Tips on International Long Distance Relationships (LDRs)

After a long and mostly happy 1 year 5 month long distance relationship between me and my Filipino girlfriend, things turned south at a pretty fast rate after we met and finally we left each other last week, neither of us really fully knowing what had happened (several months later, I can guess, but unfortunately it will always be just a guess at this point). Despite this, I am open to the idea of future LDRs, even international LDRs, as long as we do a better job of communicating. I still think they’re indeed possible to pull off, and I wish the best of luck to anyone who might be in one. Here I want to share some tips so that other couples in similar situations may avoid this. This is primarily written for people in international relationships, but people in same-country relationships can learn something here too.

Anything to add to any of these? Tips, warnings, date ideas for those who the Internet is a rare treasure? Comment and I’ll add to the post.

– Communicate. You are both coming from different cultures. Depending on where you are coming from, the rules of dating, personal values, and etiquette may be very different. Do not underestimate this or it will come to kick both of you in the butt. This is the major reason why our relationship failed. Filipino women are raised to believe they should play hard-to-get, to challenge their boyfriends to see if they are worthy. Our relationship was already on the rocks, but she wanted to me to read her mind and decipher her conflicting statements on top of that. As a fairly direct person (an American), I really didn’t appreciate that. To me, that made her seem dishonest, and made her appear like she didn’t know what she wanted. I heartily believe if we were able to talk about this sooner, nail down shared expectations, and draw some boundaries on the relationship, we would still be happy together today. This will most likely take heavy lifting for both of you. You should actively do some research online to figure out as much as you can about each other’s culture. And, hey, it’s a pleasant surprise to the other person if you can demonstrate that you did do your research. Assume the other person knows absolutely nothing about your culture to start off with (unless they prove otherwise)
This can also be tricky – some things are hard to learn. One of my ‘mistakes’ in the Philippines was tossing a backpack onto a chair. In America, this is acceptable, and everyone I got opinions from (probably about 10 people at this point) questions what the problem with that was. My girlfriend and her parents, however, were shocked and appalled. I did not learn this until much later, which leads me to another point here: PLEASE alert your significant other IMMEDIATELY if they do something on accident that is not considered good in your culture. They may not know what it is, and if so they will be confused when you aggressively maintain their behavior was inappropriate while they think they didn’t do anything wrong. And if you’re silently fuming at them, not revealing the reasons behind it, the greater the chances of a tense relationship.

– Forge your own relationship style. At some point in your relationship, probably after one of you visits the other’s country for the first time,  the person who’s visiting may start to realize a disconnect between cultures, and get a sense of the basic differences in them. When either of you feel that time has come, I recommend another talk about how to reconcile those differences, especially if it influences your attitudes, expectations, or values. You will need to compromise on what aspects of the other’s culture you are okay with, and which ones may be deal breakers. For example, one of the gulfs between me and my ex-girlfriend was that she wanted to ‘test’ me, which involved her lying about a certain issue in hopes that she would get a certain response from me. As a Christian, I am not open to any lies in the relationship, and I thought she would have been the same, that the issue was beyond discussion. So, wanting to please my ex by following her request, I interpreted her lie (which was that she didn’t want any more gifts) as truth, which was not the reaction she wanted, and when she got angry I was understandably confused. Only MUCH later after the breakup did I begin to piece together what had happened. The key, again, is to address cross-cultural issues before they become a problem. Be understanding.

– Going from the above, tell the truth. This should go without saying for ANY relationship, but be honest to your significant other. This is several times more important than in a traditional relationship because it is easier to have doubts the less you are with each other. 99.9% of the time there is no excuse for not telling the truth (the remaining 0.01% is allotted for any surprise parties or gifts :P).

– Use emoji. Yes, some people may hate them with a passion. But they’re important if you can’t see your significant other while talking – most of our conversations were through text messages. Something you say may easily be taken as something else due to a variety of factors – the other person not knowing your language well, different meanings in a sentence between the sender and receiver, or simply mistaking your intent. Letting the other person know your mood along with the message helps in understanding it – after all, happy faces are universal.
(6/22/16 addendum: note that emoji are also subject to some miscommunication. One particular emoji, due to its position in the WhatsApp library, I thought to be a generally happy face. Today I found out that it’s really not but still easily mistakable, leading me to worry about all kinds of situations where a friend used it and I got the wrong message entirely. The page even says ‘use with caution’. For that reason, stick to the more basic, easily identifiable emoji. Related to that, please please please don’t ONLY use emoji to respond to something.)

– Whenever possible, talk in front of a camera. This is especially important, I feel, for arguments. There’s an odd tendency in email sometimes to come off meaner than you actually are when you’re making a grievance known. Talking in person or via a camera will help remove that possibility.

– Be prepared to think outside the box. With long distance comes the question: how do we date? This can vary wildly depending on your circumstances: how long you can sit down together at one time, and HOW you can talk (Skype, phone, IM, …) can greatly affect you. In the most severe cases, you’ll find that most of the date ideas given for LDR relationships online just don’t work because they assume you are in the same countries, or on both of you having a reliable tech/internet connection. Neither was typically true in our case! Take that away, and you’re up against a stiff handicap. But there are still things you can do. (http://instasync.com/ to sync up YouTube playlists, or sharing similar experiences like meals, books, or movies, but on your own time, and discussing them afterward. Those are just a few ways.)

