Long distance relationships and polyamory

by Mx Ruby-Rouge

In the era of internet dating, long distance relationships are becoming more and more commonplace. Add into the mix the fact that as a poly, kinky person, you’re dating within a smaller pool of available people than most, and it becomes necessary to cast your net a little wider than your home city and surrounding suburbs in order to meet the right people. Most of my poly partners have lived in different cities to me, and I really notice the difference to my relationships the distance causes, compared to relationships where my lover lived close by. Everyone’s experience of long distance relationships will vary depending on their circumstances, needs, wants and commitments, but these are mine. Being kinky and long distance has its own set of issues too, as much of my time with my partners is play-focussed, but I’ll talk about that in another post.

My first poly relationship was with a man who lived 100 miles away, which wasn’t too bad by car, but for me meant a very expensive, multiple changes train journey to his place. He was busy with his business, and issues with the metamour meant that most of our time together was spent in various pubs and restaurants at our halfway point: Derby. The distance and lack of regular, intimate, ‘real’ time together limited the relationship severely, and as regular readers will know, this one didn’t end well.

From then on, I got tough on my distance rules, amongst others. I made it clear on my dating profiles that I was only prepared to meet people living within an hour’s distance of me, and that had to include my travel time on public transport. Whilst many idiotic people wrote to me and tried to persuade me that they’d happily drive a four hour round trip to see me every week, or that London wasn’t much further than one hour, really, I stuck firm. Even though most of my relationships since that first one has been with people not living in my city, I know how big a difference being close and able to see each other regularly and easily can make to a relationship. Even those relationships with people living an hour away felt radically different to those with people living a mile away.

Time is always the enemy for us poly folk: there’s simply never enough of it. When you’re trying to juggle multiple jobs, partners, studies, hobbies and running a house, time is more precious than gold. When I only have one day free to see my loved one this month, every second spent travelling to and from to them is less seconds with them. When the travel time becomes a significant proportion of the time you’ve got to spend with your loved one, it quickly becomes a limiting factor to the relationship. If me and my honey can only see each other at the weekends (because the travel time and distance makes a mid-week date unworkable) then I can only see them eight days out of the month. But when we both factor in our other commitments, it quickly becomes a once or twice a month scenario. 

The juggling means that dates need to be carefully planned and put in diaries (thank heavens for Google Calendar), and the margin for error and change is practically zero. If one of us falls ill or needs to re-arrange, all the other commitments in our respective diaries can mean it’s weeks before we can jiggle things round and see each other again.  Whilst there may be some folks who maybe work for themselves, or don’t have any other relationships or commitments who could spend many days with their honey at a time, for most of us that simply isn’t possible in the long distance relationship.

The need for planning and organisation of dates means a lot of the spontaneity of a relationship is gone. When someone needs to take time off from work in order to see you midweek, you can’t just call them up and say ‘fancy doing x tonight?’. Likewise if someone is in trouble or maybe just needs hugs, the distance and other commitments can mean those long distance partners can’t be there to support you as much as someone who lived round the corner might be able to. A long distance partner can’t easily offer a late night lift to the hospital to get that swollen ankle checked out, or come to an important appointment with you. The inability to just drop round for a cup of tea of an evening, or to watch an episode of Silk together every Sunday can reduce the ongoing intimacy and connection, and make things stagnate at the ‘new’ stage.

There are other factors to long distance relationships that can be both good and bad. When you only see someone once a week or month, they tend to see the best sides of you. Whilst the person(s) you live with will see you first thing in the morning, or when you’re sick or needing a duvet day, a long distance lover is unlikely to. I’m more likely to cancel a date rather than see them when I’m not great, because I want our precious time together to be magnificent rather than me being ill or grumpy. So whilst my long suffering primary partner gets the warts and all, my other partners tend to get the ‘best’ me, the one who has freshly washed and styled hair, the one wearing make up, the one not ill (I suffer from some long term conditions that make me ill frequently), the one with the clean house and the full cupboards, and the one generally up for sexy playtimes. Whilst this is still me, it’s a skewed view of me, and isn’t how I live day to day. In that respect, this connections can feel almost surreal, because they’ve never seen my ‘bad’ sides, and that can feel quite scary a façade to drop.

