How To Have A Long-Distance Poly Relationship

(NOTE: Based on time elapsed since the posting of this entry, the BS-o-meter calculates this is 16.884% likely to be something that Ferrett now regrets.)

Those who say you can’t fall in love with someone because of their words don’t know how to read properly.  No, in these days of the Internet, it’s startingly easy to fall in love with people who are inconveniently distant.  And if you’re poly, you may start a relationship with these far-flung lovers, trying to make a real relationship out of someone you get to see twice a year.
Long-distance relationships are fucking hard, man.
But having had both some success (I’ve been dating Angie for almost three years, I married my wife who I met online) and some magnificent failures (*cough cough* NO NAMES) on the LDR front, I think I’m qualified to discuss some of the guidelines for carrying on a successful LDR.
Tip #1: Recognize That An LDR Makes For Ugly Fights, and Plan Appropriately.  
The reasons that LDRs are so hard is that the arguments last, but the snuggles are crap.
Which is to say that if you have an argument with your meatspace partner, you’ll fight – but then you’ll snuggle afterwards, hug off the tears, and probably have some rather nice makeup sex afterwards.  There’s all this slack just hanging around, free and lovely, and you don’t even think about it.
Whereas in an LDR, the arguments can start like brushfire because often you’re texting and can’t read expressions or body language, and those arguments stay longer.  You don’t have the benefit of happy cuddle-time to wash away the inevitable clashes, so every conflict feels magnified.
The solution here is twofold: first, recognize that any arguments seem way worse than they are because of that distance.  Second, the best way of preventing arguments is to assume nothing but good will from your partner.  If they say something that seems dickish, suppress your normal RAGE TO KILL and ask, “If I was going to frame this in the best possible way to make it sound as though they loved me ahow would I do it?”  Then speak to them as though they were, indeed, trying to be good people.
Doesn’t always work.  Sometimes they are being dickish, at which point it’s time to course-correct.  But by assuming the best intentions, you will stave off a lot of the little miscommunications that kill.
Tip #2: Get Used To Disappointment, Princess.  
An LDR is a lot of lonely longing.  You want them around, but you can’t afford the plane fare or the vacation time or whatever.
You have to recognize this is what you’re signing up for when you get on-board.  It’s not going to be as fulfilling as having them around to take to the movies; the reward is that you get some time with that fabulous brain that you wouldn’t have otherwise had.  But you’re going to spend the majority of your time living in the real world, without them.
You can ameliorate that with texts and constant emails and whatnot, but an LDR is to a certain extent an exercise in loneliness.  It’s not going to be like your other real-world dating relationships – it can be emotionally intense and time-intensive, but it’s still going to be saturated with “This would be so much easier if she were here.”  But she’s not.  She can’t be, by definition – that’s why you have an LDR.  And if that longing is going to be a constant ache that you cannot deal with, then you probably shouldn’t be in one.
Which is why the next tip is so important…
Tip #3: Have A Real Life, And If Possible Have Have It Symmetrical.
A lot of LDRs bomb out because one partner has a vibrant social life and is going to parties all the time, and the other is stuck in an shit apartment with a bare bulb and no friends.  That imbalance is going to cause jealousy, because one partner is going to want a lot of time that Mrs. Party-Happy may not necessarily be able to give.
The solution?  Don’t let your LDR be the excuse for not building up your own life.  The more satisfying your life is in the place you actually live, well… I mean, come on, do I have to sell you on the idea that “It’s a good idea to be happy in your own space”?  But if you have an LDR and hate where you live, that’s going to cause problems.  If you want your LDR to work, then recognize that “improving your life without your LDR” is part of the process.
And this applies even if you plan on moving to be with them!  If you’re the sort of person who never gets out and stays lonely inside your shell, then moving in with your LDR just means that there’s a better-than-even chance you’ll be lonely and clingy and miserable with her.  If you can’t maximize your happiness without your LDR, you’re probably not gonna do it with your now just-plain-R, and it’ll bomb out a few months down the line.
Shape up.  It’s a good idea regardless.
Tip #4: Have Goals.  
LDRs are lonely, but it can be better if you have plans.  Always try to have the next visit-date planned as soon as you can, so you have something to look forward to (even if that visit date is “Christmas, 2012”).  If the goal is to move in together, then try to set a date for that.
Give your LDR a sense of “I get to see him in X weeks!”  It genuinely does help.
Tip #5: Have Dates.  Or At Least Rituals.
This can be as complex as a Wednesday night Skype-date, or as simple as making sure you see the same movie and talking about it afterwards.  But make sure that even as LDRs, you have activities you do together.  For me, it’s often writing long-ass emails about my day, wherein they respond with long-ass emails about their day.  In either case, having this symmetric set of activities works.  It makes the distance feel shorter.  It makes you feel as though you’re sharing things.
Tip #6: Let Real Life Happen.
One of the greatest gifts I was ever given was by my girlfriend Angie.  We only see each other maybe five times a year, and I was in the middle of my annual spring depression YES I HAVE INVERTED SEASONAL AFFECTIVE DISORDER, YES IT’S IN THE SPRING IT HAPPENS SHUT UP.
But I was down.  I couldn’t function.  And I said that I didn’t think I could make it out, I was too oversocialized, too low on battery power, and if I came out I think it would just go poorly.
And she let me cancel.  She let me reduce the number of physical visits from five to four just because I was in a black hole.  She didn’t yell at me, she didn’t make this about her being insufficient, she just let it go.
That is, I think, a major portion of the reason we’re still together.  It’s not that she didn’t want to see me, but rather that she was willing to let real life be real life.  I would have been shit that weekend, probably depressive and crying and fight-picking…
…and while others would have made me feel terrible for having issues, and don’t you realize this is all the time we have, we have to make it work?, Angie just let it slide.  And we hugged a lot closer the next time we get together.
The point is that you’re going to have real life intrusions.  Don’t make them personal.  Sometimes she genuinely won’t have the cash to come out when she said she would, or his fibro will flare, and all your grand plans will fall down.  Just like they would in real life.  Yes, your get-togethers are scarcer, but let real life happen.
Tip #7: Think Your Partner Is Amazingly Awesome.
Really.  You’re gonna go through all that trouble for someone who’s not that awesome?  Just remember why you wanted them in the first place.


