Photo: Charles Yao

Love the one you’re without

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By Shanti Zachariah

Ana Ramirez smiles and blushes. The 21-year-old student is talking about the day she met her boyfriend Jose on a beach in Mexico. “My friend and I were hanging out and he and a friend came up to us,” she begins. “He told me he was studying German and I love languages, so we just talked for like, three hours. Right there I knew I wanted him,” she sighs. “That was in December ‘96. The next time I saw him was June of ‘97.”

Ramirez talks with a mixture of wonder and sobriety. The wonder is natural for anyone who has fallen in love. For Ramirez, so is the sober outlook. Her and her boyfriend must carry on their relationship thousands of kilometres apart from each other. In the last year they have seen each other only once, when Ramirez went to Mexico for the summer.

The big question for people in long distance relationships is not so much why they stay together — they’re in love, that’s why. The question is how to maintain their love across provinces, countries and time zones.

Ramirez and her boyfriend are apart because of school. She’s in Toronto for photography at Ontario College of Art and Design. He’s in Mexico for math and computers. “In this world, he doesn’t exist,” says Ramirez. “Here I have my friends and my school. But, I’d rather be in his world. Nothing compares to what I feel for this guy.”

In long distance relationships, each partner must balance their everyday lives of school, work and friends with a lover they rarely see. Long distance relationships are a sign of the times. Among twenty somethings there is increased mobility. Men and women work abroad for a summer, a year or longer. Gone are the days when people could be assured of finding the job they want in the town they want.

These are the realities that make the love lives of people in long distance relationships an everyday struggle. “If a relationship is going to survive, you’ve got to believe that what’s good for you and me is going to be good for us,” says Trevor Grace. Grace was separated from his girlfriend, Gaby Bright, for two years while he taught English in Japan. Previous to that, the two had been living in Toronto. Grace, who has degrees in film and English, was working at a coffee shop.

“I was miserable,” he recalls. “We were living in this terrible little apartment. I didn’t think twice about saying yes [to teaching in Japan]. When you’re unhappy with your job, your feelings spill into other things. Gaby and I got the sense that we have to be happy in our own lives. You can’t just give up your life. You can’t say ‘oh well, I’ll just settle.’”

Finding fulfilling work that pays the bills is as important to many people as finding someone they love. Moving away from a partner because of a career opportunity may seem like you are choosing the job over the person. The fact people choose to stay in a relationship even though their job takes them away from their partner is proof they consider both aspects of their lives major priorities and want to try to balance them. As well, putting a job “before” a relationship may be a short term necessity for the relationship’s long term survival.

Jason Brennan chose this situation for himself. The 27-year-old from Manitoba works in marketing in Toronto. His girlfriend, Donna Sirkosky, goes to university in Alberta.

“When I got transferred [from Manitoba] and promoted there wasn’t a lot of time to think about the separation,” he says. “For those first couple of months, the relationship was secondary and I was comfortable with that.” Brennan feels he and Sirkosky have benefitted from their almost two years apart.

“I think we’ve both grown in our separation as individuals,” he says. “The separation wasn’t necessarily a bad thing. The space was force upon us, and we were able to explore things individually and take on new challenges.”

Toronto psychologist Dr. Barbara Killenger counsels couples. “To find your independence is something you have to battle out in yourself,” she says. “The healthiest relationships are between two independent people.”

Once the couple have established their long distance love, a persistent question from friends is “What about the sex?”

Well, you don’t get any. At least not at convenient, comfortable intervals. Maybe people living away from their beloved think a lot more about sex and think about it with a lot more gusto. But there’s not much the couple can do to replace the physical intimacy of sex.

When the two people do manage to get together, their sex life seldom tires.

“With us, it’s just not sex. I feel love with him,” says Ramirez. “Every time we make love, it’s beautiful.”

“Not being able to have sex does make out times together more intense,” says Brennan. “The sex truly becomes an expression of our desire to be together.”

The sex can become too much, says Brennan.

“Over the past couple of years, we’ve had times when we’ve only had a couple of days together. And then sex can almost smother our time together. It can almost overpower us. Afterwards it can be a big let down because we haven’t really talked much.”

Always being apart means having to find other ways to funnel their secual energy into the relationship. “True sexuality comes in many different forms,” says Dr. Killenger. “Anything that’s about giving can be sexual. So you may not have the physical touch in a long distance relationship but you have the opportunity to give in other ways — to think about the person, write them a letter or send them a gift.”

Small things become important forms of communication for partners far away from each other.

“I’d surprise Gaby with a gift,” says Grace. Once, I told her to take $1,000 out of my account and come to Japan. She thought that was pretty romantic.”

Romance can be hard when it’s hard to even communicate. Telephone calls and letter-writing take on a whole new significance. Email become a lifesaver. “The communication we had for the first year was awkward,” recalls Grace. “There was this pressure on us to have some kind of telephone intercourse.” Grace says after the first year, him and Gaby got email, which made “talking” easier.

Even with all the trying, it doesn’t always work out. Tom Monastyriski met his now ex-girlfriend, Ann, in Belgium. They both came back to Canada to live together for a year. “At one point, we had talked about moving to Belgium, but then I got offered the job of a lifetime in Ottawa,” he recalls. “She wanted to move to Canada permanently but I didn’t want her to do that and have to take a two-bit job. She thought there had to be some kind of sacrifice but I wasn’t ready to do that. I wasn’t going to move to Belgium to become a pizza delivery boy.”

For those whose long distance love does survive, there is a sense the present state of affairs is part of an investment for the longevity of the relationship. Even if the time apart is indefinite, there is often a focus on the future together.

“Gaby and I talk about all these possibilities,” says Grace. “There may be hard times ahead but we have these vague ambitions. We want to see the world. We know we’ll be together, but it’s wide open. We need to do these things and there may be times when we can’t be together.”

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