Transitioning to a Long Distance Relationship with limited connectivity?
December 7, 2014 9:45 AM   Subscribe

ProfMiasma, my partner for over two years (cohabitating for 9+ months), is going off to do fieldwork in West Africa for the next 1.5 years. For the first 6 months, she'll be "in the bush" with limited access to communication technology. Given this limited connectivity situation, what practices and tools can we use to make the best of our long-distance relationship situation? (More Details Inside)

For the first six months, she'll be "in the bush", in a rural animal sanctuary with limited access to technology. Mobile phone signal is known to be extremely weak and intermittent, persistent electricity is nil -- a generator is available to charge devices with a DC adapter. She'll be able to go to a nearby village or the city every so often (every week or two?) to access an internet cafe. Postal mail takes about a month to arrive (and isn't guaranteed to make it through safely).

Already taken a look at the good advice here and here. But, most advice seems to rely on having connectivity (texting, email, video chat, visits).

Previously, I used Skype for phone calls and texting (on my side) and we plan on doing so again. Also, I'm planning to visit 3 months in for 7-10 days. We've come up with little ideas to keep the low-impact daily connection there (regular check-in times, accumulating msgs throughout the day and reading them as digests, sending little mementos along).

But, I was hoping the hivemind here had similar experiences (military, academics, LDRs) and have ideas about making this work. ProfMiasma and I are committed and are hoping to grow our relationship during this time, not just bearing it or feeling like the relationship is "on hold." I'm reaching out to my local support network to fill some of the connection gap and I'm thinking about other ways to make my life feel a little more full without her daily presence (hobbies, gym, etc.)

So, what works? Good practices, advice, and tools/technology are welcome!
posted by miasma to Human Relations (15 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
There are few things as romantic as very long, thoughtful, handwritten letters that take months, luck, and some adventure to arrive in the hands of a lover!

Imagine the treasure you'll both have, after a year and a half of relationship.
posted by ipsative at 10:04 AM on December 7, 2014 [18 favorites]

What if you write a bundle of letters to take with her that are dated, and she has to open them on that date, not before. I think it could be something cute like a little conversation that she has to fill in - like you're talking. Then she can try to mail them back or at the end of the 6 months she can send them all at once if need be. You can also write these on waterproof paper to protect from the elements.

Also, try to make the weekly (or bi-weekly) chats useful. Don't feel like you HAVE to talk for so long just because you can. Sometimes it can feel forced and boring and you end up just thinking about how much you miss each other rather than having fun in the moment. If the conversations starts getting to silence and "umm's it can turn sad and it's a good idea to end it on a happy note and not a bored one.

I also think you should get hooked on some good TV shows that you can binge watch on Netflix. The time flies when you watch TV. Also make time to hang out with friends. In reality 6 months will fly by, especially if she's able to chat every couple weeks.

I have had online only relationships and I was away for 6 weeks when my husband and I first started dating. So I have limited experience, but not none.
posted by Crystalinne at 10:17 AM on December 7, 2014 [1 favorite]

Ooh, yes, handwritten letters are going to be your friends here, much more than technology.
posted by roomthreeseventeen at 10:18 AM on December 7, 2014

Internet capable phone will possibly be cheaper in the long run than an internet cafe, even if profmiasma can only use it when visiting that village. Should be able to get a small solar panel plus dry cell battery for less than $150 in the region which can then be used to charge the phone should the cell coverage situation improve - a real possibility, depending on the country at least, in many the cell phone coverage is rapidly expanding.

For letters, keep in mind you don't have to wait to receive one to write one - even if it's a month delay, you can still write weekly or more.
posted by solotoro at 10:21 AM on December 7, 2014 [1 favorite]

When I went travelling without my long-term boyfriend (admittedly only for 2 months) he made me a mix CD for each week with strict instructions to only listen to one a week. They really, really helped. I also wrote letters to him when I wasn't online and then typed them up and sent them when I was. At his end, I think he stayed busy with his work and with going to the gym a lot.
posted by Dorothea_in_Rome at 10:38 AM on December 7, 2014

You'd have to do a little research into what gets service in that part of the world, but handheld satellite phones with prepaid minutes are available. At one point a "satellite phone" was a cumbersome piece of gear you had to haul on your back, but newer models are only about the size of a mid-'90s cellphone. (Random link I googled, I don't vouch for this company in particular)
posted by drjimmy11 at 10:53 AM on December 7, 2014

Consider that "on hold" doesn't mean going backwards. Letting her focus on being there without the pressure of also "growing" a relationship might be the best gift to both of you.

The best bet is going to be sending regular postal mail. There is a kind of magic in receiving and sending mail, some of which won't make it, and getting a response weeks or months later, and sometimes your responses will overlap in a humorous way. Alternate sending longer letters with shorter snippets, so that a missing letter won't be the end of the world. Think postcard-level snippets of life, with conversations from friends and family, or little clippings from newspapers or magazines, or photos of your pets or daily life.

