Can a relationship sustain distance? Is there a possibility for love to thrive when separated by thousands of kilometers? These are some of the questions that plague the minds of many couples going through major changes in the physical status of their relationship. Historically, our parents and grandparents had to endure many months of separation when traveling for work since the only means of communication was postal mail or the occasional phone call.
Each family has at least one such story around traveling to the Gulf, the Americas, Europe, or elsewhere. Very often this meant leaving behind a wife and children while venturing on a journey that would last months if not years. In most cases the commitment was stronger than the distance. At least in the public eye many of these relationships survived with a lot of obscurity over how both parties managed their lives apart.
Travel in the 21st century is very different from the sagas of the early 1900’s. Many young people today are traveling for a variety of reasons. Today, the flow of Arabs seeking an education or a job around the world has meant that many leave behind a loved one with a promise that the future will only be brighter. The priority is obviously to establish a secure future. ‘Love’ at this stage comes second. Promises of love and devotion numb the fear and anxiety, and off he/she goes leaving behind many unanswered questions. In the age of Skype, Facetime & Whatsapp, communication has become very easy. It soothes the longing to be with the other person but also fuels the curiosity to check at every moment what is happening, where is he/she, with whom and how are they spending their time.
What is the destiny of these relationships and are they viable?
According to the 2015 statistics, in the US alone around 15 million couples are in a long distance relationship, and 3.75 million of them are married. 10% of all marriages in the US start out as a long distance relationship. Statistics from the Arab world are not as clear regarding relationships however, the trend in many countries is to seek education and work elsewhere which inevitably leads to separation. Most travel and movement is usually within the Arab world, but young people are also migrating towards Africa, America, Europe or Australia.
The first encounter, with a long distance relationship, is usually right after high school when your first love is off to a foreign country for education. The probability that this relationship survives is very low – both are at an age of discovery and growth and they haven’t really bonded well. This is more of a fantasy kind of love. This motivates them towards exploring and meeting other people and they eventually grow out of the first love. The pain of this breakup is usually minimal as it happens gradually and the acceptance of change or loss is very high.
The second major long distance relationship is after the college years when the probability that one of them will travel for graduate school or for work is very high. Many students from all over the Arab world are seeking graduate studies in faraway places, while many others due to the economic situation in their countries seek jobs elsewhere. In previous generations, the trend was to commit to a lover through an engagement or marriage prior to departure and in due time settle down as a married couple even if the distance separates them. In our current times, the situation is very different, marriage is happening at much later stages.
The average age for women to get married in Libya, Tunisia and Lebanon is 29 and slightly lower in other countries. This is an indicator for major changes in the psycho-social status of relationships (a subject that is worth investigating in its own right) and certainly has an impact on long distance relationships. It is important to keep in mind that in most Arab countries travel and movement for women is not as simple as in Western countries.
What happens when the couple separates?
It all depends on the strength of their commitment and their plans for the upcoming months and years. Any weaknesses in their relationship will lead to major rifts – this will be a golden opportunity to drift away. It is a calling for a breakup that is long overdue.
For the love birds who are rejoicing in each other’s presence, this separation will be a shock to their daily routine. The first few weeks will witness constant communication to replace the physical absence. This will be followed by a critical stage overshadowed by anxiety that will determine the sustainability of this relationship. If this new status of their relationship was not subject to serious discussions and a common understanding of how they will manage their lives then the anxiety and uncertainty will creep in, it will become like a virus that will start gnawing into the fabric of their relationship.
Rima and Fouad have been in a relationship for 3 years. They first met at college and have been together ever since. Fouad comes from a middle class family and upon graduation he secured a job in the Gulf with a starting salary that does not allow him to get married. Rima will graduate this year and is not sure of whether she wants to find a job or to apply for a scholarship to continue her education. A scholarship would mean further distance from Fouad. She might consider any available job in Cairo while waiting for Fouad.
These circumstances are becoming more frequent for many college students. The major challenges that Rima and Fouad will be facing can be summarized as follows:
- Time – this is not a two week vacation but rather months if not a full year before they can meet again. How are they going to spend this time? The gap that their separation creates could lead to anxiety and boredom, both deadly for a relationship. The proverb ‘out of sight out of mind’ might materialize to ease the pain! This leaves them open to new encounters – what if someone else fills this gap?
- Intimacy – this separation will become a reality check to the identity and strength of their relationship. Some couples connect at a shallow level and upon separating the links disappear and leaves an insignificant bond. Others associate love with the physical relationship and distance is without doubt a blow – You can talk for hours long distance but how can you recreate the physical bond?
Can these challenges become pillars for a stronger relationship?
Time for Rima and Fouad will give them the chance to focus on themselves and invest in their well-being. They can now do things that they never gave themselves the chance to do – hobbies, sports, reading and even studying. When there is a clear plan for this new free time available, boredom and anxiety will not set in. This can be seen as a time to strengthen what they like about each other and explore new dimensions to their identity that will make them even more attractive to each other.
Intimacy on the other hand is a serious challenge – a purely physical relationship is bound to die upon separation. The physical bonding is short lived and distance is a trigger to seek elsewhere. If their love is founded on stronger grounds, then the emotional will prevail and the physical can wait! Time and intimacy could be the solid foundation to determine the true meaning of their commitment. This could also lead them to cherish and value their time together.
Loulwa Kaloyeros offers some great advice about long distance relationships, love and desire
Does distance break a relationship, or can it make it stronger? Read this great advice
Omar and Samira have been married for 15 years and have spent the last ten years in a long distance relationship. Omar had to travel for work when their financial situation deteriorated. The first two years were a struggle for Samira. She had to cope with her work and care for the children let alone all the other hassles of daily life. However, reflecting back on the past 10 years, Samira confirms that it wasn’t easy but that she learned a lot from this experience and the best support was Omar’s love.
The strength of their relationship provided them with a safety buffer to overcome all the pain. This also allowed her to focus on what matters in a relationship rather than the futile details of daily life. She would look forward to their time together and make the most of it. Their love thrived in spite of the distance.
Leila, on the other hand, had a very different experience. As soon as Farid embarked on a work journey, it was an opportunity for her to explore other relationships. She is now living a parallel life and is dreading the day he will be back for good. She finds long distance a blessing as she can have the best of both worlds. Such relationships survive the distance but obviously fail miserably once the couple is back together. They live a fake and pretentious relationship and it is doomed to failure.
Samira and Leila are two stories to learn serious lessons from. Loyalty, dedication and perseverance are not a natural byproduct of a relationship. They are the result of a continuous commitment to a love that is reciprocal in rights and duties. Distance breeds loneliness and is certainly a fertile ground for flirting around. Distance also diminishes the emotional and physical support that you depend upon and the more time spent apart the more likely it is for a relationship to fail. What a relationship needs is few promises and lots of communication. It needs the long term vision and the flexibility to adjust to the demands of time. It will thrive on love and honesty rather than passion and promises.