long distance alienation and needing space

Hey there,
Maybe you can help me. How can I be more empathetic? I’m in a long distance relationship, and I’m finding it really hard to be as “present” as I should be/my girlfriend needs me to be. When she’s here visiting me or I’m there visiting her, it’s not a problem. We do our things, we do things together, and always at the end of the day, it’s nice to snuggle up and share our days. But I won’t lie, I like spending time by myself – the long distance thing is not a problem for me. I’ve dated lots of different people in my life and I’ve had long periods of being by myself, and I’m happy either way, as long as I stay in regular contact with people and don’t disappear into a work hole for too long. (Though I will say that being in a relationship is awesome, and I love my girlfriend and I definitely prefer being with her to being by myself.) Anyway, when we were first getting together, she moved away for a postdoc, and to try to stay together and get to know each other better, we started skyping every night. This was easy because she didn’t know anyone there and I have been working really hard to finish my diss, so I haven’t had too many evening engagements. We basically fell in love in a few weeks over the summer and then over skype and short visits every month or so. But as the semester went on, she was having a harder time than ever being in her new city. She wasn’t reaching out to anyone but me, and it began to stress me out. I didn’t realize that that was what was happening at the time, but in retrospect, it was and it was really hard. We spent the winter break together and were able to work through some of these issues. I had asked her to come a week later because I knew I would be really busy when her school got out, but she ended up coming anyway and I kind of shut down. But we worked it out, and things were really good for the rest of the break. Then she went away again and it was sad, and it felt like things were going to be better after all the processing we’d done over the break. We were in a different place than we had been when she first moved. We had been really honest about where we were at and what we wanted. She admitted that she had put too much pressure on me to be there for her in the fall, and I admitted that I could have handled her return a bit better, but said that I also needed her to understand that I’m in a really stressful place career-wise (finishing diss, on the market, etc.), and that I would need a bit more space for that. So all of that was on the table. So now it’s the spring semester. I can tell from talking to her that she’s having a really hard time out there again. I suggested gently that she try to reach out to people, establish some deeper connections with people she’s met there, but it doesn’t seem to help very much. She’s doing that a little, but fundamentally thinks that one year is not enough to really make friends, so has all but written it off. She just seems sad and even got upset when I replied to her a text curtly and without the usual sweet words one time. Meanwhile, I’m trying really hard to get my stuff done and sometimes just think about how I have to skype when I could be working. I know that it’s hard to empathize with someone who’s depressed, but that’s what I need to do, right? I hate to say it, but my usual pattern in these kinds of situations is to run. It’s hard for me to feel like someone is dependent on me. But I love my girlfriend and know that when we’re in the same place, she’s not like this. She’s also super-introspective, has a deep meditation practice, and is honest with herself, so I feel like we could work it out somehow. But even still, her brain tends to jump to the worst conclusion – that I’m cheating on her, or that I don’t want to be with her, etc., which are unfounded, but are also really challenging for me to handle, since they just make me mad and want to run away. I guess I’m wondering, should I learn to be more empathetic to other people’s vulnerabilities, or should I just resign myself to being a robot and try to find another robot to date. (By the way, I tried this in the past, and that person’s inability to commit was a problem…) Anyway, sorry this has been so extremely long. I would appreciate your thoughts.
I, Robot.

Here are my long, rambling thoughts on your letter:

There’s a lot going on here! I can really empathize with both you and your girlfriend, in this situation, and it also sounds like you guys actually talk honestly about this stuff, which is the main thing that has to be in place if the relationship is going to succeed. So my first reaction is to say that it sounds like you’re doing pretty well, actually, and handling it as best you can without doing anything I would label as dumb or immature! And neither of you sounds like an asshole! Which is great. Maybe there are some things to think about though that could kind of subtly shift the way it feels between you, and so that’s the next step. Lets try to identify some stuff.

My old man and I lived in separate cities for 3 years while in school, and so I really understand a lot of what you’re describing. We ended up talking a lot about How We Talk On The Phone, which was exhausting and boring. It’s like, one of us comes home from a weird day and wants to talk about it, and calls, and interrupts the other one while they’re trying to read Hegel, and the chemistry is just not matching up, and so then the first person gets their feelings hurt because the second person is being distant and weird, and then the second person has to, like, wrench their headspace around unnaturally in order to compassionately deal with the hurt being expressed, and then you talk for an hour about “when I can tell that you’re reading while you’re on the phone with me it hurts my feelings” and “when you don’t respect that I’m reading when you want to talk on the phone, it makes me feel marginalized” and after an hour you’re both like “what even is this conversation we’re having??”

