Thanks for reading Can We Talk?, a monthly sex and relationships column that aims to tackle the burning questions about sex, dating, relationships, and breakups that you’re too afraid to ask your partner — or maybe even your besties. Last time, relationship therapist Moraya Seeger DeGeare, LMFT, helped a reader untangle some complicated emotions that arose after she and her new partner experienced a miscommunication in bed, right before they were about to go long-distance. This week, we heard from Refinery29 readers about their long-distance relationships, the biggest pain points associated with them, and how they got through them (or didn’t).
Do you have a dilemma or question you’d like to see answered as part of a future Can We Talk? Submit it here or send us an email at CanWeTalk@Refinery29.com.
Lauren* — Las Vegas, Nevada
Lauren, 23, first started crushing on her future partner in seventh grade — from afar. It wasn’t until freshman year of high school that they developed a friendship, and soon after, they began dating. When her partner joined the military after graduation, the couple decided to stay together. But the long-distance relationship required hard work, especially since Lauren’s partner moved around often. “At one point there was a 16-hour time difference with only a short window of us both being awake in a day,” Lauren says. “It took a lot of FaceTime, communication, and trust to keep the relationship alive, along with a lot of daydreaming of what it would be like when we finally got to see each other again.”
Then, about four years into the LDR, Lauren’s boyfriend told her that an acquaintance of theirs who was visiting him and his coworker had flirted with him. “My gut told me this wasn't going to end well,” Lauren remembers. “Every day [of her visit], he stopped talking to me more and I would see on social media through his other friend's Stories that he was always next to her. One day, I woke up to drunk voicemails of him admitting to cheating on me. It felt like all the air left my body. I didn't know whether to cry, scream, or be relieved that what I was feeling was true.”
Lauren ended things. “It was one of the hardest decisions I had to make in my life,” she says. But Lauren thinks she came out on top. She downloaded TikTok to distract herself from the breakup, and as a private act of revenge against her now-ex, who had been adamant that she not download it for cybersecurity reasons. “Now I am a micro-influencer with 170,000 followers making content full time,” she says. “Because of a spite-fueled decision, I have found my passion.”
After nine years of marriage, Nancy Fagan, 58, and her husband Joe took their relationship bicoastal: She moved to San Diego, CA, to start a new business, and he stayed in Boston, MA. “My husband was highly against it at first because he feared people would assume we were getting a divorce,” she remembers. “At the time, I was tired of following his career and wanted to put mine first. The economy was down and I saw it as a great opportunity to start something new.”
Nancy says it took him about three months to get used to the distance and feel confident that their marriage would stay strong. “We had to be very deliberate in making it work,” she says. “We called each other every morning and night to check-in and connect. The company he worked for also had an office in San Diego, so he was able to fly out for one week a month. I was not as flexible, but was able to fly to Boston about once every two months.” Having consistent dates on the calendar to look forward to together was helpful.
After eight years of living across the country from each other, her husband was diagnosed with cancer. It was difficult news to get over the phone. “We were both upset, and I can’t touch him, I can’t hold him,” Nancy says. “It was very challenging.”
“We had to make the marriage the priority the entire time we were apart,” she says, but it was especially crucial during this time. She made sure to have a backup at work so that she could drop everything and fly across the country if needed, and had him keep her on the phone during doctor’s appointments so she could hear everything and stay updated on what was going on. “When you’re faced with that, especially cancer, you think the person is going to die,” she says. “It really does make you have a renewed focus on and appreciation of your partner. When there’s a possibility you could lose someone, it also makes you reevaluate the little petty things.”
After 11 years of long-distance, they both moved back into the same home, feeling stronger for all they’d been through. As Nancy puts it: “Knowing we were both committed to each other through all of that was the glue that kept us together.”
Charlotte — Isle of Man, United Kingdom
Charlotte, now 33, and her girlfriend Natalie met on a dating app. At the time, Charlotte was living in London and her match was in the Isle of Man, about 350 miles away. “We both swear that we had our settings set to match us with local people only; however, somehow we got matched,” she says. “It sounds cheesy but we knew there was something special between us before we'd even met. It took a few months, but when we eventually met in person, it was clear I'd found my soulmate. The idea of being apart was heart-wrenching but we were determined to make it work.”
From that moment on, she and Natalie, now 29, vowed to see each other as much as possible. “Our friends thought we were mad, but every single weekend one of us would fly to visit the other — even if it was only for one night. We lost count of how many Mondays we pulled sickies just to get a few extra hours together.”
It was a whirlwind. “I never knew of love-sickness like I did during those times we were apart,” Charlotte says. “The hardest part was wondering if she'd wake up one day and have a change of heart. I drove myself insane with worry and it's like all my insecurities came back to haunt me all at once.”
But it wasn't long before the couple knew they wanted to find a way to be together full-time. After just six months, her partner was packing up her life to come and be with Charlotte in London. “She made a huge sacrifice for our relationship, and everyone thought we were crazy for moving in together so soon,” Charlotte says. “But, you know, lesbians and U-Hauling — ha.” Charlotte and her partner ended up leaving London to travel the world together, an experience they blogged about, before landing back in the Isle of Man during the pandemic." Seven years later we are still together and stronger than ever,” Charlotte says.
Gracie* — New York, New York
In college, Gracie dated someone who went to a different school, about a six-hour drive from her own. Although the couple had strong chemistry, they both had busy schedules, and it was hard to make time between their classes and extracurriculars to talk, let alone to see each other.
