What's your advice for a long, long, long distance relationship?

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What's your advice for a long, long, long distance relationship?

Jul 16, 2007 |John Thomas
Question

In January I met online (ya it's sorta possible I guess!) a Christian guy from Canada through an online business. We have been in touch since then, and our friendship has had its ups and downs. Amazingly we have worked through it all. We are no longer business partners but instead really close friends.

I say close because we both have admitted that we care for each other deeply, but because we have not met in person (and it's not like I am around the corner. I am all the way in Colombia, South America) we are not courting. We both have amazingly transitioned from trying to suppress in one way or another the fact that we like each other more than just friends, among other important factors.

Now he is at the point where he wants to come to Colombia and meet me! But he's still getting comfortable with the idea. I'm praying a lot for us, and he is starting to do the same, too.

I would like to know if you can advise or suggest something at all regarding our situation. It is so hard that we are so far away from each other, but at the same time it has happened like this for a good reason.

Answer

With the growing popularity of "meeting" people online, we continue to receive more and more questions similar to yours. I'm glad you wrote because it gives me an opportunity to try to give a little guidance in this area. I'm going to answer in two parts, with more broad strokes in this entry and more specifics in the next.

Long-distance "dating" and Internet "dating" are a little like taking a biology or chemistry course without the lab. You've got the information, and it all makes pretty good sense on paper, but then there's that whole part of actually slicing open the frog, or, if you prefer, mixing different chemicals to invent a new, beautiful fragrance (relationships are a little bit of both).

Obviously, there are certain limitations to getting to know someone by e-mail and photos sent back and forth. I don't doubt at all that two people can connect deeply with one another merely by information exchange — I suppose that's been going on since the invention of the postal service and before. And I can appreciate on many levels one's opinion of another person being shaped more on the content of that person's thoughts and heart (assuming they've communicated that well and honestly) than on how he or she looks in real life.

Back to my lab analogy, though, I do believe there are important aspects about a person that we can know only when we are able to observe them in "real time."

I remember in high school chemistry learning that the attributes of chemicals would be described at "STP," which means standard temperature and pressure. Those attributes would often change when the temperature or pressure applied would change, and the resulting chemical reactions could be harmless or dangerous — something might turn into sugar or, as my friends and I hoped, something might explode. And to take it one more level, get those chemicals out of the controlled environment of the lab and see what happens. Now that's real life.

I say all that to make this obvious point: The more you can observe someone in real life, under both standard situations as well as when the heat is on, the better picture you have of who they really are. I've heard a lot of good content come out of a person's mouth over dinner at a restaurant, only to watch them turn and treat a waitperson with complete disrespect (a major, major pet peeve of mine). Which tells more about the person? Gong! How does he or she interact with family? Watching someone spend an afternoon around his or her family is worth more than a hundred e-mails in terms of who he or she really is.

Words are great. But when I walk in my home at the end of the day and the air-conditioner is busted, the kids have left remnants of a tornado in the living room and my wife informs me that something is dead somewhere because the smell is unbearable and would I please find it and remove if far from our dwelling, I don't share with her my values statement or point to my seminary diploma (wherever it is) or discuss all the world's problems I helped solve that day. The guy that reacts at that moment is the real me. That's the laboratory of life.

One of the weaknesses of long-distance relationships (especially long, long, long distance, as in your case) is that you don't get to observe the "chemicals" in real life, or when you do, it feels very much like the controlled environment of the lab. Everything is perfectly planned and it's like a mini-vacation for both of you. That's not real life.

Of course, no one can be observed under every possible circumstance — that goes on for a lifetime — and people do hopefully grow and mature and change over the course of their lives and thus react differently to various circumstances over time. That's the wonderful difference between humans and chemicals. But I do think with some thought, creativity and planning you can make the face-to-face meetings more valuable in terms of discovering the "real" person.

Taking a long-distance relationship from e-mail to in-person takes some careful consideration. Here are my general thoughts on transitioning from on-line to in-person.