– Expect things to change after meeting in person. Depending on the circumstances, meeting your date in person for the first time can feel like a whole new relationship. You’ll see things about them that you’ve never picked up on before, and vice versa. This can be scary, and for good reason – for better or for worse, you’ll be able to finally know them in a real sense, not just the persona they put on for an hour or two a day while talking to you. The host (the person in their own country) should take care to educate the other as to not offend anyone accidentally, and suddenly derail the relationship for reasons at least one of you doesn’t understand.

– Tell your partner you love them. A lot. Again, should be applicable to all relationships, but I do believe this is a bit more important in LDRs. Don’t miss an opportunity to let them know your feelings. Especially if you don’t get to talk every day, and even if you do. In our relationship, every so often I would go a day or two – or even up to a week – without talking to my ex-girlfriend in the beginning before we found a good communication solution.

– Have at least two reliable (daily) means of communication. We only really had one – texting. Because she didn’t have a laptop of her own OR stable internet, Skype messages and email could have taken days to be seen/read (and of course international calling was out of the question due to costs). But you need to have something to fall back on if something goes awry with your first method. Calling and texting, while indeed better than just texting, would not count as two – what if one of you loses their phone? Then both methods are shot. Similarly, two IM tools on the computer really only count as one since the internet can easily go down for either of you and ruin your usage of both. So the best scenario would be if you could call/text and had something internet-based like Skype.

– Make sure you negotiate communication times. If you’re international, you’re probably in different time zones. Make sure to establish which times you would like to hear from each other – and how often. It’s possible that you may not be able to communicate every day – expect it to hit you harder than you think :(

– Make sure you see them before meeting them or sending money. This one is just a safety tip, really (nothing I personally ran into). Make seeing them a top priority while starting out. If they consistently make excuses, that is a red flag. Seeing them should alleviate many concerns that they aren’t who they say they are. And under no circumstances should you agree to meet them, give them money, or anything requiring a substantial amount of trust until this happens. Being computer-illiterate is not an excuse. If you met them through online dating, chances are they know their way around a computer to an extent – or at least they know somebody who does.

– If they try to rush things, make you feel sorry for them, or otherwise make you guilty, be wary. Just another safety tip. They may be taking advantage of you, pressuring you to make commitments. Even if they don’t want your money, do you really want to have a rushed relationship, or an attention-seeking partner?

2 thoughts on “Tips on International Long Distance Relationships (LDRs)”

  1. Hey Brian,
    I really liked your post and as someone currently in an international LDR I thought your post did a great job of capturing some of the struggles in my relationship. I was curious as to your opinion of how to handle one partners ‘expectations’. When I made the visit to Japan, my girlfriend was pressuring me to have intimate relations with her. I was uncomfortable as we had essentially just met irl. I was curious if this was something you faced on your trip and how you handled this.
    Thanks
    – Isaac

    1. Hey Issac, thanks for reading! No, we didn’t face anything QUITE like that. Although we never openly discussed intimate relations, we are both Christian and saw sex as off-limits at our current stage, so neither of us pushed it. But speaking more broadly, yes, we did deal with different expectations (or more precisely, failed to deal with them :\ When a difference came up either I kept quiet and played along, which is bad for me, or said something and then got scolded for not being proper, which is bad for her). Generally, when dealing with differences between you, keep in mind there could be a few different explanations, not just cultural differences. Maybe that’s how SHE is. Or maybe the fact that you ‘beat the distance’ to see her was really important to her (this may in fact be part of it).

      I did find an article that may shed more light on this particular case, though: “So far as physical intimacy after becoming boyfriend and girlfriend: I believe everything is fair game. Eastern cultures don’t have the religious stigma of sex before marriage being a sin, so most are open to premarital sex.” That’s from https://backtojapan.wordpress.com/2011/08/07/japanese-dating-culture/
      The Philippines are in fact one of the few Asian countries that are predominately Christian. But Japan is of course not.

      So yeah, it does seem like a cultural thing. Either way, you would need to talk with her. Open the discussion by telling her the truth: it makes you feel uncomfortable, and that’s not something that usually happens so quickly where you’re from. I don’t know what country you are from, but I assume that it’s one where this is less okay. Besides the cultural difference, give her any other reasons you might have (e.g. religious) for not being able to do that. Then tell her when you will be comfortable having sex with her. It’s possible she may be initially upset because you cannot show your love for her in that way, at least not yet, but if you communicate that it’s important to you, she’ll understand. Some sacrifice is required from both of you, and you both need to be willing to see things from the other person’s point of view.

      As (I assume) the first person to visit the other’s country, you have more combined knowledge about the cultures than she does right now. Use that and smooth out any potential disconnects like that. Like I said in my post, having a talk about what you learned and how both of you can adapt to each other’s culture is key at this stage.

      I wish you the very best in your relationship – simply wanting to make that kind of effort says a lot about you.

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