I feel lucky that my old man and I were both more like you in this scenario–we were both very focused on our own work, and our own things, and although we missed each other, it was not that heart-breaking, really. We did not feel isolated and lonely and emo the way it sounds like your girlfriend feels. This is partly because we approached our 3 years apart as a SHARED GOAL. I’m sure you guys do too, but have you really verbalized it? That this distance thing is a shared obstacle that you are going to confront together, in order to come out the other end of it even stronger than before? I’m wondering if maybe you have not made it clear enough what the situation is, emotionally, for you? You say you have these robotic tendencies, and so I’m wondering, have you actually literally told her that you DON’T LIKE being apart, that you would MUCH RATHER be together? That this time apart is NOT IDEAL for you? Does she know that you feel that way–that you’re just making the best of a non-ideal situation? Or do you kind of keep her at arm’s length, just a little bit, like do you sort of let her know that you’re having this great time without her and you never think about her until she annoys you by Skyping you (JOKE, I am sure you do not do this). I just mean, my old man sometimes had the tendency to, like, sort of GUARD his emotional well-being by not letting himself get all mushy or emo, and sometimes it would be to the point where, like, I’d be coming to see him for a weekend, and I’d be telling him how excited I was, and then he’d just sigh and say “well, I’m going to have a lot of work to do while you’re here…” and it was so deflating and rude. In retrospect I know he was just trying to keep things realistic and balanced in the face of my tendency to be like “IT’S GOING TO BE FUCKING INCREDIBLE” but in the moment it felt like he was telling me “you can come visit if you want, but we aren’t going to be able to hang out that much,” which made me feel like, Jesus, buy your own $600 two-stop plane ticket, asshole! I HAVE HOMEWORK TOO!!!!

So that’s me thinking from your girlfriend’s point of view. Only because I am married to someone who can sometimes play things close to the vest and who is very good at compartmentalizing, whereas for me everything is in one big blob. Like right now, I am writing this advice, thinking about what I need to read for my article, going over my mental checklist about next semester’s readings, wondering if it’s time for another cup of coffee, and planning what I need to get at the store for dinner seven hours from now. For him, if he’s writing his dissertation, he’s not doing anything else. He’s not emailing, he’s not on facebook, he’s not listening to me when I ask him if we have anything planned for the 15th, he’s not eating or drinking water or caring for his body in any way. Like literally, if I went in there and put a bowl of soup by his hand for his lunch, I’d go back in 3 hours from now and it would still be there untouched and then later he’d be like “what’s this soup doing here??” A personality like that, it’s very easy for him to make a different kind of personality (loud blobby me) feel like he’s not even thinking about her for one second, even though he obviously loves her so much etc. Is this kind of like you and your girlfriend, a little bit? If so, my most concrete advice would be to not say things like “this is so easy for me! I don’t mind being apart at all” when you’re talking to her. Because even though I think it’s great that you’re able to not be all clingy and dependent, it’s also kind of like there’s a time and a place to say certain stuff and Skyping with your sad girlfriend is probably not the time to talk about how being apart from her feels exactly the same as being in a room with her (I know you aren’t literally saying this, I’m exaggerating because it’s funny)

So yeah, maybe try to warm things up a bit, in terms of your robot demeanor? Tell her you can’t wait to see her. Tell her you miss her. Let her know that the distance is hard on you–even though it’s not THAT hard, because you’re doing other stuff and you’re busy and you don’t have a super co-dependent personality (all of which is great!), don’t TELL her that it’s not that hard. Be like, “this sucks, I wish you were my normal girlfriend who I could ride my bike to go visit!” Also maybe say future-oriented things? “When we’re together over spring break, I want to do x, y, and z.” “When we live in the same city again, I think we should do x, y, z.”

One thing that is probably hard is that you are both academics (right?), so neither of you probably knows where you’re going to be living at any given time in the future. It’s very hard. But still, be future oriented, be warm and tell her you miss her and stuff, and don’t say things like “this isn’t that hard for me.”

