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How to be human: when should a long-distance relationship stay long distance?

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Leah Reich was one of the first internet advice columnists. Her column "Ask Leah" ran on IGN, where she gave advice to gamers for two and a half years. During the day, Leah is Slack’s user researcher, but her views here do not represent her employer. You can write to her at askleah@theverge.com and read more How to be Human here.

Dear Leah,

I suppose I have a dilemma. I met my first boyfriend five months ago and it hasn't been the easiest relationship. He has serious trust issues and maybe it's because I didn't know how relationships were supposed to work, but I haven't exactly helped his trust issues. He's met one of the other guys I've slept with and I know that messed with his head. I remained friends with a guy I made out with while we were talking but not yet dating. I guess my real issue is that he lives in one city and I live in another, so we’ve always been long distance. Once our relationship got more serious and we said "I love you," we talked about moving. His job allows him to transfer offices and move to my city, while mine does not. Therefore it is way easier for him to move to me. He would move (if he were to) in July, so by that time, we would have been dating nine months. He loves the city that he's in and his friends are there, and I love the city where I live. He said he would move if we were to move in together, but I told him I wasn't ready. He said that's the only way he would move to my city and he wasn't sure we could continue dating if we didn't live in the same city. I don't want to break up with him because I love him so much but I also feel so pressured right now.

So I suppose I'm wondering a few things. Is it bad that I'm not willing to move for him? Does that say something about how much I love him? Is it bad he's basically giving me an ultimatum? I'm just not ready to move in with a boyfriend. I'm still very young and have plenty of years ahead of me to do that, so my thought is why rush it? I'm also worried that we've never lived in the same city, so how can we skip that entire step and just move in together?

Sincerely,

Pressured & Confused

Hey P&C,

The minute I read your letter I had this immediate gut reaction. Like, if I were a superhero instead of an advice columnist, and I had that sort of sixth sense superheroes have. Like Spidey sense, only this sense was a tingle that ran up the back of my neck to whisper in my ear, "Please tell P&C to dump this guy."

If I were a superhero instead of an advice columnist...

I know! You don’t want to break up with him! So let’s talk. Allow me to answer two of your questions right off the bat:

No, it’s not bad you’re unwilling to move for him.

Yes, this says something about how much you love him, or more specifically, how comfortable you are in a relationship with him.

There are two separate threads running through your letter, P&C. I want to separate them so we can talk about what each one means and then how they ultimately tie together. Let’s start with the long-distance relationship part of things.

Long distance relationships are hard. They can be great, and they can be successful, but they come packaged with a set of challenges and experiences that a relationship with someone in your same city will likely never require. Challenges like, "Gosh, we misunderstand each other a lot over text, I wish you could come over so we could just talk about it," or, "If this is gonna work, one or both of us will have to move and that’s a lot of pressure." Or perhaps challenges like, "Being far away from you is highlighting how hard it is for me to trust you, and now you can see that I get jealous."

You’ve seen some of these obstacles! But let’s focus on this one for now: He’s willing to move, but only under a certain set of circumstances.

Long distance relationships are hard

Now, because I have been in at least one long-distance relationship in which I was the person who considered moving, I would like to try and be fair to your boyfriend. Being the one who has to move is hard. Even if doing it feels like an exciting, wonderful adventure and completely worth it, moving means giving up a lot. Like, a lot, way more than you even realize. Proximity to friends and maybe family. A city you love full of places you know and don’t get lost trying to find. A life that doesn’t require you to be reliant on someone else, whether for socializing or anything else. This is especially true if you’re the one moving and you don’t know many people in your new city. I’ve seen people do this move and then freak out for all sorts of reasons, not least of which is: How do you be the fun person your partner fell in love with while you’re trying to build an entirely new life in an entirely new city with not many friends?

This is why I want to be understanding. Your boyfriend is, I imagine, unsettled at the prospect of uprooting his life for a whole new one. It’s a risky thing to do! Since the only reason he’d move is you, I can understand why thinks you should move in together – it might seem weird to him to start a separate life if the point of moving is to create one with you. An ultimatum isn’t the best way to handle this but it’s not totally clear what he’s saying is an ultimatum. He only wants to move if he can live with you, and he doesn’t know where your relationship can go if neither of you move. Those are relatively normal thoughts in a long-distance relationship.

But let’s go back to the other thread, the one that’s gotten everything tangled up. Without this thread, the long-distance thing might be something you could talk through, figure out what’s best for each of you and your relationship. What’s worrying me is all this other stuff, like "first boyfriend" and "it hasn’t been the easiest relationship" and "serious trust issues" and "I haven’t exactly helped his trust issues." My darling P&C, if only I really were a superhero, because I would fly immediately to your beloved city and create, like, a little force field inside which we could talk this through.

I wish I knew more about your boyfriend’s serious trust issues. I believe you that they exist, but I need more detail. Without detail, my gut reaction to the words "serious trust issues," especially next to "a guy I slept with" is IMMEDIATELY DEPART THIS RELATIONSHIP. If he is possessive or in any way demands to know who you’ve slept with or that you not be friends with them, dump him without a second thought.

If he is possessive, dump him without a second thought

But I don’t have those details, just a vague outline and that ominous, tingling sixth sense. For all I know, the long distance is making it hard for him to deal with insecurity and jealousy. Or maybe the fact that you don’t want to move for him is doing stupid things to his brain and making him think, "Is she dating someone else, and how would I know all these miles away." I’m not saying either situation is good, just that they’re possible. Many of us have confronted them from your boyfriend’s side, often poorly.

Regardless, his trust issues are not in any way related to the fact that you don’t know how relationships work, except that someone who doesn’t know how relationships work might more easily be convinced they are to blame for another person’s trust issues. You’re not!

Here are some reasonable and normal if occasionally awkward or difficult things:

  • Him knowing someone you slept with
  • You knowing someone he slept with
  • You being friends with someone you slept with
  • Him being friends with someone he slept with
  • Him wanting to move to be with you
  • You not wanting to move to be with him
  • Him not wanting to move cities for a new relationship if he feels like you want to date but not be seriously together
  • You not wanting to rush into living with him

You are both human beings who existed before you met. Neither of you stepped forth from a dream portal as perfectly-formed-yet-somehow-virginal creatures who’d been made exclusively for this relationship. Relationships do not succeed because one person tucks his or her history away and pretends it never happened. Sure, there’s a difference between honesty ("we dated") and full disclosure ("that guy over there by the Sbarro counter was the best sex of my life"). Trust is something you build over time, and distance can make that trickier. But we are who we are because of our experiences.

When it comes down to it, I think you know what’s not working

This is your first real boyfriend, so I know it might be tough to figure out what’s you, what’s him, and what’s not working. But when it comes down to it, I think you know what’s not working. You know you see something in your boyfriend that makes you feel uncomfortable enough it’s the first thing you bring up in your letter. You probably know the distance is making this more intense, and that he’s right to think your relationship won’t last if neither of you moves. You might be worried about whether you even want it to last if one of you does move, but you feel bad thinking that.

My advice to you is this: Be okay with the fact that you want different things. Know that having your own life doesn’t mean you’ve made his trust issues worse. And speaking of trust, trust yourself and your instinct. Something doesn’t feel okay to you in this relationship. Listen to that and do what’s right for you. Be your own superhero, put up a force field, and go enjoy the city you love without pressure.

Lx