After dating for about six months, they decided to call it quits. They’d had miscommunications, and Gracie felt she was always the one doing the long drive to his college, with him rarely visiting hers. Then, he admitted to kissing another person while drunk at a party. “I was devastated after the Skype breakup,” Gracie remembers. “That night at the dining hall, while I was venting to my friends, they encouraged me to go out and hook up with someone else to get over him. I’d never had a one-night stand before, but it seemed like fun when Samantha did it on Sex & The City.” So, that weekend, she put on her favorite pair of jeans, went out, and flirted with a football player she’d seen around campus before. They left together, and she found herself on top of him in a bunk bed in his dorm. “It was sloppy, drunk sex that just made me long for my ex,” she says.
Two days later, she was still trying to shake off the deflated feeling the one-night-stand and the breakup had given her, when there was a knock at her own dorm room door. It was her ex, who had come to apologize and get back together. Gracie says the choice felt easy then: She accepted his apology, and soon enough the two were having make-up sex. Afterward, though, her boyfriend asked her a question that felt like a punch in the gut: “Why do you have scratches on your back?”
Gracie suspected the marks were from her hook up, but said they must have happened during choir practice. “I said that during vocal warm-ups, we all massaged each other and beat each others’ backs while chanting and doing scales or whatever,” she remembers, with a nervous laugh. “I said that the person I stood by happened to have long, manicured nails. It was a terrible lie, but he at least pretended to believe it.”
The couple dated for a few more months. But the distance and their trust issues continued to plague them. “It became one of those things where I was constantly checking to see who his ‘best friends’ on Snapchat were and being suspicious when a girl’s name popped up,” she says. “It got to be toxic, and even though, in person, I felt so supported and loved by him, it was hard for the affirmation and affection to translate through Skype and by phone. Ending things was so hard and it took me most of college to get over it.”
In hindsight, Gracie sees the relationship as a learning experience. “I know now that, when going long-distance and in general, it’s smart to set realistic expectations from the outset,” she says. “Looking back, I was a little worried about cheating, even before the kiss, and I wish I would have said before we went long-distance that I was concerned we’d be tempted by other people, so we could come up with a plan and talk about what we’d do if we were,” she says. “And then, once the kiss did happen, I wish I’d asked more follow-up questions about how it occurred and what was going through his mind when he did it, so I could have better understood whether I could trust him going forward. I guess it’s true that communication really is key.”
Julie Teffeteller and her husband spent around three of the 15 years they’ve been together long-distance, due to her partner’s military training and deployments.
“Our biggest struggle with long-distance was feeling like we were living parallel lives,” she says. “When you're not physically present with the other person, you lose the ability to see the same people, go to the same places, and have the same experiences. It's easy to fall out of touch with what's happening in their world, and it's difficult to convey an entire day's worth of events in an evening conversation.”
But the two found ways to stay immersed in each others’ days. “It's the little things that have a big impact,” she says. “We used quick emails, texts, photos, and videos to make quick connection points throughout the day so that we were still fully immersed in each other's lives.” This helped them maintain a feeling of togetherness and emotional intimacy.
“One of my favorite examples was my husband sending me pictures of a snow dusting they had in Afghanistan — I never would have thought it would snow there,” Julie says. “He even sent me the cutest picture of him with a mini snowman.”
They also sent themed care packages to each other: They did a birthday box, a self-care box, and even a banana-themed box, which included Snack Pack banana cream pie pudding cups, the Bananagrams game, a “Cruel Summer” by Bananarama mix CD, and a small stuffed monkey that was one of their son's favorite toys as a baby. “They're basically the 3D version of a really amazing love letter,” Julie says. “The process allows you to put a lot of daily thought into the relationship and demonstrate that thoughtfulness to your partner in a very tangible way. It also builds excitement and anticipation between you while you wait for those care packages to arrive.”
The two are still together, and say the distance had a “positive and lasting” impact on the way they communicate. “When I couldn't rely on all the non-verbals, I had to be much more direct with my words and much more present with my listening skills,” Julie says. “I still use these habits in my marriage today.”
Genesis met her current partner when he commented on one of her TikTok videos after she came up on his For You page. Funnily enough, the post was about “encouraging people to move on from their breakups and to focus on themselves.” She was charmed by his comment and responded, and soon he was DM'ing her. The DMs became texts, then daily FaceTime calls, and before she knew it, she was flying to New Jersey to meet him in person.
“My mom thought I was crazy, but she made sure to FaceTime him beforehand as well to make sure I was safe,” Genesis says. “When I was on my way there, I was talking to my Uber driver about what was going on and he said he was nervous for me.” But luckily, the second they met it was “like we had known each other for ages.” “He said the first thing he noticed was how much shorter I was than he had imagined,” she adds.
Although they’re both juggling work and school, Genesis and her partner “always make sure we talk at the end of the day and we both encourage each other to go to the gym or study or work when we're feeling down,” she says. “Sometimes we FaceTime without talking while we each do our work so that we feel close to each other. I have some of his shirts and hoodies and sleep with one of his blankets and that makes me feel close to him.” They’re trying to do monthly visits, and have a plan to live in the same city in the future.
Genesis says she knows LDRs often end badly, but she feels confident in hers. “It's cliche, but communication really goes a long way,” she says. “I never feel like I have to question what he's doing because I always feel reassured and cared for — even with him being far away… You don't have to be close by to feel like someone is looking out for you.”
*Names have been changed to protect identities.