Thursday, February 26, 2009

LD Taxonomy

It seems that I am, again, in a long-distance relationship.

I won't go into the particulars right now, but it's got me thinking about the long-distance relationship as a phenomenon and wondering whether there's a taxonomy that we can hammer out.

The long-distance relationship is, of course, a hazard of academic life. And while I suspect that such relationships are increasingly common among highly-educated and ambitious people in all fields, for those in other professions the long-distance phase seems either to happen earlier (in terms of the partners' ages or the age of their relationship) or is understood to be just that: a phase. Time-limited. Lasting only until the one partner finishes her residency or clerkship or finds a job in the other partner's city; until the kids finish out their school year; until an aging parent recovers from surgery. Now, I've never known an academic who thinks of his or her long-distance relationship as permanent, but it's often indefinite.

The reasons are obvious: grad school delays adulthood in significant ways; the job market plunks one down any old place and expects one to be happy with it; not all college towns--even very appealing college towns--have viable employment options for one's partner. Personally, I'm delighted by my job and my city, and I've made quite a lot of good friends here. Almost without exception, though, my local friends are other academics--and almost all of us have been in long-distance relationships at one point or another since arriving here. In my world, that's normal.

But although I've never regarded long-distance relationships as undoable, it occurs to me that I've long had a calculus for just how doable such relationships are. The breakdown seems to work something like this:
Category One: 2-3 hours apart, door-to-door, by car or public transportation. To me, this hardly counts as long-distance; it may be too far to live together seven days a week, but it's plenty close enough for the partners to spend every weekend together. (In other words? Jackpot!)

Category Two: 3-6 hours apart, door-to-door, whether by car or a single easy flight or train ride (i.e., no transfers or layovers). Both my current and my previous long-distance relationships fall into this category, and in my experience it is--in the words of a grad school classmate and veteran Amtrak warrior--very not bad.

Category Three: More than 6 hours apart, by whatever means of transportation. This category obviously contains relationships of vastly different degrees of difficulty--a New York/San Francisco relationship, between which there are regular nonstop flights, is surely easier than small-town Pennsylvania to small-town Missouri, even though the mileage between the former is much greater than between the latter--and individual tolerance for certain kinds of distance and certain kinds of travel varies. But to me, 6+ hours is the definition of long-distance.
But these categories are based on my experience, and my ability to imagine relationships of significantly greater or lesser distance is limited to that experience; as hard as it may be for me to conceive of starting something up with a dude in Sacramento, I've had friends who have spent years in transcontinental relationships and who haven't seemed significantly more or less happy than my friends only a few hours away from their partners. Maybe it has to do with temperament, or maybe anything is capable of being routinized and made bearable--or at least no more unbearable than any other long-distance relationship.

If you've been in such relationship(s) yourself, how would you expand or emend my taxonomy?

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ETA: in response to the awesome comments thread, I've edited the above taxonomy slightly to take time-zone differences into account. The emended version can be found late in the thread.

26 comments:

Renaissance Girl said...

I'm in the 6+ category, unless we take the one nonstop flight per day each way (not conveniently timed). It sucks. But weirdly, it's WAY more doable than my marriage, in which I lived with my spouse. I've found that Neruda and I communicate better than I've ever done w/ anyone before. In part because we've been friends forever and have that long habit. But in part because a large part of our relationship is done over the phone, with occasional and blessed stints of togetherness. It's the closest relationship I've ever had, regardless of the commute. Having said all that, I want him HERE, as soon as it becomes job-marketly possible.

Steven said...

I like the taxonomy,but I think the 6+ hour category needs more differentiation--I found an Ann Arbor-Seattle relationship significantly easier than a New Orleans-London relationship. In part it's because 7 hours door-to-door plus three hours' jetlag is lot easier than 15 hours plus five hours' jetlag. But it's also because the five-hours time difference made talking on the phone *much* harder. Phone calls are incredibly important.

Now I'm actually living in London, but my partner's in Malaysia for five months. The eight-hour time difference is awful!

bitternsweet said...

And I do think you need a category for the indefinite LD status. I've got several colleagues who appear to be settled in for the long haul. In one case, they own two homes -- one here and one there -- and have been doing the LD slog for YEARS. I think only retirement will change it. And, as strange as it seems to me, they appear to be prefectly content with the arrangement.

Moria said...

I think my taxonomy would be about psychic space rather than the logistics of distance.

