Is Intimacy Possible over Distance?

Updated: Sep 7, 2020

My Girlfriend and I on vacation in Santorini 2019

We've all experienced trying to 'do' distance relationships during 2020, to a greater or lesser degree. Whether that's not being able to visit parents or grandparents for fear of passing on the virus, or not seeing friends because of being away from work or school. For those of us who are (or were) expats, it has been and continues to be especially tough. When at work you might be missing family and friends back home, worrying about their health. When back in your country of residence, you might be more isolated than usual as lock-downs come into effect.

I left Hong Kong in June 2020, to return to the U.K to be around my family. Nothing like a global crisis to help you to re-evaluate life! The downside of this is that I left my long term partner and her family, (who I love like my own) back in Hong Kong. When I told many of my friends this was the plan, they seemed quite horrified- how could I bear to leave my partner like that? Wouldn't it be miserable and awful without her?

Actually, I see this decision as something of an accomplishment in terms of my emotional health. There was a time when I based my whole life around that of my partner, and to make any choices that involved following my own hopes, desires and dreams without them, was unthinkable.

At one time, I had a whole marriage based upon a needy attachment to a partner who was also unhealthy. This manifested in controlling behaviours on both sides. I allowed myself to stay in the relationship because at the time, I didn't know any better. Thankfully, after six years of therapy, I now know better, and I have an understanding of the dynamics of a healthy relationship.

In my current relationship, we have both worked hard building a shared emotional space that allows us both the freedom to be who we are and to go for what we want in life. We are mutually supportive. We argue, but we do it by following some rules of constructive communication, and we never shout or call each other names. We still annoy the hell out of each other sometimes, but we're human- that is part of life. In couples therapy, we have learned to communicate in a way that is conscious and allows us to express our real thoughts and emotions, and problem solve constructively without hurting each other.

So our latest challenge, trying to create intimacy over a long distance, is one we planned for. When I use the word intimacy, I want to clarify that I'm not just talking about sex. Intimacy means into me, see and applies to platonic relationships, not just sexual relationships. Intimacy is about how we create a sense of closeness and emotional availability with those we share friendship, or kinship. It is about holding space for another in your life, so they feel fully seen, heard and understood by you. It is about trying to understand their perspective, showing empathy towards them, and being supportive without trying solve their problems for them.

We discussed our expectations of each other and went over the following considerations, before I left the country:

1.How often we would communicate

2.How we would communicate e.g. text, video or audio

3.What platform/s we would use to talk e.g. Zoom, Facetime, Whatsapp.

4.Coming up with a list of things we could do over the phone to involve each other in our day to day lives e.g. playing board/video games together online, reading to each other, sitting down for meals together, taking walks in the park together, sending each other photos of what we've been doing that day/week.

5. Planning dates for visits to see each other and adding them to the calendar before leaving. (This is key for keeping up morale when you really start missing each other.)

6. We even outlined a 'relationship manifesto,' which involved each listing ten essential qualities/behaviours that we wanted in the relationship and how we would demonstrate them. We shared our lists and combined them to form an 'agreement' of our shared values, to keep us both on track whilst far apart.

7. Deciding how we would communicate a feeling of emotional distance if it occurred and how we might behave to re-establish a sense of connection with each other.

There were more techniques we used, and I'd be happy to share them if any of you are about to embark upon your own long distance stint in your relationship. So far, I am glad we laid all of that groundwork because it has been very helpful. The only thing which is difficult with Covid, is the idea of the interim vacation to see each other. The quarantine restrictions have meant that my partner can't take the amount of time off work required to be able to come and see me. She wants me to visit Hong Kong, but I don't want to risk spending two weeks tagged in a government quarantine facility. So, we are finding it unlikely we'll get to see each other again this year. Which is hard. I started writing this blog post today because I am really missing her and feel quite glum about the whole situation.

We are not the only people going through this, and my heart goes out to everyone who is missing holding a loved one right now. It sucks. My partner and I are at least healthy and have enough resources, so we don't have the added pressure of not knowing how we're going to pay our rent or utility bills. There are so many added external pressures for us all at the moment, which means we need our support networks more than ever.

To help me through the days when I am missing my partner, I have a few tools to help me. I talk with her over video and share how I'm missing her. I make sure I tell my family how I'm feeling, and get some hugs. I go out for a walk in the countryside and listen to upbeat music. I choose a yoga kriya (system of movements) that is designed to uplift and open the heart centre and I meditate, which allows the heavy energy to rise and release. This is a much healthier coping mechanism than drinking or trying to distract myself/repress my feelings.

They say you have to feel it to heal it. This is true. Distraction and repression only gets you so far, before eventually all of those stuffed down feelings build up and cause physical and mental health problems. I say this as someone who once spent a lifetime attempting to avoid emotions. Just for today, I'm sad I can't be with my partner, but grateful for the security I do have in my life. I believe intimacy is possible over distance, but it takes much more care to stay open and available for each other, especially on the days when it feels easier to mentally push them away in a misguided attempt to avoid the pain. Sending love and best wishes to everyone out there struggling with this at the moment.

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