Safety

This is a no-brainer, but I need to mention it. There's plenty of information available out there about using EXTREME caution when meeting face-to-face with people you only know from being on-line. I don't mean to insult anyone's intelligence here, but I'm assuming you've done your homework to ensure that this person is legitimate. I advise that the first meeting be done on the girl's home turf, so that the guy must travel to her. I would never advise her to travel to him first. I realize he's not entirely a stranger, and odds are he's a wonderful, decent, loving human being, but there seems to be no lack of dangerous people out there. Avoid private meetings away from view of others. Surround yourself with plenty of people. More about this below on "what to do."

Knowing when it's time

Two things to consider here: quality and quantity. You've got some baseline values and characteristics you're looking for in a mate, things that, if not shared by the other person, are deal-breakers. That's what I call quality information, and much of that can be discovered, at least in theory, without being face-to-face. You don't want to invest in a face-to-face meeting only to discover the other person doesn't share your faith. That's an exaggerated example, but you get my point. Had you known that from the beginning, you could have saved a lot of time and money (not to mention emotional investment). When you've sufficiently gathered enough quality information, and still have green lights, then it's time to consider face-to-face.

As for quantity, what I mean is how long this on-line thing has been going on. Remember, even though it's not in-person, the on-line relationship is still an emotional investment that needs to be going somewhere, and it's also keeping you from moving on with other potential relationships. The more intentional you are about moving toward meeting face-to-face, the better. If you've covered all the main core values information and whatever other deal-makers and deal-breakers you need to, then there's no need to put it off (given you have the time and financial resources to meet). Once you've covered the key quality information areas, there's no need to draw it out too long. Meeting face-to-face is not saying "I do." It's merely being intentional about moving the relationship forward, or moving on.

Prepare your heart

This meeting can be terribly nerve-racking and stressful. That's why you need to bathe it in prayer, both well in advance of the meeting, and during. Both of you need to pray daily, throughout the days leading up to the visit, that God would prepare your heart for the meeting. You should both be praying that, whatever the outcome of the relationship, God would be glorified in the time you spend together. Ask God to give both of you a "spirit of wisdom and revelation" that you might know "what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect" regarding your lives, whether together or apart. Ask God to help make it clear to both of you throughout the time together the direction you should go with the relationship. I know it's an additional cost, but spend some time on the phone in advance of the meeting praying together. Pray, pray, pray.

Plan, but don't over-plan

The time together needs to be a mix of both planned and unplanned activities and conversations. Sometimes long-distance relationship visits can be like mini-vacations, where everything is perfectly planned and gloriously fun. There's nothing wrong with plans and glorious fun, but if the only time you've ever spent with someone is weekend mini-vacations, life together in marriage will be a shocker. Don't schedule yourselves like tourists, cramming in as much entertainment as possible and leaving no room for conversation, down time, or opportunities to make decisions together about what to do next. The point is not to have a vacation, but to get to know someone in "real life." That means spending plenty of time together around family, friends, mentors, and even co-workers. I suggest scheduling some time to visit his or her workplace and meet co-workers. Conversations with the person's family members and friends are invaluable in getting to know him or her better. The goal is getting to know someone in his or her life-context, not at Disneyland.

What to look for

In addition to the things that you personally are looking for in a mate, I suggest keeping an eye open for some basic things, observable only in-person: respect for other people, especially strangers (how a person treats a waiter or waitress or cashier at the grocery story tells more about them than their resume! Actions speak much louder than words.); sincerely engaging in communication with you (it's easy to e-mail back-and-forth and not really pay much attention, or talk to you on the phone while watching television, but hard to do in-person and get away with it); how they interact with family members and friends; what makes their eyes light up; how they respond when plans are disrupted.

Next steps

If you approach the visit with this kind of intentionality, you should get a fairly decent indication of the person and how the two of you interact and respond together under a variety of circumstances. Take some time together toward the end of your visit and process the meeting a little bit. Give yourselves a few days afterwards to process alone and with others. Put together your thoughts individually and then schedule a time to discuss (by phone, I suggest) next steps, whether to keep moving forward or bring things to a close.

Hopefully these thoughts will give you some guidance as you put together your face-to-face meeting. I haven't exhausted every angle, but use these as a springboard to get you thinking about how to pray for and plan your time together. I hope it goes well.

Blessings,
JOHN THOMAS

Copyright 2007 John Thomas. All rights reserved.

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