Someone posted not long ago with an injunction to "date local," for a lot of the same reasons we're supposed to eat local. Long-distance relationships tend to remove a person's investments at least partially from hir immediate surroundings, ze spends a lot of money and other resources on travel, ze rarely has a weekend to spend at home or with hir home-friends, hir mind is always at least partially elsewhere. It can corrode communities, or disrupt them. I like my friends' long-distance boyfriends a great deal, but when they suddenly plonk into our circle from outer space it's disorienting for us and for them.

So mine would be something like your first category against all others.


That said, some people seem to make it work. A famous pair is split between my institution and one fiveish hours north of here. They could have jobs together with almost no effort; they choose the split and the sharing. They seem happy. Who knows.

Oh, and a caveat that must be worked into any taxonomy: If you have children, you're screwed.

Doctor Cleveland said...

I think Flavia's basic taxonomy is very useful. I've always tended to think primarily in time zones: a two-hour-difference relationship, a three-hour-time-difference relationship, a transcontinental relationship that can easily involve a five or six or eight time zone gap. Partly this is a proxy for travel time (although Montreal-to-Miami would still be difficult) but partly a direct measure of the life disruption. Dividing one's psychological life between two locations is a lot harder, I find, when the two locations are on radically different schedules, when your partner's day begins or ends hours later than your own. That pretty much guarantees, for example, that most phone calls cost one partner or the other much more, in practical terms than the other partner: that one partner has to sacrifice work time or reschedule meals or disrupt other socializing in order to have a conversation. Really, it gets much easier when it's 7 o'clock in both places at the same time.

Flavia said...

Steven: oh, it definitely needs more differentiation--that's why I'm turning to those of you who have experienced that category! The time difference as a source of stress hadn't occurred to me, but you and Dr. C seem to be on to something important. When I've been on the west coast at my folks', I sometimes barely speak to my friends or partners on the east coast just because I keep forgetting who's where when, and what time it is.

RG: yes--certain people are the kind of people you can have an LD relationship with, and certain aren't, and for me that has less to do with the distance itself than with the two partners' abilities to communicate in mutually-satisfying ways (to speak the same language, as it were) over the phone, or email, or IM, or whatever.

Moira: I like that formulation, though I'm not sure that I've experienced its social effects in quite the same negative way. That is, it's hard on oneself to have one's psychic energies directed elsewhere, and it's certainly hard to know that one's friends aren't as happy as they might be, but I don't feel that it's otherwise that problematic. Maybe that's because most of my friends are in long-term LDRs; it doesn't take too long to get to know their partners in those circumstances, and I'm pleased when they're added to the mix.

Further, I think the LDR can help preserve individual friendships: when I was living in the big city and had lots of single friends, it was really nice to be able to go out with those friends a deux, regularly, and not feel a) bad about not inviting my partner (who liked those friends), or b) lame about bringing him, when my friends really wanted to catch up with me. I still kinda enjoy the way an LDR helps me do that, even with my partnered friends--to have an identity apart from my relationship.

Pamphilia said...

I've had a category two and a category three in the past four years. Both of them were great for about a year, but then they became "indefinite" and then "definite"- i.e, it was clear that neither one of us had any plans to move to the partner's city. And then they ended. I do think LDRs can work and can be really great, but in my experience, they work best when there's a chance- even if it's just an inkling - that you'll be able to live together in the same location in the future. Of course that said, I also think you learn a lot more about someone faster when you're living 5-35 minutes away from them, rather than 2-6 hours. All of that said, one of my dissertation advisers has been happily married for 20+ years to a partner who lives and works 6+ hours away. So it can be done. But would you want it for yourself?

DRD said...

DH and I did a limited time #3 for my first two years of a PhD program. We were already 5 years into our marriage. Ohio to Oregon out of two major cities that do not have a lot of direct flights to much of anywhere, much less here. Travel time ranged from 7 to 10 hours. Time zone didn't bother us too much. He (in Ohio) was a night owl and I more of a morning person. So we actually were on a closer schedule than a 3 hour time change would typically indicate.

It was, in many respects, some of the best years of my life and our marriage. I was able to completely focus on myself and my interests with his support (he is also an academic). My satisfaction brought a lot of happiness to the marriage. And when we were together, we were completely together, usually for 4 or 5 day long weekends every other week. Our academic schedules were off one week which meant that winter break was over a month long, usually got 3 weeks out of spring break, he was here during my finals, etc.

