illustration Eva van Schijndel
Tip 1: Create a strong basis
To be able to wave each other goodbye without any qualms, you have to know what you mean to each other. Some of our veterans had only got together not long before they had to part company for a while, which can be worrying. That was the case for Merel and Rik, who had been together for seven months when Rik went away for three months. Merel: ‘I had never had a long-distance relationship before and of course I was up for it, but I honestly didn’t know how I would like it.’ Merel’s advice is to talk it through at length when there are plans to be apart for an extended period. ‘I think it’s good to be honest about it if you have doubts. If your relationship has been going on longer, that is often less of an issue, because then you already have a stronger basis.’ Rik’s advice is to assume the best and trust that things will work out. ‘You should have faith in the quality of your relationship, and not make negative assumptions and start wondering whether she still thinks about you. If you can’t do that, you don’t have a very good relationship.’
Tip 2: Keep in touch (but don’t overdo it)
Keeping in touch is the key. Onnika: ‘It is important to share your experiences; otherwise I think you can drift apart. The other person might be going through a lot, or their thinking may have changed in some way. Without a lot of contact you won’t understand each other or be able to put things in context.’ Sharing the little things by WhatsApp or text messaging is crucial to this. ‘A relationship is made up of memories to a great extent, so I think it’s important to keep on sharing the little things,’ says Onnika.
A lot of photos get shared, especially by the person who went away. That helps the one who stayed at home to picture their partner’s life. Bram: ‘I usually showed Kelly photos of the weekend on Monday, so she could see what I had been up to. But I liked knowing what she was doing in the Netherlands, too.’
You can overdo keeping in touch, though, too, warns Hidde. ‘If you always to tell your partner about what you are doing as you do it, you don’t build up as much contact in the place where you are. You are constantly waiting for a reply, or you are interrupted by a reply, which makes you think about her all the time.’ Hidde was forced to discover the advantages of limited messaging when he didn’t have Wi-Fi. ‘With Wi-Fi you are sending WhatsApps back and forth all evening, without really talking to each other or saying what you want, and it just makes you miss each other even more.’ Rick also felt that WhatsApp messages are open to misinterpretation. ‘You interpret messages on WhatsApp differently. So it is very important to talk over a tiff or a bone of contention straightaway, because a misunderstanding can easily arise when you are far apart.’
Tip 3: Skype is your friend (even when you’re quiet)
Skype proved to be the best medium of communication, as long as the internet connection was good enough. ‘I like Skype, because you can see each other’s facial expressions and you can talk a bit better than on the phone. After we had Skyped, it felt as though we were closer again,’ says Hidde. ‘You are better off with fewer, but better quality contact moments than with a lot of semi-contact through WhatsApp.’ Onnika was sometimes on Skype without saying anything. ‘I might be studying and Jorick might start doing something else, but we could look at each other now and then.’ But Skype is not much more than a sticking plaster, says Merel. ‘Skype and WhatsApp are great, but it’s still just virtual. Sometimes a hug says more than an hour of talking.’ Which brings us to tip 4.
Tip 4: Pay a visit
‘I think it has added value if you visit your partner,’ says Bram. Then you won’t just have heard the stories, but will have seen for yourself what it’s like there.’ Planning a visit was also a nice distraction from missing Kelly. ‘That helps you see the plus side of the period part, that you’ve got something to look forward to.’ Bram really enjoyed seeing what life was like for Kelly, and where she lived and worked. ‘And in turn, I liked showing her where I had been in Canada, and being her tour guide,’ he says.
Tip 5: Keep busy (especially on the home front)
It is usually easiest for the partner who goes abroad, reckon the veterans. They arrive in a whole new environment which their partner is not part of. Thanks to all the new impressions, they don’t have much time to feel they are missing them, and all their spare time goes into exploring the country. Bram: ‘In Canada I did all sorts of nice things at the weekends, like climbing and snowboarding, so I didn’t really have time to stop and think about it. Only at night when I went to bed alone did I often think: it would have been nice if she was here too.’
