One of the most painful aspects of working abroad is leaving behind loved ones back home or being separated from a newly-found loved one because of a transfer of assignment. Naturally, couples stay in touch by post and telephone. Each will feel a rush of excitement at every letter or phone call. At the first opportunity, a holiday or business trip becomes a chance to see each other again.
Yet many people in this situation will return from a holiday reunion feeling awkward and unsure. This can be demoralizing and depressing. But if long-distance couples know what to expect, and are honest and realistic, a relationship can survive the separation of both time and distance.
“We are now engaged and yet I feel I don’t really know him anymore,” May sighs.
May and John are in their late twenties, both expatriates with promising careers. They met while both were posted in Tokyo and fell passionately in love. Eight months later, John was transferred back to Canada. During the following nine months they were in close contact through love letters and phone calls. Eventually May took two weeks off to visit her sweetheart.
May returned from the visit feeling unsure about the relationship and therefore sought counseling.
“We didn’t fight or anything and yet I feel depressed. Something seems missing inside me,” May explained. She complained that John “wasn’t as sensitive, loving and witty” as he presented himself in his letters and she wonders what went wrong with their relationship.
May is disappointed that John seems to be different from what she thought he was. In a long-distance relationship, it is not easy for a person to have an objective view of the other. Without the presence of the other person, we can only grasp hold of an image in our memories. People have a natural tendency to remember only the good times and the best qualities of a loved one, which makes us miss that person even more. Differences and arguments are long forgotten.
In addition, the love letters and sweet phone conversations reconfirm the “perfect” image of the absentee. We reinforce this by fantasizing or projecting an idealized image onto the person without even realizing it. Inevitably, some unreal assumptions about each other take hold. When this carries on long enough without clarification, it is no wonder two people will think each other different from several months before.
For May and John, the long distance restricts them from being in touch with each other’s personal growth. Letters and phone calls can only provide limited exchanges of feelings and thinking. Often, feelings expressed in letters have been filtered or hyperbolized. Postal delays also rule out a natural response from the writer. Issues between them can be discussed only up to a certain level.
The long separation, loneliness. and longing for John’s company brought out a lot of expectations for the two-week visit, in which everything was to be wonderful.
Couples in John and May’s situation naturally feel pressured by the brevity of their visit together. The excitement of seeing each other again and their wanting to give each other a good impression can easily make them unconsciously avoid airing their differences, let alone voicing any critical comments or disagreement. They may purposely avoid conflicts or fights in order not to spoil the brief happy time together.
In fact, this is a crucial time to catch up with each other, for direct and honest dialogue which will help them to gain a better understanding of each other’s changed values and expectations. Further discussion of issues that they were unable to discuss at length either in letters or phone conversations is essential.
During the visit, May realized that John was different from the image she had formulated. The contrast between the real person and the idealized image was something which May found hard to accept. She felt cheated and resentful that she had saved herself so long for this “ideal” guy.
The bitterness of investing so much of her time, energy and resources in this relationship causes tremendous anger in her. All her dreams of having a compatible future partner have been shattered. She grieves for the “loss” of her idealized John. All she sees is that the person she supposedly was in love with for the last year and a half turned out to be a stranger to her.
As for the future of their relationship, instead of denying the problem or breaking up, May needs to deal with it more constructively, by openly communicating with John and honestly discussing their feelings and differences. Only then can they rationally make any future commitments.
Regardless of the obstacles in a long-distance relationship, many people still find it rewarding. It is likely to be successful if people are especially sensitive to issues of expectations and idealization. Both must be willing to accept their separate personal growth, give time to understand each other’s values and thinking, and to honestly discuss both positive and negative feelings between them. Premarital counseling, from their clergy member or a qualified counselor will help the couple to objectively clarify their similarities and differences, set realistic expectations, and prepare themselves for a happy life together.
Dr. Cathy Tsang-Feign is a Hong Kong-based psychologist and author of the book Keep Your Life, Family and Career Intact While Living Abroad. She is the former columnist for the South China Morning Post and American in Britain on topics of psychology and adjustment for expatriates and their families.