Splitting our lives beyond the relationship between each other got old though. I loved going out with the girls from my cohort, studying at weird hours, etc and never feeling guilty. But I also found myself limiting my academic, social, and community engagement because we were traveling so much.

So, what ended the LD? I somehow managed to get pregnant. LDH, who was in a fixed term type position anyways in Ohio, was able to land a visiting in Oregon and extend a second year. Now we are trying to decide what to do next. I'm not ready to be on the market, he is tired of being on the market, we own a (unsellable) house in Ohio but would prefer not to live there, blah blah blah. We just know that we need to be together for our little one. Some days I sure miss my little studio apartment though!

miss d said...

Hi darling-- First off, congratulations on the relationship! I need more details in person, please!!

I've only experienced long distance relationships in the 6+ hour category-- and they always ended badly. Never technically had relationships in the others-- though for the first three years of our marriage, the hubs traveled extensively each week, and was only home for the long weekend... Sort of like somewhere inbetween Cats 1 and 2.

phd me said...

Ah, long distance relationships, the bane of my love life. One relationship started as a LD3 and foundered when we actually ended up in the same place. One started as a close-contact relationship and died a slow death when it changed to LD2. My current not-relationship is a LD3 and - even though there are many other factors to be considered - I'm struggling with whether or not I want to manage a LD relationship at all.

I know that people do it and do it successfully. I know that I sometimes enjoy the forced time off from each other. But I think a LDR requires both people to be on the same wavelength when it comes to managing the difficulties of being apart and that can be tough.

But it can be worth it, too. I'm excited for you! Feel free to share some details, Flavia!

Pamphilia said...

Congrats, Flavia- it sounds like we are all adopting your calculus! (I, for one, love it). LD1, LD2, LD3, plus the option of "i" or "d" (indefinite or definite) and "T" for time zone difference, perhaps?

Oh, and I forgot to say: mazel tov and good luck with yours. Can we infer that this is with another academic? Would that add category "A" (both academics)?

I find this whole thing very refreshing, if only because it gets us away from the whole "two body problem" way of thinking about things.

Flavia said...

PhD Me: Ah, you've reminded me of something else important--the LDR that actually can't survive the transition to closer quarters.

There's lots that gets said about the hardships of the LDR, but while I'm maintaining that there are some not-bad and even rather good things about them (as DRD's story illustrates, too), the best LD relationships aren't always the best local ones, and vice-versa.

After the end of my last LDR, many of my friends remarked on how hard it must have been for us to have spent all those years apart (with the suggestion that distance was one of the breakup's major contributing causes). And yeah: we had problems that were exacerbated by distance. . . but I'm inclined now to think that we stayed together for as long as we did because of the distance: it made a lot of things easier, actually--or at least easier to ignore or not to deal with. If we'd remained or wound up in the same place, I think we might have broken up sooner.

That's hard to know, of course, and in the end it might have been good for us to have broken up sooner. But my point is that distance is no more likely to be destructive than proximity.

medieval woman said...

How did you know that I'd chime in on this one? ;) I'm in an LD3 marriage for going on 2 years now and it's definitely going to go into a 3rd. I must say, it's getting harder and harder. I think there should be an "L" graph where we plot the distance times the length of time the distance is in play. Ooo...graphs! Color! Pies! Hungry!

And I do agree with you about the proximity/distance thing not always being the breaker for a relationship - even though people still make divorce comments to us all the time (like, "you should do it the way we did it - we just divorced our LD spouses and married someone here! Hee, hee!" - yeah, right. Suck it, monkeys.)

And congrats on the new amore! P.S. My word verification (kid thee not) is "marry"!

Dr. Crazy said...

chiming in late.... You know, I've done versions of LD1 (for a few months, in a relationship that started out local - the LD time ended up being the beginning of the end); LD2 (current, which began that way, will remain that way indefinitely, and is ultimately more satisfying on most days than the local relationships I've had); LD3 (one that started out local and, again, the LD time was the beginning of the end; and one that started out LD though never really got off the ground and ended up being a grand friendship). I've got to say, I agree that LD2 is very not bad, though I think so much does depend on the two people's ability to communicate really clearly (a) and on both people's expectations being aligned (b). For me, starting out local and moving to long distance has always been a sign of doom; starting off long distance has worked better because it doesn't feel like I'm giving anything up.