Staying at home is harder. Life goes on as usual, except suddenly without your boyfriend or girlfriend. The best distraction is to keep busy, says Merel. She herself did a year on a student organization board when Rik was away. Her advice: ‘Don’t sit around waiting, because you should lead your own life too. And even if he is an important part of it, he isn’t the whole of your life.’ Onnika looked for distraction too. ‘I filled my evenings with all sorts of activities, in order not to be home alone.’
Tip 6: Be creative
Skyping, texting and messaging day in day out can get a bit boring after a few months, and a dose of creativity is needed to find new ways of getting in touch. Onnika and Jorick gave each other presents to take along. ‘Jorick has made a selection of songs for me, and I was to listen to one a day. And I once folded a load of paper stars and wrote a text on each star. Just sweet nothings, to let him know I hadn’t forgotten him.’ On Merel’s birthday Rik had a big bunch of flowers delivered. Merel: ‘That was very nice because even though he was far away, I did know he was thinking of me.’ Merel suggests keeping in touch with the other person’s housemates and friends, too, because they can lend a hand if you want to surprise your loved one. Together with Rik’s housemates, Merel covered his bedroom floor with balloons when he got back from Bangladesh.
Tip 7: Give each other your blessing
‘The experience of living abroad makes you more independent and mature, and I think you should allow each other the opportunity for that,’ says Hidde. ‘If you hold the other person back you deprive them of an opportunity.’ Merel agrees that it is important to give the adventurer your blessing, however hard it might be to stay at home on your own. ‘If you can put yourself in the other person’s shoes, it is much easier to deal with these kinds of things. And if I ever want to go away, I will know that Rik knows how nice that is for me.’
Travelling promotes personal growth and your relationship can be strengthened by that, says Hidde. ‘I think you have a stronger and more stable relationship after a stay abroad because you are stronger and more stable yourself.’ Onnika agrees. ‘The first time Jorick went away our relationship had only been going for three months, but I think it made our relationship stronger. We got to know each other, we saw how the other person makes decisions or deals with tricky situations. When you share that, you can grow in it together and you know why a person has difficulty with something.’
A temporary long-distance relationship is also a good test for the future, especially if you don’t know whether you will be able to find work in the same town or the same country. Merel: ‘I think that being apart for a while has made us more flexible, we are used to coping with more situations. We are not as scared of being apart or of living in different cities. We can handle that.’
The tips in this article came from four Wageningen couples. All eight students and graduates have been apart from their loved ones for trips abroad several times. And all four relationships survived.
: Rik Heinen and Merel Scheltema Degrees: International Development Studies (graduate) and Urban Environmental Management Relationship: 3 years Experience abroad: Rik 3.5 months in Bangladesh and 2 months in Vietnam; Merel 3.5 months in Kenya for her MSc thesis and 1 month in Uganda for a consultancy project
: Onnika van Oosterbosch and Jorick van de WaterDegrees: Animal Sciences and International Land and Water Management (both graduates)Relationship: nearly 7 yearsExperience abroad: Onnika 3 months in Malawi for her MSc internship and 3 months in South Africa for her thesis; Jorick 3 months in Vietnam for his BSc internship, 4 months in India and Sri Lanka for his MSc internship, 1 month in Spain for a course and 6 months in Brazil for a job.
: Kelly Nijhuis and Bram WennekesDegrees: both graduates in Earth and Environment Relationship: 2.5 years Experience abroad: Kelly 2 months (twice) in the UK for her MSc thesis; Bram 4 months in Canada for his MSc thesis.
: Hidde Hofhuis and Michelle Janssen Degree: both studying Forest and Nature Conservation; Michelle doing Environmental Sciences as wellRelationship: nearly 3 yearsExperience abroad: Hidde 4 months in India for his thesis; Michelle 1 month in Curaçao for courses and 4 months in Spain for her MSc internship
Tips for tools
Did you know that, even if there is an ocean between you and your boyfriend or girlfriend, you can watch a movie together, even seeing each other on the webcam? This can be done using letsgaze.com. But this not the only tool for making long-distance relationships more enjoyable. With the help of various websites and apps you can sing, draw, write, read or go online-shopping together at a distance. You can find all these possibilities under ‘tools’ on ldrmagazine.com.