Welcome to the Vitruvian Life, NR’s weekly advice column for young conservatives in the modern world. Send in your questions about living a balanced, virtuous life: mind, body, and soul. Include your name (anonymous or not), and town in an email to Vitruvian.Life@nationalreview.com. Questions might be lightly edited for publication, but they’ll never be made up.
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I’m going to try something soon that everyone I know is saying has a low chance of success: a long-distance relationship. I’m moving to the East Coast this fall for college, and my boyfriend is staying in California for school. We’ve known each other since we were little kids, and he’s my best friend, but we only started dating last summer. How can we make this work?
Rachel E., San Mateo, Calif.
Rachel, to hell with the cynics. It may be true that surveys show that a majority of long-distance romances fail, but there’s no reason to assume that yours will end in heartbreak. Just never let yourself think that love will be easy, convenient, or without sacrifice.
As Lysander tells his beloved, “The course of true love never did run smooth.”
Our modern, satisfaction-immediately culture preaches that if we can’t get what we want pronto, then it’s just not worth it. But true love isn’t a quick-blooming flower. It’s a sturdy tree that has been watered and grown and pruned over years. Good things take time.
Our great-great-grandparents would have been nonplussed by the thought of a two- or three-month absence from their partners. Indeed, in an earlier age, sailors, merchants, students, soldiers, and many other kinds of people were forced to spend long periods away from home on account of the simple fact that it took much longer to get anywhere. Add in the lack of instant communication, and we moderns may well wonder, How did they do that?
They did it with patience.
The qualities necessary for a successful long-distance relationship aren’t anything special. In fact, they’re exactly the same as those required for a successful normal, “local” relationship. All that’s needed is the greatest virtue: love.
“Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude,” Saint Paul tells us. “It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.”
If you and your boyfriend want to give this a shot, don’t let anyone talk you out of it. That description of love, from Saint Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, is in itself a pretty good game plan of what you’ll need. Follow that, and you’ll be fine. But here are a few more specific suggestions.
First, set the ground rules and expectations for your relationship. Go on a long walk in the park and talk about the difficulties you envision, the hardships you foresee, and how you’d like to address them. Write it all down in a notebook the two of you can share. The worst thing you can do is build your relationship on a foundation of misunderstandings: He thinks you’ll travel home once a month, but you’re only planning on coming home at Thanksgiving and Christmas. He thinks you plan to transfer back west in a year if you’re still together, but you don’t have that intention. Misunderstandings can breed distrust, and distrust can doom a friendship, let alone a romance.
Now, I don’t recommend that you attempt to keep each other apprised of a detailed plan for each and every day. You shouldn’t need to know exactly where your boyfriend is at any given moment. Would you have that information if you lived in the same town? Probably not. Therefore, it doesn’t make sense to expect that, on opposite sides of North America, you’ll have his GPS coordinates. Be flexible, be trusting, and be open.
Perhaps the most important expectation to get on the same page about is communication. I can speak from experience here and recommend that you avoid setting a standard nightly, lengthy phone or video call. Your evenings in college are prime time for studying, building friendships with roommates, and spontaneous adventures. You’ll likely never have another period in your entire life when so many friends are in such close proximity and available for hanging out at basically any time.
To take full advantage of that, you don’t want a nightly appointment that you’ll inevitably feel guilty about breaking. Besides, the nightly call can, because of its generic nature, turn into a “How was your day? / It was fine. / How about yours?” slog.
Instead, reserve one (weeknight) evening per week, to catch up for an hour or so. Leave your weekends for your in-person friends. Check in with texts, gifs, and memes on your other days, but keep it light.
You might feel awkward at first, but I can’t recommend taking up letter-writing highly enough for a long-distance romance. The act of sitting down and writing a letter, sticking a stamp on it, and then snail-mailing it across the continent will add gravity and a human touch to your communication. Write a letter per week — and carry his most recent note with you wherever you go. Instead of a cold, impersonal email or dorm-room phone call, your letter writing will give you time to delve deep and get to fully know each other. “More than kisses,” John Donne, the English poet, wrote, “letters mingle souls.”
Best of all, Rachel, you get to keep your letters. They’re real. They’re tokens of remembrance. You can hold them in your hands and think back to where you were when you first read them. Later, when you two are together again, you can sit around and read your old letters, remembering the days of auld lang syne. Try doing that with an old Skype call — you won’t get the same effect.
None of this means that technology can’t be a blessing. Download an app and play a daily word game. Stream a movie and watch it “together.” Share your screen and proofread each other’s term papers. Just don’t let the ease of technology cause you to drift into living through your screen. No amount of technology can replace your partner’s physical presence, so don’t convince yourself that something is wrong when tech doesn’t quite fill that hole in your heart.
Finally, stay honest, stay cheerful, stay kind, stay in love, and schedule something to look forward to where you can be together again, like a visit home or ski trip with friends.
Because, as Dickens wrote, “The pain of parting is nothing to the joy of meeting again.”
Remember to submit your own question about living the Vitruvian Life to Vitruvian.Life@nationalreview.com. See you next week.