As for the reasons for dating local, well, in theory I agree, but in practice I totally would have to force it to make the local thing happen in my current situation, whereas the long distance thing materialized out of the blue (well, or out of the blogosphere) and is working without feeling like a chore. So maybe the LD thing works for those of us who are lazy about relationships? Or who like *not* operating as part of a couple in day-to-day life, but who enjoy having the support that an LDR can provide?

I also think that the LDR of any stripe begins to make more sense when one has lots of long distance friendships. When your closest friends are scattered hither and yon, it's not that big of a leap to have a romantic relationship that is long distance. In contrast, if all of your close friends are in your current location, having a romantic relationship that's separated by distance seems unthinkable.

irina said...

Love this discussion! Current bf and I began in the same place, quickly moved to LD3 (with six hours time difference) for a year, then to LD1 for two years, we're now living together, and are about to move to LD2 for at least the next year. So, as you can imagine, I'm really curious about how very not bad "very not bad" is.

I also echo the remarks about time difference. That's the real killer on many an LD3. I'm starting the day and about to rush off somewhere -- he's done with everything and ready to talk. I'm about to go to dinner -- he's ready for bed. Let's just say I missed a lot of meals that year.

On the flip side, it's probably worth mentioning that although academics are probably forced to be in LDs more often than other professionals, we also have a certain kind of flexibility that makes it more manageable. Summers can be spent together. Winter break can sometimes be stretched to a month. Whoever is on a writing year can spend more time visiting the other person. And, what's more, we can sometimes think of clever reasons we need to spend time *there* that can ultimately look good on our CV, or allow us to meet interesting scholars in another place, or take our research into new directions.

Flavia said...

What a great comments thread--thanks, everyone! I'll post an emended taxonomy in another day or so, after seeing if there's anything anyone wants to add.

For now, I'll just respond to Irina's last observation: it's absolutely true that LD relationships in which at least one partner is an academic are much more viable than those in which both partners have your basic 5-day-a-week job; I did the calculations at one point in my last LDR and discovered that if we spent two 4-day weekends together every month during the academic year, and every possible moment of every break, we'd actually be together for almost 60% of the year. Obviously, that isn't possible, for anyone. . . but 50% might be. And even 35% ain't bad.

HOWEVER. I wonder whether the greater doability of the LDR for academic or half-academic couples isn't sometimes insidious: it's not impossible. It seems reasonable. And so people keep doing it for years and years and years, longer than they wished or intended to. To the extent that this allows couples to have meaningful lives together, who otherwise wouldn't, I'm all for it. But to the extent that it means some couples keep deferring things that are actually really important to them (like buying a home or having kids or whatever), because things aren't so bad, and maybe they'll change someday. . . well, it's just another example of the bait-and-switch, and adulthood-deferral, that academia is so good at.

Flavia said...

Okay, based on these comments, I think our categories need to factor in the time-change in a way they currently don't. I'm thinking something like this:

LD1: 2-3 hours door-to-door, by ground transportation.

LD2:: 3-6 hours door-to-door, by either convenient ground transportation or a single direct flight with no more than one time zone difference.

LD3: more than 6 hours apart, by any form of transportation (or under 6 hours but with a 2-hour time difference or greater).

With a new subcategory:

LD3-d (for extra difficulty): more than 6 hours away and more than a 3-hour time difference.

How's that sound?

miltonista said...

Cost of travel is an issue, although I'm not sure there's a simple way to fit it into these categories. I'm in an LD3 (but not LD3-d) relationship that could be an LD2 if I had the money to take non-stop flights. But I don't, so I drive.

irina said...

Still loving this thread.

Flavia, I see your point about how the manageability of the academic LDR can insidiously retard the course of our lives. To be frank, lately I've been thinking of the academic life, especially for women, as being roughly parallel to the lives of female ascetics in the Middle Ages. "What do you mean, you won't marry and have kids," their parents would say. "What do you mean you're going to wall yourself up in a little hole for the rest of your life and contemplate?"

And this thought depresses me. Deeply.

That said, when I compare myself to my college cohort, I'm not necessarily "behind" on matters of adulthood. I'm not married, it's true, and a number of them are. Some even have kids, and I don't have those either. On the flip side, I've been financially independent (in a grad student kind of way) for years, I'm doing a job I like (and many of my friends are still struggling to figure out what that might be for them), and between conferences and long summer breaks, I've managed to do more travelling than someone with my "salary" ought to.

