it's complicated

The Joys of the Part-Time Long-Distance Relationship

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One night last month, my boyfriend kept me awake all night with his snoring; when I got out of bed, I discovered to find that he had eaten a piece of pizza I’d been saving for breakfast. Frustrated, I packed a bag and headed to the airport.

I wasn’t leaving forever, just four or five days for a work trip, as I do on a regular basis. But it couldn’t have come at a better time: I felt like I was on the verge of a spectacular meltdown over fridge-related boundaries, and here, already built in to my schedule, was the space I needed to avoid it.

My boyfriend and I have somewhat incidentally hit the jackpot: the part-time long-distance relationship. My work requires that I travel often, which helps us maintain independence while also keeping alive that sense of longing that can easily dissipate over a period of years spent sharing a bathroom.

For several days a month, it’s like I’m briefly single again — and it’s wonderful. It’s thrilling to hog the entire hotel bed and bathroom, to make completely unilateral decisions, and to sit alone at a bar, nursing a Manhattan and reading a book. I can take a walk around an unfamiliar city without being dragged into every mall and department store to comparison-shop the price of Japanese towels; on the flip side, I can go into any fancy store I want, touch everything made of cashmere, and not have to worry about how boring it might be for my boyfriend. Or I can completely ignore the fact that I’m in a new place and just order room-service dim sum while watching The Princess Diaries in bed. I can soak in a tub for hours without someone banging on the door of the only bathroom in the house.

If I have one overarching point, then, it’s this: Other people, with their habits and routines, can be really annoying. Especially over the long haul, once the fog of new love diminishes and you start to get a really good look at this imperfect person you’re planning on sticking with.

When I first met my boyfriend, almost seven years ago, we both fell hard and fast, following each other around the globe from Paris to Tel Aviv to Melbourne. We held hands at stoplights while riding bikes, we flew a tiny kite off the back of a moving ship while beaming at each other like total idiots, and we recognized in each other a sense of real partnership that had been absent from our previous relationships.

I still feel this way today. But also, almost once a week, my boyfriend and I will be sitting together on the couch and he’ll ask me to stop chewing with my mouth open. I’m not chewing with my mouth open, I say, I’m just eating almonds and they’re crunchy. My boyfriend will watch my mouth while I chew, as I seal my lips ever tighter, and he still will not believe that anyone could crunch almonds so audibly unless her mouth was open. Then I’ll say something like, Stop monitoring the way I eat almonds, it’s crazy! at which point he usually picks up his book or computer and goes into a different room.

These kinds of dumb minor conflicts get to the heart of what’s always been one of my biggest struggles in long-term relationships: How do you maintain a sense of excitement and gratitude over a long period of time while grappling with routine daily frustrations?

There’s a parallel question here, too, that I’ve grappled with, about how to best preserve a sense of independence while also fostering closeness with another flawed human being with competing values and needs. My boyfriend and I are both strong-willed individuals, and while learning to compromise has been satisfying, it’s also exhausting. And I wonder sometimes if individual identity erodes over time when you submit yourself to a series of compromises, if you eventually start to become less yourself.

By building in a bit of a buffer, I get the chance to be alone and recalibrate what’s important to me. I also get a chance to just really miss my boyfriend’s company. When I’m on the road without him, I have conversations I can’t wait to relay to him. I take pictures of scenes he would find interesting. I buy little souvenirs, like bottles of cheap local liquor or weird snack foods, that I’m certain he would love. After being away for a few days, I find myself affectionately running my hand over the empty side of the hotel bed.

When I get home from my trips, my boyfriend and our dog always greet me at the door. Over cocktails or glasses of red wine, we sink into the couch and cheerfully talk over each other in our eagerness to catch up and explain what the other person missed. And usually, when I later go to put my clothes in the washing machine, I find that one of the things I missed includes the fact that some useless item like a portable shawarma machine (“a steal at $20!”) now apparently belongs to us, and lives on my side of the room.

But I don’t really care about that last part, to be honest. I’m just happy to be home.

The Joys of the Part-Time Long-Distance Relationship