I also have some questions. Is she moving back to your same city at the end of this semester? Is she on the job market? Do you have bigger life plans together? Are you actively trying to live in the same city or is everything kind of up in the air and unresolved right now? Because that unresolved quality might be making her feel more uptight and lonely and adrift than she’d normally feel. Which, there’s nothing either of you can do about that–the academic life being what it is–but still I’m just saying, there might be darker cosmic terror underlying some of her behaviors/feelings. Do you talk about those terrors or do your conversations about dissatisfaction revolve solely around the relationship? In my experience, getting away from the relationship talk and talking about bigger life fears can be really refreshing, and a good bonding experience. Maybe ask her about this kind of stuff, if you don’t already?

NOW, I’m thinking from YOUR point of view, and there are some things I would like your girlfriend to think about and try to be aware of. The first one is the very obvious fact that it is unfair and unrealistic to expect that your partner is going to provide everything you need, in terms of human life and contact. Your girlfriend was wrong to not try to make friends at her postdoc. A year is a long time, and there is always SOMEONE worth having drinks with once a week or whatever. Furthermore, even if that’s not true, and there is literally no one worth getting to know, it’s still not fair to put all her emotional eggs in the daily Skype conversation basket. Because she’s creating a situation where all that she brings to you is loneliness and desperation and neediness, whereas ideally you should both come to the Skype conversation full of stories about your days, interesting things that happened, funny things other people said, etc. etc. Instead, she’s creating an environment where, in spite of yourself, you’re going to start feeling a little nibble of dread in your guts when you go to make the Skype call. You’re going to be mildly steeling yourself for her depression, her neediness, her questions about if you’re cheating on her (!!). That’s not fun, and is also creating a gnarly cycle where if all you do is talk about your relationship problems, it makes you less and less desirous of talking to her, which makes her more and more clingy, etc. I believe in partners being wholly there and supportive of one another, but we also owe it to one another to cultivate rich, stable lives of our own, so that one person doesn’t bear the full weight of the other person’s needs. It’s so much better if you both maintain your own personal well-being and don’t have to have insecurity-based fights! It’s so nice to be out at a bar getting drunk with colleagues and to have your partner text you, “going to bed, can we talk?” and you text back “I’m getting drunk with colleagues” and he texts back “have fun! talk to you tomorrow honey I love you” and you text “I love you too” and you both go on about your evenings safe and happy and calm and thankful that there is no weirdness between you. I can’t imagine how stressful it would be if that text conversation could go any other way. I would hate it if he got mad or emo or passive aggressive and then I had to, like, step out into the street and have some tortured conversation with him while inside my colleagues are like “long distance relationship” and nodding knowingly to each other. YUCK!!!!!

So, I would ask her to re-think what this long-distance thing is really about. It should be at least partially an adventure, a challenge, a goal to be met and overcome. There’s a positive spin to be put on it! She’s doing something weird and different, living alone in a new city–that’s exciting, even if it’s also alienating and lonely. She should be trying to continue her relationship’s development across these new circumstances, rather than living in the past or clinging or trying to make it more than it can possibly be. ALL YOU HAVE right now are these Skype conversations, and Skype is not an ideal form of human contact, so instead of fighting or crying about it, isn’t it better to just ACCEPT that that is a fact, and cope with it accordingly, and try to find the stuff in the situation that feels like an adventure?

But so, now I want to say some things about mediated communication.

When we were first apart, my old man told me that he did not want to email anymore. He found it too alienating. He famously said: “You are not a white text box,” which is awesome and I think about it all the time. So we began our three years apart with no emailing and just once-daily phone calls, and by the end of the 3 years we were barely talking at all. Why? Because talking on the phone SUCKS. Hanging out in person IS BETTER. Full stop.