This doesn't change my wistfulness, especially when I see the babies, but I've learned to recognize that going to a conference in Cambridge (or even San Francisco!), or researching in a Berlin library for the summer might be enviable in their own way.

irina said...

One more note -- more to the point about the brilliant LDR taxonomy. Careful attention to the LDR categories can reveal that locations previously thought to be desirable no longer are, and vice versa. To wit: my partner is in New York, and will be for a while longer. I had two campus visits this winter. One was in a location commonly acknowledged to be one of the most desirable places to live anywhere on the planet, and the other in a city that -- though big and varied -- makes my friends scrunch up their faces and say, "really"?

Upon visiting I realised, despite my life-long desire to live in the first location, that it would have made my LDR into an LDR-d. (No direct flights from New York, plus time difference = 9 hrs in transit or so.) Whereas the second place (where I will be) is an airport hub, and although flights are scheduled to last 3 hrs, they really only take 2, putting me squarely into LD2 territory. Happy days.

Flavia said...

Miltonista: Yes, expense is hard to factor in. Presumably it's not bad in any LD1s, but it does make a huge difference in the LD2 category. In my last LDR, I lived in three different cities, all placing me within the LD2 category, but there was a big difference among the three cities in the ease and expense involved in getting to & from my then-partner. With an LD3, I think air-travel is often, although not always assumed--and the expense that goes along with it.

Irina: yes, by and large, I want to make the case that LDRs (and the lives/careers that produce them) have their compensations, and aren't nearly as horrible! horrible! horrible! as outsiders tend to assume. But they sometimes get harder as time goes on (and/or as the parties age), and they're especially hard on those eager to have children.

(That being said, you and I both know at least two couples who have done it: either had a child while not in the same place, or separated--geographically, though not maritally--after the kids were a bit older. Seems like madness to me. . . but different strokes for different folks.)

irina said...

Flavia, I couldn't agree more. I find that for me, the key issue is whether we can foresee being in the same place at one point, and if that is a common goal towards which we're both working. Without that, even a day is unbearable.

Steven said...

I really like the amended taxonomy, but maybe it also needs to incorporate the suggestion of including the prospective duration? Obviously distance is a major strain, but change is as well. I have a colleague whose very recent transition from an LD1 relationship to a same-city relationship did the whole thing in, and obviously that's a very common thing. Also, I think LD3-d needs a LD3-d* category for an 8-12 hour time difference.

That date-locally article angered and offended me. It made intimate relationships sound equivalent to consumer choices, and it completely ignored the gendered issues surrounding relationships and employment. Blech.

irina said...

Steven, I could. not. agree. more.

I wonder if this was the article Moria was referring to:
http://www.slate.com/id/2202431/

I know that this is the one I read, and was rather peeved. This Slate article was primarily about the environmental impact of LDRs, and it was one of those pieces that make me think, "If this is the world we're supposed to be saving, I don't see the point."

Let's face it, many of the interesting and/or good things we do are bad for the environment and inconvenient in all sorts of ways.

I mean, why stop at dating locally? Why not learn locally too? I went to undergrad in my home city, but once I left the country for grad school, you can imagine the amount of fuel I've used (on planes, trains, and automobiles) to get home, the disruption to my relationship with my parents, the awkwardness when I see friends. My classmates who went away for undergrad are even worse offenders in this sense. Maybe all people should have to be educated in the county or provincial riding where they live.

As a matter of fact, why stop there? Shouldn't we live locally too? When I think of the amount of fossil fuel my parents and I used trying to escape Communism in the Eastern Bloc, or the pollution caused by refugees all over the world escaping their homelands, or immigrants looking for a better life, I'm simply horrified. Why don't we all just stay exactly where we are, unplug our fridges, and stare sadly at the walls.

Argh.

Flavia said...

OMG. Had not seen that article, Irina. And in response to THIS:

[I]n a way, long-distance dating is romantic precisely because it expends so much in the way of resources and effort. It's less exciting to date someone based on your shared love of canvas shopping bags than it is to pine for a partner who wants to meet in Arizona.

. . . all I have to say is: fuck right off, Barron YoungSmith. (Do you suppose the elimination of the space or hyphen between his last names saves energy?) He's clearly never been in an LDR of any duration, and doesn't have the ability fully to imagine one--the practicalities, the trade-offs, or the reasons a person might stay in one.

Flavia said...

Ah, well: it seems Mr. YS is barely out of college (Brown '06). Doesn't make him less of a prick, but his inability to imagine an adult relationship becomes more explicable.