Sunday, November 30, 2014

The two-body problem affects more than two bodies

When we talk about the two-body problem, we talk, mostly, about that nuclear relationship and what it suffers as a result of two jobs in two locations: the time, expense, and hassle of commuting; the deferral of child-bearing (or the exponential explosion that is the three body problem); and the general emotional strain on the partnership.

What gets less discussed--I'd say never discussed, but I guess I haven't read every last thing on the internet--is the strain on all the other relationships to which either partner is a party. Since we've just concluded one major holiday and are fast approaching another, let's talk first about how a long-distance relationship complicates familial relationships.

Now, as long-distance relationships go, Cosimo and I have it pretty easy: we don't have kids, we're close enough to see each other every weekend, and both our families are happy, healthy, and financially stable. Still, we want to see each of our families at least twice and ideally three times a year, and since each lives a full day's journey away, there's no such thing as a weekend trip.

Many couples these days live far from either partner's family, and face logistical problems (or familial conflict) as a result. But when a couple lives apart at least half-time, the logistical and familial issues can be close to unworkable. If the couple doesn't even see each other often enough, it's hard to sacrifice their already-limited time together. If one or both partners are spending significant hours on the road or in airports just to maintain their relationship, they may resent the idea of spending even more time traveling. And if they have a primary home that one partner doesn't live in full time, it's hard to give up holiday or vacation time there.

Friendships present a similar problem. It should be easier to maintain independent friendships in a long-distance relationship--no need to make excuses for going out with the girls/guys; for seeing that friend your partner can't stand; or for seeing one-on-one that friend your partner would be hurt not to be seeing as well--but in practice friendships often get sacrificed: the partner who commutes has little enough time to attend to all his or her work obligations (and keep doctor's appointments and sit at home waiting for the cable guy) between packing and travel days, and both partners may be jealous of their weekend time together and socialize less than they otherwise might.

So far, the best solution we've come up with is to pile everyone in the same place as often as possible: each of the last four years, we've had an Autumn Weekend of the Parents, where both sets come to visit us (helps that our parents get along!), and we're devoted to the dinner party (such an efficient way to see multiple friends over multiple hours) and the occasional weekend get-away with a gaggle of our beloveds.

It's still not enough. It's never enough. (But better, I suppose, than the opposite problem.)


Withywindle said...


Renaissance Girl said...

Word. Also: spending all the leisure time and money just visiting one another, so that taking a real vacation--to a vacationy locale with vacationy relaxation--is ever pre-empted by the commute.

Anonymous said...

Everything you say is so, so true, and I'm so glad you put this out there. As you know, on and off* for the last eight years I've been juggling a job in a small town in the Midwest, a partner in a remote location in the UK, and a large extended family in California--and since said partner's family is in Canada, there is absolutely no way of seeing any of these people without time-consuming and expensive travel.

In practice, Thanksgiving and Christmas are for family, summer is for moving (at my own expense) to a UK location where I can do research and see my partner a couple of weekends a month. Not only is this not exactly how I envisioned my life partnership as I was growing up, I don't think any of my close-knit family ever imagined that it would become normal to pack all of our time together into one six-week slice of the year, and to have nearly-eleven-month gaps between visits.

And long distances, and the havoc that time zones wreak on schedules, have knock-on effects on friendships in addition to those you've mentioned. If you have to carve out a block of your afternoon once or twice a week to Skype with your partner because he's five hours ahead of you, you really can't go out with (or call) friends that night--you're doing the work that didn't get done that afternoon. I can think of one pair of friends whose wedding we've both attended: missed opportunities to create memories and share special moments for all of us. In fact, most of my US-based friends have never met my partner, while I've never met most of his European and Canadian friends. That's a bizarre gap for many of my oldest, closest friends to have in their knowledge of me and my life.

I like your solutions, and I'll have to think about how to adapt them to my particular set of geographical challenges!


*On and off because (perhaps unsurprisingly) we've twice convinced ourselves that a relationship was unsustainable under these conditions...and then changed our minds.

Flavia said...

Yes, RG & SvdL, the money thing is huge. Just maintaining two households is a real expense (though obviously no worse than it is for single people, unless both households need to be kid-sized), but travel is a whole 'nothing ball of wax, especially for those like you who have to do it by plane.

(And S, I was thinking of your situation as I wrote, as yours may be the most difficult of all those I know of. Thanks for adding more details/difficulties I hadn't considered.)

Anonymous said...

You're so right!
My partner and I do really well at living apart - most of the time, we don't feel like our relationship is stressed by the separation very much or at all. I live and work in the town where I grew up, and the partner lives and works one very long days' drive or a two-hour airplane trip away from me. Sooner or later we'll both be there and not here-in-my-hometown.

But a totally unanticipated by me annoyance is how much my family wants to monopolize my partner-time when he is here. I mean, I'm glad that they like him, but it is really frustrating when they all seem to expect me to prioritize us spending time as a couple with everyone in my family - and what we want to do is spend time as a couple without them.

We're looking forward to the time when I don't live in the same town as my family any more.