Assume the internet cafe will have clunky and somewhat slow computers. There will probably be phones that have a delay and you'll have to factor in the time zones. Try not to get frustrated when the technology fails and isn't as responsive as you'd like.

Depending on how much time you have before she leaves, you could put together little care packages for each other to open on the first of every month. Then you'd have something to look forward to, without having to arrange it getting there ahead of time. But if she's anything like me, organizing these things before a 6 month fieldwork trip would stress me out, and make me a bit resentful.

Reach out to other friends. Figure out what a project that you've always wanted to do, but haven't because of time: street photography, a new TV series (i.e. the Wire or Breaking Bad or Sopranos - something engrossing!), quilting, knitting, edit your 1000s of photos, develop proficiency at 15 new types of recipes, visit local museums, help your friends with kids, etc.

Having the dates for a visit setup ahead of time is a good idea, but know that the dates might need to change. It might be better for her to get there, suss things out, and then confirm or adjust those dates as needed.

Basically - assume you're in it for the long haul, and this will be a blip in your otherwise long relationship. If my partner of 9+ years left for 6 months, we'd miss each other, and I'd be a bit lonely or bored at first, but it wouldn't really cross my mind that it would break our relationship. The more you stress about regular and meaningful contact the more that becomes the proxy for your relationship, which it can never replace. Think of this as somewhat of an alternate or parallel world, and not the same world which either grows or regresses your regular relationship.
posted by barnone at 11:07 AM on December 7, 2014 [5 favorites]

Back in the nineties, I had a friend doing fieldwork in Papua New Guinea. We wrote snail mail and it was awesome. We weren't romantically involved, but it definitely made us the closest that we'd been. Since postal reliability is an issue, maybe photocopy the longer letters so that on her return, ProfMiasma can read any that went astray.

Mixing more- and less-immediate technologies takes a bit of care. When mrs_goldfish & I were in an LDR, I'd email her, and then before reaching her email she'd phone me and ask about the same topic (this made me irrationally resentful at her for short-circuiting my carefully crafted email, with its series of reveals, etc.). But another friend likes to both phone and send us snailmail, and her solution to the variable-timescale problem has been to write postcards, on particular unexpected moments or topics, that wouldn't naturally pop up in phone chats.

ProfMiasma and I are committed and are hoping to grow our relationship during this time, not just bearing it or feeling like the relationship is "on hold."... I'm thinking about other ways to make my life feel a little more full without her daily presence (hobbies, gym, etc.)

Perhaps you can combine these goals by finding a hobby that will grow your relationship to ProfMiasma? Learning how to do things that you can do together on your return, e.g. exploring local trails to show her? Taking an introductory course in her field? Working on crafty presents to be sent, or to be welcome-home gifts.
posted by feral_goldfish at 11:09 AM on December 7, 2014 [1 favorite]

This may be a little orthogonal to the advice you're hoping for, but I think maybe one of the most important things you can do to grow the relationship is to give her the freedom to not think about the relationship so much during this one stage in her life. I say this both as someone who's done 18-month stints of fieldwork and as someone who's been involved international student exchange as a sending and hosting parent. The more you are focused on maintaining communication with people back home, the less you are able to focus on building your ties with the people around you and whatever mission you are there to accomplish.

That said, care packages are awesome when you're away from home that long.
posted by drlith at 11:38 AM on December 7, 2014 [9 favorites]

This depends very much on your personalities, but I did better with less contact with my then-fiance when we were separated by work/school for nine months. Talking to him got me in the "missing you" headspace that I was trying hard to stay out of, and it ended up making me crankier overall. So I agree with the snail-mail advice.
posted by metasarah at 12:01 PM on December 7, 2014

More solidarity-hobbies: you mention ProfMiasma will be doing fieldwork in a rural animal sanctuary. Would you be interested in volunteering at a local animal shelter or zoo?

The Internet says your local Animal Rescue League has various volunteer opportunities. Some are right downtown (socializing small critters, folding laundry), some are out in Brewster or Dedham (helping people adopt dogs, or working with horses if you're experienced).

Zoo New England currently has volunteer openings for interpreters, gardeners, commissary (animal fodder), Special Event staff, and Keeper Aides, who assist the Animal Care department behind-the-scenes to help provide for the health, safety, care and enrichment of our diverse animal collection, which I'm guessing involves shoveling.

