I resisted dating my long-time friend for months after it became obvious that we were “a thing” because we were about to graduate from college, and he was moving 12 hours away from me to begin medical school. A long-distance relationship with a medical student? No way, I thought. That sounded like a terrible idea. Eventually, though, I gave in. We dated in person for 10 wonderful days before moving apart until our marriage 20 months later.
We’ve been married the better part of a decade now, and I’m glad the long-distance portion of our relationship is over. It was HARD! But I would do it again in a heartbeat. Here’s a look at how we kept our relationship strong during those months apart and some factors to consider when deciding whether to put your own relationship to the long-distance test during medical school.
How we kept our relationship strong:
• We focused on being digitally “together” in everyday life. Skype and FaceTime were a huge part of our daily existence while we were apart. We hung out regularly while my husband studied, while we ate meals, or when we just had downtime. We even Skyped on occasion when one of us had friends over. I had “met” many of my husband’s classmates before I moved in with him because we had seen each other on video chat.
• We talked regularly. Beyond just being together via video chat, we made an effort to have real conversations on a regular basis. We went through premarital counseling during this time, and being long distance gave us the chance to really talk through issues (finances, kids, relationship with in-laws, career ambitions, etc) before our marriage. Talking “deeply” during our time apart set a healthy precedent for connecting through conversation once we were together in person and talking was no longer the only way we could spend time together.
• We focused on ways to be thoughtful. While you should certainly be thoughtful in any relationship, putting thought into ways to connect is even more important when you spend your days miles apart from your significant other. We tried to find small ways to let the other know we were thinking of them. I made him dozens of freezer meals while he was in class during my visits so he would have quick nutritious meals available; we synced our calendars so we could be aware of what was going on in each other’s daily lives and text encouraging messages; I sent care packages; he sent letters and texts to wish me things like “happy 45 week anniversary!” Constant thoughtful communication helped us feel mentally “together” and built trust.
• We always had our next in-person visit planned. Before saying goodbye at Christmas, he booked plane tickets to visit me at spring break. Before spring break was over, we made plans to go on a beach trip together with my family or for me to use a vacation week to visit him at school. Having the next visit planned meant we never left wondering when we would see each other next and helped build security in the commitment of our relationship.
• We made an effort to be fully open and honest. It can be easy to hide things when you’re not physically present with someone. We made a concerted effort to keep our lives an open book with each other, from work victories and fun times with friends to relationship frustrations and personal struggles. We both knew we could ask each other anything and get an honest response.
Should you consider a long-distance relationship?
In our situation, a long distance relationship worked. It ended in our marriage—when I finally moved and got a job in the city where he lived for school—and we now hardly remember the time we spent apart. But our situation is not everyone’s situation. When looking at your own relationship, how do you know if a long-distance relationship is right for you?
• Do you trust your significant other? Trust can always be broken no matter how trustworthy someone has been previously, but their track record is still a good indicator of future performance. Do you know how they spend their time? Do you ever feel like there are parts of their life they don’t want you to fully know about? Have they broken trust with friends, family, or significant others in the past? Any relationship requires trust, but long distance even more so. If you don’t trust your partner 100%, being physically separate the bulk of the time is a recipe for tension.
• Do you have a definite end date for the long-distance phase of your relationship? I don’t believe long-distance dating is something you should enter into open-ended. Make sure you are in agreement about when you will be in the same city again. Maybe after one of you graduates and is free to move or once you get engaged or married (as in our case).
• Do both parties understand what is involved in medical training? Medical school is no joke. There will be stress, lots of tests, and lots and lots of studying. If one person in the relationship is non-medical, you will need to make sure they understand—as much as is possible before going through it—what the daily life is like as a medical student and how it will change when transitioning from the pre-clinical to the clinical years. My husband was comfortable studying while I was on FaceTime, but others aren’t able to focus that way. The medical partner may not be able to dedicate as much time to the relationship during certain phases of their education (e.g. while preparing for boards or while on busy clinical rotations). If both partners are flexible and have realistic expectations, this doesn’t have to be a problem. But if one partner expects the other to drive a couple of hours so you can spend every weekend together, it may become an issue down the road.
• Do you already know each other well in real life? My husband and I had been close friends for nearly four years when we began dating. We had spent a summer stuck in a 15 passenger van together on a college trip. We knew each other’s quirks and personalities long before we became romantically involved. Dating only long-distance without the chance to find out someone’s in-person reality builds a relationship on a weak foundation.
• Is the relationship serious? The trials of long distance are not worth it if you’re not committed to the relationship for the long haul. You can weather a lot of trouble if you are both fully committed, but if you’re in the “wait and see” stage, I don’t recommend making the long distance jump.
Maintaining a relationship long distance during medical training is challenging, but possible. With some wise forethought, time apart doesn’t have to be the death knell of a relationship, and thankfully modern technology makes it a lot easier than it used to be. My long-distance phase was lonely, frustrating, and painful at times, but in hindsight what I see is a relationship with my husband that became more deeply committed, better at communicating, and more prepared to weather challenges than before our time apart.