It took us like 2 years to fully realize that we hated talking on the phone. Talking on the phone is not the same thing as hanging out in person. When you live in a house with someone, you can be making a sandwich while he’s playing his football video game, but you still feel together. And when you’re hanging out with each other, you can also be snuggling, or patting the dog, or watching a movie, or listening to music. We realized that so much of quality hang-out time with a partner involves being QUIET together, or at least having long thoughtful pauses that don’t feel strange at all. But when the only connection you have is the phone, you have to be constantly verbalizing, which is exhausting and boring. And those long thoughtful pauses become creepy and horrifying. WHAT IS GOING ON OVER THERE?? We realized that a lot of what we would argue about wasn’t actually real–it was like we were arguing ABOUT THE PHONE. If you took the phone out of the equation, we actually had no issues. There were no issues when were together in person. The phone itself was the problem! Because it’s just like you point out–sometimes you don’t want to talk on the phone, because you’re tired, or you’ve been teaching all day and are sick of speaking, or you really want to watch Lost. Body language is lost over the phone, so there are all kinds of weird communication breakdowns where someone couldn’t tell that someone else was joking. Etc. Or that feeling of being on the phone and just eyeing your stack of Battlestar Gallactica DVDs and being like “uh huh….uh huh….” trying to hurry up the conversation while feeling guilty about it but really you’re just so tired and you want to watch your BSG and have a glass of wine. Which, if he were there in the room with you, you’d just do TOGETHER, and it would be great. But instead you have to be on the phone verbalizing every goddamn thought in your head, when frankly there aren’t that many thoughts in your head right now. Ugh!

Once we realized this, we actually started talking even less, and it was great. We’d talk every couple of days, instead of ritualistically every night. It was great! It became more like we called each other when we actually wanted to talk and had something to say.

Also, I wonder if you have an end date? The end date makes everything easier. It’s easier to go three days without talking when you know that in 97 days you’re going to live together again forever and ever. Once I knew I had gotten my funding and was moving to be with him again on June 1 or whatever, everything was a breeze. You have to have an end date, even if it’s super far in the future.

Okay, so, anyway: I don’t think you are a robot, but I do think it’s good of you to sort of recognize that you are more self-contained than some other people might be, and to try to compassionately deal with that facet of your relationship. And I don’t think your girlfriend is crazy, I just think she’s sad and weirded out and worried and not getting the right perspective on the situation. I think you should be a little bit warmer and she should calm down a little bit, and you’ll meet in the middle.

In conclusion, I will tell you my old man’s and my only real advice to anyone we meet now who is in a long-distance situation. People sometimes ask us “how did you do it?” and “it’s so hard, how did you get through it?” and our advice is very very simple: STAY CALM

Be cool
Stay calm
Don’t freak out
Keep it mellow
“Don’t Panic”

For both of you: Try not to fight over Skype. Try not to talk about The Relationship too much over Skype. Try to save that stuff for in person. Try to get some distance and see that talking through a computer screen is awkward and not the same thing as talking in person, and try to be compassionate about how the other person might be experiencing that mediation/your behavior/your statements. Do your own thing, have fun, fully engage with your own life, so that when you are together you have something real to build on TOGETHER. Obviously your girlfriend’s career is important to her and something she’s worked hard to get–she should try to revolutionize her thinking, to get stoked on the fact that she got a postdoc (I’ve applied to so many postdocs and not gotten a single one!) and is DOING IT, she’s doing this career she’s worked so hard to achieve! That’s so awesome! She should do it to the max, and her relationship with her girlfriend should be this wonderful comforting thing that’s always at the bottom of her heart and mind, like a lovely foundation of joy on top of which she can build other stuff that’s also good.

Anyway, not sure if that makes any sense. It’s a tough situation and I think from your letter it sounds like you’re very compassionate and aware, both of her situation and your own personality traits, and I think that is HUGE and probably the actual changes that need to get made are pretty small and more about just changing thought patterns and approaches. You can do it!

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One Response to long distance alienation and needing space

  1. dv says:

    Oh man, I feel you on the phone thing so much. It’s my LEAST favorite method of communication. Exactly because, as you say, you have to be constantly verbalizing. I’m always taking time to think things over in my head and then respond, and that turns into the awkward silences, which always feel like “Ok, so is this phone conversation over? Because it’s been silent for 3 seconds.”

    If I, Robot’s girlfriend has a “deep meditation practice,” maybe she needs to meet with someone in her area about how that practice should be informing her daily outlook? Meditation is all about learning to just exist in the moment and appreciate pure being, which personally has helped me to worry less about things in the past or future. Ideally, it would help her feel like she does not need to worry about whether her long distance relationship will work out, or whether she will get a tenure track position, because these things are all revealed to be illusions produced by the restless mind #DEEPHIPPIE

    Whether this is true or not, keeping this perspective is useful in order to not freak out about having a bad Skype convo. I feel like this probably sounds snobby, but I’m just saying that I have chilled myself out a lot over the years by thinking of things on both a real and a metaphysical level.

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