Your contrasting experiences might supply nifty anecdotes for postcards, and for conversations when she returns and starts writing up her research. Here are a couple starting-places for imagining such a conversation (even if it's only a conversation in which ProfMiasma explains how wrong these books are):

The Tribe of Tiger: Cats and Their Culture is written by someone raised by anthropologists in the Kalahari -- her politics of culture are kinda horrible & outdated, but this is more annoying in her other work than in her animal stuff, which is totally popularized and anecdotal -- comparing the lives of various big cats and domestic cats, and especially human-animal relations, in different times and places. I liked the bit where she argued that tigers are happier in circuses than in zoos, and the bit where she talks about how the lions and people where she grew up had developed a behavioral language for avoiding conflict during accidental encounters, a language which the local lions to some degree retained even though the people changed, and was terrifyingly absent when she met lions elsewhere.

Cat Culture: the Social World of an Animal Shelter is written by sociologists who spent years volunteering at a no-kill shelter, and are arguing that its de facto organization can only be understood if we reckon that it includes a culture developed by the shelter cats themselves, both domestic and feral. It sounds wacky, but it's a decent argument IMHO.
posted by feral_goldfish at 12:57 PM on December 7, 2014 [1 favorite]

I am going a little lateral to suggest that rather than focus during the time your partner is gone, gear up for reconnecting afterwards. I hear you that you don't want the relationship to be "on hold" but it is going to change anyway. This is not necessarily a bad thing. I would just build in time to "date all over again" at key points.

Another practical suggestion, depending on how onerous it is for each of you, is that you each keep a journal while you are apart. You can share entries while you are, but when you're back together you can snuggle in bed and say "oh oh oh! I remember I wanted to tell you about this!"

Another thing you can do if there's luggage space is read some of the same books at the same time, like "this week we're reading x."
posted by warriorqueen at 1:40 PM on December 7, 2014

When I was a military wife, I sent care packages to hubby when he was gone for a long time. I would send fairly small boxes with things like Capri Sun orange juice and homemade cookies and thoughtful little things I knew he could not get where he was at, things that were a real luxury for him and touch of home. I also sent him things like phone cards or rolls of quarters so he could call me more easily. (That might need to be updated for modern tech to "cover the cost of a satellite phone" or something.)

Though I never had a month wait on mail. So I think if I were in your shoes, I would see if there was any way at all to buy it online such that it showed up faster than a month or if there are local services you can hire to help you with this or some other hack of that sort.
posted by Michele in California at 2:03 PM on December 7, 2014

I'm currently in East Africa, quite a distance away from my long term girlfriend. I have regular internet access though, which makes such a difference.

There are lots of great suggestions here. Something critical though is to try and understand the timing of things on her end, and the expectations that result from that. If you write a fantastic letter but it arrives after the once-a-month trip to the nearest city, then she arrives full of expectation and gets disappointed. Even though she knows it's just timing, even though she knows the letter will come. There will be these small moments of incredible anticipation, and it's really important not to miss them. Make sure there's always something for her when she checks the internet. Make sure there's always a letter on the semi-regular trip to town.

Normally, your relationship is lived and expressed through several hours a way. You interact all the time, you're aware of each others' moods and happenings, and can work together through it all. When you're apart, the relationship becomes 95% imagination. You remember them, you think about what they'd say if they were here, you think about what you're going to tell them next time you meet. This can all be lovely, but it's all in your head. The actual interactive part of the relationship is forced into that tiny 5% when you're on the phone, or receiving a letter, or sitting on Skype. Those moments become hugely important.

So: you'll both be hotly anticipating those rare moments. Be very aware of how you're feeling, and what you're expecting. It can be unfair to expect/subconsciously require your partner to be excited and loving for those five minutes - normally if she had a hard day that would be fine, and you'd chat about it later. Here, if she's short tempered or not that engaged during those five minutes, you'll be obsessing about it for days afterwards. Try as hard as you can to be faithful to the idea of your relationship, and what it is when you're together, and not reinterpret it all through the frame of the last interaction. Conversely, do your best to be loving and understanding during those times, painstakingly so - you need to be hyper aware of how you're sounding, how you're responding, what you're saying, etc. You don't want her most recent memory of you to be something less than ideal.

Perhaps this sounds overly paranoid, or like something that's only relevant if the relationship is already troubled, but I think it's easy to fail to realise how often - even in wonderful relationships - we read each other incorrectly and then instantly correct ourselves. Normally it's no big deal, but it can be huge if that's your only contact for a month.

Anyway - be loving, be generous, and make sure there's always something waiting for her in the village every week or two.
posted by twirlypen at 3:13 AM on December 8, 2014 [2 favorites]

Can you buy a little Dictaphone and record some messages for her?
She can take the Dictaphone with her and play your voice every evening.

In the meantime, you buy another Dictaphone for yourself and start recording messages each day while she's away.

Then, send the finished tape to her so she'll have something new to listen to.

Handwritten letters are just wonderful, but there's nothing quite like hearing the voice of your loved one when you're away from them!
posted by JenThePro at 7:32 AM on December 8, 2014

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