I recently walked past some street art in Brooklyn that read in large yellow text: "If you were here, I'd be home now." Feeling at "home" with someone can be a quite common definition of love. I can think of a myriad songs, poems, pieces of art, and even philosophy papers that claim the same thing: Loving someone means feeling completely at home and being completely yourself.
But the person I love lives 3,967 miles and six time zones away.
For the last 10 months, my boyfriend and I have been in a long-distance relationship from Geneva to Bayreuth, Brussels to Boston, and, finally, New York to Berlin. Many people I've met here at Columbia have asked me how a separation like this affects our intimacy and closeness, and if we still "feel at home" with one another. Surprisingly, and somewhat paradoxically, I found that in order to maintain a close connection in a long-distance relationship, the most important thing is letting go.
First and foremost, letting go means accepting and embracing the individual agency of your partner. In my case, it meant accepting that my boyfriend and I both made the choice to go abroad and therefore prioritize our professional and personal growth over our relationship. Accepting this was tough; yet I strongly believe that allowing each other to "get out there" and have new experiences helped us build the strong connection that we have now.
Going abroad and attending Columbia, for example, has been an important experience for me. Since coming here, I've met new people with different views of the world. Whether discussing gender equality and American politics over a couple of beers at 1020 or having an hour-long conversation about Nietzsche with one of my professors—all of these experiences have made me reflect upon the way I want to live my life and the kind of person I want to be. In a sense, they've helped me feel more "at home" with myself.
Sharing these experiences with my boyfriend has only enriched our relationship. I love it when I can call and tell him all about my philosophy paper on Marx's notion of freedom or how I became part of a feminist film club at Barnard. I am often amazed when I hear about all the projects he is involved in and the way he redevelops his perspective on life. Oftentimes, those are the moments I feel closest to him.
Another and equally important part of letting go was to free myself from preconceived ideas of love and perfect romance. One of the most important things I came to realize is that love is not the unambiguous, exclusive thing that Shakespearean sonnets or Hollywood romance blockbusters try to suggest. When my boyfriend moved to Geneva 10 months ago, we had a hard time making our relationship work. We both had doubts about the relationship; we met other people whom we were attracted to, and somehow we felt very alone even though we talked to each other practically every day. Yet we were unable to share our fears and feelings, because we were too scared to admit that we were fallible.
It wasn't until our relationship was close to falling apart that we realized only authenticity and brutal honesty would allow us to maintain closeness in our relationship. However messy and difficult it may be to talk about topics like exclusiveness, jealousy, or doubt, for us, being true to our feelings and letting go of the ideal of a "perfect" romantic relationship was the only way to make long-distance work.
Finally, letting go of the perfect image of love also meant not listening to the advice of others. I often experienced that people can be quick to suggest that the way I lead my relationship is wrong or undesirable or prone to fail. Even in an environment that's as pluralistic and liberal as Columbia's, people seem to be concerned by the idea that my boyfriend and I love each other despite the fact that we have both been with other people over the course of our long-distance relationship.
To be honest, I think most of this concern comes from people trying to protect themselves and their romantic ideals. Many want to believe the limited concept of a romance that is always happy, unambiguous, and never-ending. However, it was important for me to understand that the ideals of others have nothing to do with my own emotional reality. Others can never quite understand my relationship, just as I would not be able to understand theirs.
Given that love is not an unambiguous, predictable thing, I don't want this article to be understood as relationship advice. I'd rather like to think of it as a personal reflection of how these last 10 months have made me think about love. For me, all the frustrating hours on the phone, the doubts, and the messy discussions that come with a long-distance relationship were necessary in order to find that feeling of being completely at home—not only in my relationship, but also in myself.
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