaps even inhumanly, possible. All the greatest, most loving and passionate communication in the world can prove all for naught for the lack of one simple ingredient: personal chemistry. You could devote weeks, months, even years to a relationship that will end after five minutes of in-person contact. Life is far too short for that.
While you’re still in the virtual stage, having satisfied yourself that your prospective partner is basically the person he claims and appears to be, how should you feel about your relationship? Should you allow yourself to fall head-over-heels in love with this dream-person? Should you feel reserved and skeptical? Should you counsel yourself to be realistic about your feelings for someone you’ve never met in person, while being open to the possibility that you could develop strong feelings for them?
In my experience, which includes not only months of being in a completely virtual relationship myself but, perhaps more importantly, having a ringside seat for many, many others doing the same, I’ve seen countless declarations of undying love from couples who’ve never met in person, only to watch their self-proclaimed eternal love crash and burn in bloody flames – either on first meeting, or, more commonly, without ever getting that far.
But the majority of virtual would-be lovers, from my observation, simply go quietly into that good night. One moment they’re chatting happily away, discussing plans of getting together or perhaps even a possible future together, when suddenly one of them stops replying to emails or sends a terse message saying “Sorry, but I’m not sure this is working out.”
It’s both easier to begin and to end virtual romances. The initial investments and the cost of separation are fairly small relative to in-person dating. You’ve never held hands while walking on the proverbial beach together. You’ve never held them in your arms, exchanged soulful kisses, or made sweet love. You’ve never shared a massive dose of oxytocin.
At the same time, you’re battling unique insecurities knowing the fragility of your connection and the possibility of an abrupt ending. Your tendency to project qualities onto your partner, a perennial problem in the early stages of “real-life” romance, is greatly magnified in virtual dating. You really have no choice, absent physical contact, to fill in the some of missing gaps via imagination.
When you combine all these elements, it’s easy to see why so few virtual relationships work out. You have to fight your tendency to fantasize, your insecurities, your lack of physical bonding.
Still, let’s say you triumph over these pitfalls and finally meet in person. You find that most or all of your expectations are either met or exceeded. This could be the one!
Unfortunately, if like most virtual lovers you live some considerable distance apart, the most intractable of your problems lie directly ahead. Now you face the dreaded (gasp!) –
If virtual dating is not for the faint of heart, then a long-distance relationship is not for someone lacking the constitution of a workhorse or a triathlete. Now that you know you have physical as well as personality chemistry, please accept my congratulations on reaching a phase most virtual partners never reach. Now your suffering can truly begin. Because now you’re going to need to deal not only with the aforementioned challenges of a virtual relationship, but also missing the physical presence of your partner as well. It’s a volatile, bittersweet mixture of longing and loneliness, plus the usual virtual insecurities. How do you carry on from here?
I think there’s some basic issues you should get clear about from the beginning. Perhaps foremost is: Are we in an exclusive relationship, or are we free to see other people? This is particularly important to know in a long-distance relationship, because of the investment of money and time in travel, and also because of the rather unnatural burdens of loneliness this places on the couple for physical companionship – a burden which in combination with an availability that is greater than that of conventional in-person dating, can make “extracurricular activities” more than normally tempting.
The second question might be what you’re hoping to get from the relationship. Are you serious? Are you looking for a long-term partner or perhaps even marriage?
I think it’s fairly safe to assume that if you’re traveling possibly hundreds of miles that you feel seriously about the relationship. Being willing to forestall physical pleasures as well as perform the relatively time-consuming communication duties necessary to maintain long-distant contact further confirms that assumption, I think.
The next question flows from that sense of seriousness: Are either or both of you willing to relocate? Raising this subject early in the relationship may seem premature, but since it is a potential deal-breaker, it seems sensible to broach it sooner rather than later. If neither of you is willing to move, the relationship has no future. If one of you is willing to move, that does allow for a future, but if either you or your partner say “No way,” that raises questions of fairness and equality of interest for me. Ideally, I think, both partners are, in principle, willing to consider relocation. That demonstrates some parity in their feelings for each other, and shows a general respect for fair-play.
You’ll need to discuss how often and how long you should communicate. Most long-distance relationships require frequent “watering” with phone calls, emails, and other, but you’ll want to sound out each other’s needs so neither feels harassed nor neglected.
These ground-laying issues out of the way, you’ll want to get down to the gritty business of learning more about and loving each other. Flower-and-chocolate delivery services are your friend. Frequent “conjugal visits” are highly recommended.