The Displaced Nation

A home for international creatives

A newly arrived expat in Boston asks: Is distance really the antidote to romance?

James_Murray_DisplacedToday, we welcome guest blogger James Murray to The Displaced Nation. Originally from East Sussex, UK, James “recently arrived in Boston, Massachusetts, with a half-written book, a smattering of web design skills and a utopian vision that will probably never change the world.” He’s here for his partner, Ash, who is American (although few people think of her that way). Though he doesn’t really label himself a traveler, his displacement is “likely to verge on the permanent.”

I’m finally here in America. After the best part of a year living in separate countries, my partner and I are finally married — which I suppose makes her my wife. The word doesn’t sit well — we have a pretty equal relationship, where the terms ‘husband’ and ‘wife’ seem to imply a structure; a certain assignment of roles. In a husband-and-wife relationship, you can make a guess as to who does the cooking and cleaning; but in a relationship of two partners there are no preconceptions (apart from the one that you might be gay).

But the labels of husband and wife are just one of a number of areas where the typical encapsulation of a relationship differs from the reality.

For around eight months I’d been sitting in limbo over the other side of the Atlantic, fidgeting around with various projects and living in various temporary places — it’s been okay, but I’ve just wanted to get settled for a bit. My partner, Ash, visited a few times, but those occasions weren’t what you would think.

The old airport reunion kiss

In particular, there’s a fault with the ‘airport reunion kiss’ — that little run-up, the unseen orchestra with its musical swell and the big hug and the big kiss between two people who have spent so much time apart. I want to blame Hollywood, but I simply couldn’t find an example of this happening in a movie, so I think it must just be hard-wired into the human mind — that this is simply how it happens, a tempestuous embrace with no doubts and no awkwardness.

It doesn’t work like that. Certainly we kissed at the airport, but after months apart, living our separate lives, we couldn’t quite get our heads around who this other person was. Logically, you know, you could recite details about this person — their likes and dislikes; their beliefs; their habits; but there are memories that are harder to keep.

For instance, how do you remember what it feels like to kiss your partner? How do you remember their smell or a particular look they might give you? There are things that, once they’re not physically there in front of you, just disappear, so when you finally see them again after a long separation, it’s a shock. Not a bad shock, but it’s not comfortable yet — you have to re-acclimatise.

Ash and I found that meeting again after our first three months apart, it actually took about a week for this to happen. Which means that when your partner comes to stay with you for ten days, you’re finally re-discovering your groove when you’re just about to say good-bye again.

Doubt — nothing wrong with that!

Lots of expats know what it’s like to have a long distance relationship — for many that’s the reason they’re expats; but I think we’re badly served by the standard story of long-distance romance and reunion. Who’s talking about the difficulties of keeping the faith throughout doubts and the regular tribulations of a normal life?

It’s hard to discuss doubt sometimes — it’s seen as a sign of weakness, a sign that you don’t love the person you’ve committed yourself to. It’s not — it’s perfectly normal (and it’s normal even if your partner is actually in the same country).

Everyone has doubts and it’s really the failure to acknowledge them that leads to problems. About the least supportive thing I ever said on the phone to Ash was that I had ‘absolute faith’ in our relationship. I wasn’t saying it meanly, but I had essentially raised the bar for our relationship impossibly high — nobody has absolute faith, especially when faced with the unknowns of long distance.

If you have doubts and the other person has absolute faith, who do you turn to? It makes it hard to discuss or even acknowledge those doubts — and you should discuss them if you want to resolve them. Absolute faith is the trump card that ends the conversation, and potentially the relationship, but it’s so often just assumed.

Creatures of the moment?

The funny thing is that now that I’m here and we’ve got used to each other again, it’s as hard to remember the separated life of the past year as it once was to picture living here with Ash.

I think that more than we’d care to admit it, we really are creatures of the moment — what matters is now. Committing to the future is vague and riddled with doubt; the past is foggy and easily forgotten. What carries us through is faith rather than emotion — a faith based on the knowledge that at some point in the past you felt strongly enough to say ‘let’s get married’. You have to trust that knowledge long after you’ve forgotten how exactly you felt at the time.

If what I’m describing sounds peculiar, that’s only because these aren’t the terms we’re usually given to describe our relationships — because the language of romance is a language of absolutes; because to question the titles of ‘husband’ and ‘wife’ seems tantamount to saying you aren’t ready to be one.

There isn’t just one experience of a relationship — no single narrative that applies to everybody; but that’s how it often feels.

So for all the people with doubts — the people who aren’t in a Hollywood romance, but are in love just the same; the people for whom the happiest day of their lives will probably not be the day they got married (or even the birth of their first child) — I think we can still count ourselves as romantics — especially after moving continents (twice in my case) to be with our loved ones.

* * *

Readers, what are your thoughts on long-distance relationships? Does distance lend enchantment to the view, or is it a case of “out of sight, out of mind”?

Check out James’s own blog at quaintjames.com

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Image: James looking vaguely itinerant in his bike helmet.

STAY TUNED for Thursday’s post!

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2 responses to “A newly arrived expat in Boston asks: Is distance really the antidote to romance?

  1. andyhpmartin January 4, 2013 at 8:30 am

    As a Brit who was in a long-distance relationship with a Brazilian (we are now married and currently living in Brazil) much of what you say very much rings true with our own experiences. Eloquently put!

  2. James Murray January 7, 2013 at 4:29 pm

    Thank you. It was only really after talking to someone who has similar experiences that I realised I should put it down on paper. I think there are more of us than we imagine!

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