Answering “And Then What?” In Long-Distance Relationships

Did you know that 14 million couples in the United States consider themselves to be in a long distance relationship? I didn’t. I also didn’t know that the average time it takes for those relationships to fall apart averages about 4.5 months. 32.5 percent of college relationships are long distance. 40 percent of long distance relationships end in a breakup. 70 percent of long distance relationships that end in a breakup are caused by “changes [that] aren’t planned for.”

These are the statistics; the nicely condensed one-liners that lump all couples together and provide results to which many of us involuntarily compare our own relationships. In a world that has become smaller by the minute, it is not uncommon for one person to fall for another and then continue the relationship from hundreds to thousands of miles away. Moreover, in the age of up-to-the-minute technology, it has arguably become easier for couples to overcome geographical obstacles. But distance certainly takes its toll: It is not easy being away from the people we care about the most in the world. But when that person is a significant other, and distance denies you the ability to kiss that person, to hold them, to lie in bed and talk about your day; distance denies you the everyday things that matter the most in relationships: The constants. The knowing that, at the end of the day, you have a person to come home to. That doesn’t mean that long distance is impossible: For every long-distance relationship that ends, there is undoubtedly one that succeeds. The thing about long-distance relationships though, is that it demands you ask a very tough and very real question very early on: “And then what?”

And then what? That phrase pushed its way into my thoughts every day I was apart from the guy that I cared about most in the world. We were not just some statistic. What we had mattered more than the odds that we didn’t know existed. Yet that question was present in every text, every Skype date, every letter: And then what? When you’re both twenty-somethings and living an excruciating distance from one another, the “And then what” will unfortunately have to be answered sooner rather than later. Sure, you stick it out until the next time you can magically align your schedules, but then what? What about next month? Next year? Where do you spend Christmas? How do you make up for every birthday, every accomplishment, every bad day where you’re needed, but unable to be there? Time isn’t a luxury in long-distance relationships, it’s something you have to meticulously plan for, construct, and design. Some couples are comfortable waiting months—even years—to answer the “And then what” question and some people know every future step they will take when starting a long-distance relationship. It is not easy, by any means, and I wholeheartedly applaud the couples who find a way to bear the burden that distance creates. Despite the overwhelming statistics, some couples take on the distance with unwavering bravery.

We were not one of those couples. I’m not saying that we weren’t brave, that we didn’t try our hardest. Rather distance got the better of two twenty-somethings who are still figuring their lives out. When things first ended, though, I thought that perhaps we had failed. But our story wasn’t one that had a rule book, and often times I felt like we were making things up as we went along. And that’s okay. Not every relationship can be assessed, analyzed, and printed out nicely into a five-paragraph essay that concisely details what will ensure success and what will cause a breakup. (In fact, if any such book exists, I would like to see it and then use my knowledge to preach to the masses and undoubtedly make millions.) Some relationships succeed against all odds; they survive time, distance, age, the good and the bad. Some relationships fall apart for any number of reasons that many of us are familiar with by the time we become twenty-somethings; jobs, family, and distance, again, are just some of these factors. There is no “one way,” no “one answer,” and I’ll gladly contest anyone who believes in some sort of miracle equation that results in The Perfect Successful Relationship. We simply figure things out as we go.

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When long distance let me down I was standing in an airport, staring into the eyes of a person who once was, but now was no longer, mine. There was an agreement in keeping in touch, in remaining friends—these, of course, were things I truly wanted, except it was hard to hear his logic over the sound of our breaking hearts. In just a few hours we had answered the “And then what,” and the answer was unfairly and strangely what I did and did not want. On the one hand, it gave me the freedom to take any path I wanted in life. But that freedom came with the price of losing a person who had in many ways dominated the last year of my life. I was losing the person who had managed to capture my heart. However, when you get right down to it, I firmly believe that relationships matter, regardless of how far apart they are or how long or short in duration. They matter. In my case there is no one person to blame; no one isolated incident that I can point to and say “There. There is where you let me down.” And, while I will not deny the six straight hours of Friends that I watched or the massive amount of chocolate I consumed after he left, I will also never deny that what we had once mattered to me very, very much and how there were moments of pure, unconditional happiness when I was his.

But sometimes “And then what” gets the better of us; sometimes it is just the distance and your dreams and the fact that, more often than not, being a twenty-something means you have to deal with a lot of unkind, unfair, heartbreaking bullshit. You have to make tough decisions about your future; a future which often demands you let go of some people while you hold onto others with everything that you have. “And then what” should not be feared, but bravely taken on. We are not statistics, we are people, and we are simply figuring things out as we go.

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