Nurturing a Long-Distance Relationship on the Mission Field: Part 1
Distance amplifies normal relationship struggles and areas of friction like differing expectations, miscommunications, scheduling challenges, balancing work/life, etc. Add the unpredictable, unique challenge of full-time ministry and missions life, and it’s a high-stress environment in which to nurture a healthy relationship.
The good news is, it’s hard, but not impossible.
In February 2013 I joined OM as the European Area Communications Facilitator. I moved to England not knowing a soul and proceeded to travel all over Europe nearly every couple weeks for most of the year, writing and editing stories and teaching communications workshops.
I met my now-fiance while back on a fund-raising furlough in the United States. After a year with OM, I returned for six months to raise support to transition to a new role as a producer and script-writer with OMNIvision, OM’s video and production team. While I was back, I connected with my fiancé, Remmington, and his family (who were supporters of mine) through mutual friends and our church. Remm and I formed a strong friendship and there was definitely interest in something more, but it seemed like the worse timing possible for any kind of romantic relationship.
When I returned to England for my second term, we decided to comfortably walk that line of more-than-friends but not-quite-dating (how do you date someone who lives across the ocean?) and continue getting to know each other. Though it was a difficult scenario to explain to colleagues, family, and friends, it worked for us and looking back I’m very thankful for that opportunity to strengthen our relationship and make use of hours talking to really get to know each other on a deep level.
I faced many very challenging situations over the next six months, struggling to deal emotionally with constant travel, new job and team dynamics (I was the only woman), and multiple layers of culture shock. Remm became my rock, encouraging me and praying for me daily. No matter how hard things got, he reminded me that God had brought me there for a reason.
Remm came to visit me in February 2015, meeting my friends in England and visiting my church, and we officially started dating. Through many ups and downs and struggles our relationship changed and grew, but we still felt God leading us to serve Him together.
I came back from England in December 2015, and our relationship had to weather yet another cataclysmic change. But the skills we learnt while apart served us well as our relationship transitioned. In August 2016 Remm asked me to marry him (yes, I said yes) and in February we celebrated three years together and praised God for bringing us through so much. In April, we will say our vows and become man and wife.
It hasn’t been an easy journey. But it has been so very worth it. So, God put it on my heart to share with others what I learnt along the way.
I know. Sounds very romantic, right? But creating routines and structure for your relationship helps each of you know what to expect from each other, minimizing conflict and giving you something positive to look forward to. For example, my fiancé worked night shift during the time I was overseas, so it became our tradition to Skype (or call via MagicJack, more on that later) over breakfast before I headed to work (he was just getting back from his job, due to the time difference) or just before I went to bed. This ensured consistent connection and added normality and stability to a relationship that had to weather a great deal of change over my second year-and-a-half term with OM.
Think like a team
During my term with OM, I was traveling almost constantly to many Third-World countries where technology was limited at best. Remm was working full-time night shift at a hospital, while completing his major and minor at university and performing as a principal dancer with Ballet Wichita. With both of us in high-stress, low-sleep environments almost constantly, it was all too easy to take out our frustrations on each other. We had to work hard to “think like a team” and encourage each other when each felt tired or discouraged, not comparing our challenges but helping each other through them.
One of the best decisions I made when coming back to England after furlough was to invest in an unlocked iPhone with an international calling app (I used a phone service called MagicJack. When people called my U.S. number, it rang on my phone anywhere in the world). While a bit more expensive initially, this gave me the flexibility to purchase a cheap SIM card wherever I traveled and have texting, internet, and data capabilities in all but the most remote locations. Written communications are easily misunderstood without tone and expression to add context. The ability to keep our nightly Skype and phone call “dates” and stay in touch even while traveling proved invaluable.
Be honest, but stay positive
When your relationship primarily consists of talking to a person on your computer screen, it’s easy to start feeling sorry for yourselves (everyone else gets to go to church with their boyfriend/girlfriend). Be honest about what’s hard, but then move on and enjoy what you do have available to you. Take turns asking each other questions (the more random, the better). Rent the same movie and watch it together with commentary. Share stories about great memories you have together.
Visit whenever possible
This may sound obvious, but it is worth the time and expense to get a real hug and spend some time together in person. Another OM couple who are friends of mine both traveled extensively with OM communications and “met” for dates in a different country every time! It made a huge difference that Remm came to see me, met my friends, went to my church and small group, made pizza in my kitchen, walked the streets of my city. Not only does this give you positive memories in places you frequent, it also lends your SO context when you call and say you’re walking to that Indian Curry place around the corner.
Make sure there’s an end in sight
Even though two years felt like forever, I knew before I returned to England from furlough that I would be coming back to the States after my term to pursue my fiction writing and editing. I didn’t (and still don’t) feel called to be a long-term missionary overseas, though I have the highest respect for those who are. I also knew, after we started dating, that if I decided to renew my term and remain overseas with OM, that would mean God had different callings on our lives and the relationship (as it was) would end. That doesn’t mean you have to have your future all figured out right away! But it does mean you have to be honest with each other about where you’re at in your journey and if God’s leading you another direction.
But for those of you who do feel God is blessing your relationship, embrace the sometimes-difficult fact that He has each of you exactly where you need to be for this season. Even though the separation was incredibly difficult at times, Remm and I can look back now and see how God used that season to strengthen us, and teach us to communicate and make the best of every situation.
So, keep your chin up, take a deep breath, and carry on. Choose to be thankful, be honest, and be authentic. Learn when to take others’ advice, and when to ignore the naysayers. Focus on building up the other person. And remember—by God’s grace, you can build a healthy relationship long-distance and bring Him glory in the journey.
Stay tuned for Part 2!