How to Navigate Long-Distance Love

Two Seattle-based therapists weigh in on how to meet your partner where they’re at. Emotionally, that is.

By Erin Wong February 12, 2021

With only a week left of her summer in Seoul, Bridget, then a master’s student at the University of Washington, met Hoyeong at a bar and asked him to dance. He took her on a whirlwind series of dates that week, and when he brought her to the airport, promised they'd keep in touch; he arrived in Seattle four months later to ring in 2020. That was the last time they saw each other in person. 

Couples like Bridget and Hoyeong are no strangers to the scheduled phone call or texted love note. But with Covid-induced health risks and travel restrictions adding to the miles already standing between them, the impending reunion that sustains relationships across months apart has been indefinitely postponed.

How can LDRs go the distance? I spoke with Dr. Jennifer Chain, a therapist in Ballard, and Kaori Oto, a couples’ therapist in-training at Seattle's Gottman Institute, to get some advice on how to respond to common issues in long-distance love.

Take time for yourself.

Reflect on how you’re doing as an individual and what needs are going unmet, both in your relationship and in general. Oto recommends “self-soothing,” spending time on activities you find fulfilling that are completely independent of your partner.

Communicate your needs and emotions.

Once you’ve identified what you need in the relationship, the next step is to share these needs aloud (via phone or video call), and ask what your partner needs in return. Chain recommends checking in “early and often."

Assume your partner is doing their best.

In the LDR scenario, couples have a harder time seeing the full picture of each other—the daily stressors, the deeper personality traits. If there’s a disparity in how often partners reach out, Chain says, one might think their significant other doesn’t care about them, while the other feels defensive and unappreciated. “Keep in mind that [in] most relationships, romantic or otherwise…it is normal to spend a large portion of the time misunderstanding and repairing that misunderstanding," Chain says.

Focus on the friendship.

Friendship provides the foundation of a strong partnership. Learn more about each other by asking introspective questions: Who are two of your closest friends? What is your greatest fear? Your wildest dream? Seek to discover more about the little life details or childhood memories that affect your loved one day to day.

Reflect on what is going well.

What was it about your partner that you first fell in love with? Take time to express your gratitude. Oto and Chain both recommend gifting something that pushes back against the total virtualization of the relationship, like handwritten love letters, or presents that provide physical sensations: fuzzy blankets, tea, or scented candles. “Something that this pandemic has taught me is that while that goal [of seeing each other in person] is important,” Bridget says, “It's also important to really look forward to the smaller things too, and appreciate those more.”

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