As in all relationships, we turn to certain people for certain things. Whilst I might speak to my boyfriend about legal questions or to debate over whether Star Wars is better than Star Trek, my primary partner is the person I turn to the most. Partly it’s because he is my husband, and the person I trust most in the world. He knows me the best, and the most, and there’s many years of history between us and of me that he understands. He’s been through so much with me that none of my other partners have, because they don’t live day-to-day with me. This can also become a self perpetuating cycle – if you need cuddles or affection, you can’t get it from your partner who lives in York, because you aren’t seeing them for three weeks. Your partner may make a significant life decision without even involving you in a discussion about it, because your lives aren’t significantly intertwined to make that feel necessary. There’s also the reluctance to ‘ruin’ the precious time you have together talking about serious life stuff, when you know you only have eight hours to your train home, and then a whole month apart.

After having had local and long distance poly relationships, and having seen patterns in others’ relationships, I found something really important. For me, at this stage in my life when I’m juggling multiple relationships, multiple jobs, multiple studies and running a house, the distance is a limiting factor on my relationships. When I’ve fallen in love with someone who happened to live in Manchester or Leeds, I saw them as regularly as I could, but there always came a point when the relationship didn’t feel like a relationship. That was generally because I didn’t feel as involved in their lives as I wanted to be, because I was only around once a week/fortnight/month. It was hard to introduce me to friends and family, because I often wasn’t around at opportune times, and because when we did see each other, we wanted to spend it together, and not waste the time with others. Many of my partners had partners (primary and secondary) who lived nearer, and they seemed to feel closer and more committed to them, because of the spontaneity and exposure they had with them to allow that intimacy to develop. Burning out became an issue, as I found I was travelling around the country on various trains and coaches every weekend (and midweeks), and neglecting not only to give myself some off time, but to devote the same amount of energy and effort to my primary.

After ending multiple relationships with people I loved because things didn’t feel like relationships, I came to the conclusion that at the moment, with my jobs and studies, I can’t offer full on polyamorous relationships to anyone who lives in a different city to me. I lack the time, energy and resources to spend enough time with people for them to feel significantly intertwined in my life, and for me to be able to offer them enough support and energy in return. At the moment I have several play partnerships with people I love very much, built around our mutual kinks, friendship, love, respect and honesty. I do hope in the future, when I’m juggling less real life stuff that I can have more space in my life to juggle full on polyamorous relationships, but it would be unfair of me to continue to try now.

So to anyone thinking about long distance relationships, here’s a few thoughts for you. First of all, long distance relationships mean you can meet some amazing people you might never have been able to know if you’d stuck to your home city. Don’t discount people primarily on distance, there are other more important factors that limit whether a relationship is workable or not. Second, look very carefully about your available time, energy and resources. You might fall madly in lust with that hot queer over in Leicester, but can you realistically and consistently dedicate enough to make that relationship work? Relationships need work and energy pouring into them for them to flourish, and you need to know you can offer that to someone before you go down that road. Don’t let your decisions be governed by your pants, use your head and avoid tears later. Third, be honest and realistic about what you want from a connection, and whether you can get it from this person or from another. If you want a relationship where your lover spends three nights a week with you, can you make this work long distance, or does this need to be a different form of connection? Fourth, be prepared to work around the problem. You might only be able to spend time with your lover once a month, but we can connect in other ways in this electronic age. You can text/Whatsapp/Telegram all day should you so wish, email, use social media sites, or voice call each other. Skype or face-time is a wonderful way of feeling like you’re connecting, just chatting about your day and keeping the relationship momentum going. Let’s not forget the good old fashioned letter writing, sending your love a little note or tiny gift to let them know you’re thinking of them. Meeting at events or half-way points can cut down on travel and allow you to spend time with each other socially rather than in the bubble at one of your homes. Finally, be prepared for long distance relationships to be less intense/committed/involved unless you can all invest significantly into it, or if one or more people are prepared to move closer to each other. Being close to each other allows spontaneity, which allows us more ‘real time’ with each other, allowing relationships to deepen and strengthen.

Long distance relationships have been the bedrock of my polyamorous relationships, and I’ve had some amazing loves because I’ve been prepared to accept the downsides with the upside of meeting these wonderful people. I truly believe that if I lived in the same cities as some of them, we’d still be together, and that makes me sad, but also affirms my need for closeness in my most intimate relationships. It’s taken me three years to figure that out, and to all the partners I’ve broken up with because of it, I’m truly sorry that I didn’t figure this out earlier, and save us both some pain, but I wouldn’t go back and not be in those relationships if I could. I’d just approach them differently, as I do now, knowing what I need and want at this stage in my life.