  1. Mishell Baker
    Oct 11, 2011

    I would argue that, while you can fall in love with a person’s mind, you have not fallen in love with the whole person until you have met face to face, and it can easily go either way. Physical chemistry is not irrelevant, as much as we’d love to think we’re creatures of the spirit and not creatures of the flesh.
    I was ready to marry a guy once based off of our online and telephone interactions (and photos of him), and then I met him and there was just something incompatible about us. He was a fine looking guy, just operated at a slightly different RPM or something, didn’t smell quite right, I dunno. I still love to read his writing, and still love him intensely in a platonic way and even have a slight “crush” on him, but at least from a female perspective, things don’t always fire physically just because you adore someone mentally.

    • TheFerrett
      Oct 11, 2011

      …so your magnificent attraction to me remains unknown until you meet me? Alas! 🙂
      Seriously, I think you do have to meet them eventually for purposes of moving, but that’s an issue of mono more than poly. The reason, as I’ve said elsewhere, that this is more of a poly issue is because monogamous LDRs tend to move inexorably towards breakup or togetherness, whereas polyamorous LDRs can remain eternally hanging.

  2. Laura
    Oct 11, 2011

    I have a sweetie whom I see 2 or three times a year. We’ve been dating for three -1/2 years now, and still are happy being connected. These days, we don’t talk a whole lot between visits: just occasional texts, journal posts, facebook comments, and a few phone calls. But every time I talk to him, he makes me laugh. The things he says make me feel loved and appreciated. When I visit him and his 2 wonderful other partners, I feel welcomed like family.
    It may be that this works because he and I have never head that heart breaking angsty reaction to being away from each other (which I have definitely had with other sweeties). This may be because we both know there’s no way we’ll ever live near each other, and have accepted the pattern of this relationship. In any case, with him, it feels wonderful to be together, and OK to be apart.
    I agree with you wholeheartedly about having Real Lives; planning visits and anticipating those; finding shared interests and talk about them; in this relationship, building friendships with those folks who are close to him, and he with those close to me (my kids, for example), helps center and cement the relationship more.
    Just some thoughts from me!

  3. Julie
    Oct 13, 2011

    Great article. LDRs require a different set of skills and you’ve explained that well. And poly LDRs need a few other things that mono ones don’t. Thanks.

  4. Kit O'Connell
    Oct 13, 2011

    As someone who successfully transitioned a long distance poly relationship into a local poly relationship, I think this is a great article that very much matches my experience. I was ‘Mr. Party Happy’ in this case, while she felt very isolated, and so Tip #3 was a source of some pressure for us. There have turned out to be different pressures in transitioning to a local relationship, ones worthy of a followup (or perhaps I should blog about myself).
    Like Laura, I also have a long distance lover who I see 2-3 times a year. For us, it works great — we probably wouldn’t work out if we were local and trying to be “serious.” The difference is that with the other lover, the one who moved locally, we both wanted much more than distance would allow.

  5. Martin
    Jan 2, 2016

    Thanks for writing this, it helps me tremendously.

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