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Dawn J. Lipthrott, LCSW
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By Dawn J. Lipthrott, LCSW

Building better relationships when you are apart often presents challenges, but there are little things you each can do that help strengthen your love and your relationship as a whole. You may not be able to do all of them, or may need to adapt, but be creative and focus on connection and ways to feel connected and to let your partner know that you are thinking of him/her.

•  Use Skype or Facetime to connect face to face when you can.

• Create rituals or things you do at a certain time -- so you can both do them together or think of your partner doing them. For example, at noon each day, you will take a moment and just think about how much your love your partner and send them wishes of love. If you both do it, it feels more connecting. Or, if you usually go to bed at a certain time, think of your partner at his or her bedtime, imagine them going through their routine and wish something for them or for you as a couple. When you talk, you can share a few of the wishes you've made.

Whether you talk by telephone, e-mail, written letters, or video:

•   Talk about your future together.  What kind of relationship/marriage do you want to create together?   What kind of person do you each want to be as human beings in the world?   What kind of partner do you want to be/become?

•   Make time for each of you talk about your thoughts, feelings about what’s happening in your life (including being apart!).  Don’t say only what happened in the day, although that’s important, but try to tell how it affected you inside. What did you tell yourself about the event or issue. What was it like for you?   Practice letting your partner see into you, into your experiences through words.  (This is actually one of the benefits of long distance!)

• Practice listening and being fully present. Instead of trying to multi-task while you are on the phone, focus your whole attention on your partner with curiosity about what he or she has experienced, his or her concerns, fears, hopes, dreams, ideas. Listen for emotion in the person's voice. Listen for themes. Listen for what he or she seems to avoid. Listen as if it is the very first time you have met. From time to time, see if you can summarize what you have heards.

•   When you have those times of exams, work project due, crunch time, etc., let your partner know that you are up against a deadline . . . . but ALSO say when you will get back to him or her  (Like, “I’m going to be swamped the next 3 days finishing my project/case, so you may not hear from me – but that doesn’t mean I won’t be thinking of you.  I will call you on . . . . .”   Then, if you can’t, at least send an e-mail or text message ahead of time to explain that you can’t and say again when you will.

• If you are super-busy or don't have privacy, let your partner know that you only have a specific amount of time to talk right now (10 minutes, 5 minutes, 1 hour, etc.) -- but if you have to cut it short, let him or her know when you will be able to talk longer. Even if you don't have much to say, be curious about what's going on for your partner, what she or he is interested in and why. And yes, learning to listen also means listening to topics you aren't really interested in, but staying present and curious about why it is important to your partner and how it affects him or her.

•   One suggestion I saw was to find one of the video games (or chess) you can play online without being in the same place. There are also apps for your phone, iPad or other tablet that you can play together. It’s a way to have fun, and also sometimes to chat while you’re doing it.

•   Every now and then, tell or e-mail something you love or appreciate about your partner and why.  Tell them what touches you about that quality or behavior.

•   If you have a sexual relationship with your partner, find creative ways to play with that on the phone, e-mail, or even Skype or Facetime, if possible.  First make an agreement to keep it just between the two of you so it is safe and you don’t have to worry about your partner sharing sexy e-mails or photos with others. Talk about the boundaries you each want before you do anything like that. Playing by telephone is usually the safest if either of you has privacy concerns.

•   Listen for things your partner wants or likes – if he or she mentions a book or a CD they heard about, write it down and send it as a surprise.  Keep an ongoing list of ‘surprises’ that are things your partner has said they like, want, or want to try.  For example, if you have a conversation and talk about picnics you had as a kid and how fun that was, plan one for the time when you see each other.

• Send 'care packages' -- something you know your partner enjoys -- a poem, cookies, a drawing (it can be kindergarten level!, a handmade card, a picture of you, etc. If you have children, let them send notes, drawings, etc.

• If you are apart because of military deployment, many of these things can still apply, but it is also important to express some of the range of intense emotions you both have. Sometimes you don't want to go into great depth, but still let your partner know if you are having a hard time and to just think of you more. It is especially challenging to process the stress of war. Some find it easier to write. Some days you want to say more and some days you don't want to say much of anything. Help your partner be with you and understand by helping him/her understand. It's easy to say 'you don't understand' -- and you're probably right, but you can HELP them understand at least partially.

•   Find ways to do fun little things.  For example, there are websites where you can send a photo of yourself or the two of you together and have it made into a puzzle which you can send.

•   Another thing I read once is to find ways to do the same thing at the same time, even though you are apart.  For example, pick a movie you both have wanted to see, each of you go to the movies as close to the same time as you can (or rent it and agree to watch it ‘together’ and then call after and talk about it. Or have your own 'book club' or even discuss an article.

•   Be creative in ways to let your partner know how much you love him/her, that you are thinking of him/her, and that you are dreaming of spending your life together (if you are!)

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© Dawn Lipthrott, The Relationship Learning Center, 2008, Renewed

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