I’m in love! Unfortunately, the person I love lives 9,061 miles away.Maddy and I met while living in Brussels, Belgium. We both went to the International School there, and shared many of the same friends. We started dating in the middle of 10th grade, but by the end of the school year, trouble loomed. As was common in the diplobrat life, Maddy was moving. She was going back to her home in Wellington, New Zealand, which was some 11,800 miles from Brussels.
Ten, twenty years ago, this might have been the end of our relationship. But in the 21st century, with Facebook, Skype, and a variety of specialized apps at our fingertips, we figured we’d do long distance. How hard could it be?
Turns out, pretty hard. Even if you Skype weekly, call (Facebook Messenger has a cool, free phone call feature) every couple days, and spend most of your shared waking hours at least absentmindedly chatting, relationships are still difficult to maintain when you’re not physically together. Communication becomes something you have to be much more deliberate about, and timing and scheduling is everything.
Still, perhaps the hardest part comes not from within the relationship, but from the outside. It’s not uncommon for people, upon discovering I’m in a long-distance relationship (LDR), to subconsciously delegitimize it. My relationship is perceived as inauthentic, less “real,” and thus less important.
This is expressed in a number of ways, but the biggest is doubt. People don’t often openly doubt your relationship just minutes after meeting you, except when you’re in an LDR. I’ve been asked many times, “How do you know she isn’t cheating on you?” Can you imagine asking some stranger that after they’ve told you they have a significant other?
Of course not, that would be ridiculous. I know she isn’t cheating on me because I trust her and because we love each other, which is the case regardless of whether we live 11,000 miles away or in the same house. Distance has nothing to do with fidelity.
Because LDRs are seen as less legitimate, others feel as if they have a greater say in your relationship than they would with a regular one. That’s exacerbated in the cases of people who met online. The sheer amount of doubt they face – “How do you know he’s not a murderer?” or “How can you fall in love with someone you’ve never met?” – would be seen as a gross crossing of boundaries if dealing with a regular relationship.
I think what it all comes down to is validation. Relationships in our society constantly need validation. But the more concrete they are, the more “real,” the less they need. The longer a relationship lasts, and the more it progresses past the conventional milestones (from dating to moving in, to engagement, and to marriage), the less it is doubted.
When people early in a relationship seek validation – by posting cutesy posts on Facebook or making a big deal over holding hands and kissing in public – they pacify society, and so ward off the doubt. When they refuse to do that, or otherwise breach the conventional path of relationships (by dating over distance, or by not planning to get married), they are delegitimized and then doubted.
Even I feel this. I sometimes have the urge to display our relationship not for me or for Maddy, but for the world’s approval. And I understand that if I did this more, then people would stop asking me how I know she isn’t cheating on me.
Seeking this validation isn’t a bad thing at all. But it’s important to recognize that society intentionally constrains our relationships, and the validation/doubt paradigm is one way it does so. Society wants every relationship to proceed along a predetermined path, and there is no room for divergence. Relationships must begin with dating, and the couple must move in after a certain point, then get engaged and married, etc. Also, of course, these relationships must be heterosexual.
It’s worth noting that these specific examples are from the Western/American perspective. The definition of a conventional relationship certainly varies by place (and changes over time), but no matter where you are, society will still try to impose the local convention, in part through the validation/doubt model.
By rejecting society’s narrative, we allow ourselves to be involved in whatever sort of relationship we want. And even if the relationship we are in isn’t ideal for us – distance, for example – we know that it is just as real as any other. No matter how long you’ve been together, no matter your gender, race, geographic location, religion, or plans for the future, your relationship is as real as you want it to be.