The long-distance relationship is, by definition, doomed. The only way a long-distance relationship can amount to anything is for it to become a short-distance relationship. Distance may be fine for relatives and old friends, but when it comes to romantic love—that mysterious chemical reaction that's set off when two people occupy the same physical space—the long-distance relationship is a poor excuse for the real thing. To have a long-distance relationship is to go only halfway there. It is to talk love's gooey baby talk but not walk its rocky path. It is, literally, to phone it in.
Or so they say. Consider this: The greatest sex toy ever invented may be the telephone. Sometimes there's nothing more erotic than a disembodied voice, no question more tantalizing than a whispered "What are you wearing?" Especially when you can make up the answer. On the phone your hair always looks great, your legs are always shaved, your worst pair of underwear becomes a silk negligee. Your lover, too, reaps the benefits of being a single dimension. He's a mere outline of a person, and you can fill in the details as you please. He's not wearing an ugly shirt. You can't see his latest skin blemish. He's not working late and missing dinner. He's yours and yours alone. In your own mind, anyway.
To believe in the fidelity of a disembodied voice, to be as smitten with someone's absence as you are with his presence, is to be a true romantic. It is to live for the future. It is to believe in the impossible, or at least the improbable. It is to hold out hope that something's going to change someday, that all this impracticality will eventually give way to something radical, something brave, something involving a moving van. Until then, you wait. You make use of the time. You work, see your friends, completely redo the bathroom. You're a pillar of productivity. It's not a bad lifestyle—except for those phone bills.
Of course, people will tell you that you're kidding yourself, that you're naive, that you can't possibly know if a relationship will last unless you're in it day to day, unless you witness the entire evolution of a skin blemish and are familiar with the whole array of ugly shirts. The long-distance relationship, though the domain of dreamers, is also a haven for self-deluders, for noncommitters, for, some might say, lazy bums. It's for those who want the perks of romance—the flowers on Valentine's Day, the guarantee of a phone call at night—without doing the hard work of a real relationship.
But, oh, the fondness that can bloom in a heart that knows so much absence! Is there any emotion richer than longing, any moment more heartbreaking than the moment you put down the telephone receiver after a marathon call with the one you love but for whatever reason are not with? The long-distance relationship may have its limits, but those who repudiate its merits, who chalk up the whole endeavor to immaturity or fear or laziness, are surely suffering from a woefully conventional view of relationships. Long-distance relationships have an urgency that couples in short-distance relationships can only dream of. Every second together counts. Every shared meal is savored; every kiss must be good enough to last weeks, maybe even months. Have you really lived, after all, if you haven't searched for your beloved's face at an airport gate, cursing the flight delay because you have only a weekend before you must part again? We should all be so lucky to seal in our memories the image of our lover on our doorstep, suitcase in hand, clothes wrinkled from a long trip, skin emanating a scent that we've forgotten but suddenly comes rushing back, bringing with it the recollection of the last time, which was too long ago and too brief, and ended with a tearful goodbye on this same doorstep.
In long-distance relationships, your life becomes compartmentalized: There's the life with him and the life without him, and the life without him is much, much bigger. Your friends won't know him (they may suspect you of inventing him). You'll still attend weddings without a date (meaning you'll be seated next to the groom's nerdy cousin). If you're tempted to cheat, you'll be burdened with the knowledge that you'll almost certainly get away with it. If you're afraid he'll cheat, then you probably shouldn't be in a long-distance relationship.
Because contrary to what the cynics say, distance is not for the fearful; it's for the bold. It's for those who are willing to spend a lot of time alone in exchange for a little time with the one they love. It's for those who know a good thing when they see it, even if they don't see it nearly enough. Yes, the long-distance relationship may be doomed. You can't go on that way forever. But as long as you do, you'll embody the twin virtues of independence and imagination. As you fall asleep alone, you'll conjure the scent of your lover's neck, the timbre of a voice over fiber optics, the ecstasy of seeing his face at the front door, which, thanks to him, is your favorite place in the whole house. After so much time apart, a suitcase itself is an aphrodisiac. The boy next door doesn't have a prayer.
Meghan Daum is the author of My Misspent Youth
(Open City Press). More from the O relationship vault: Get Dumped? Good. Now, Pull Yourself Together!