Illustration by Ruby A.

If you should ever embark on a long-distance relationship, you’ll quickly be able to tell the optimists from the pessimists in your life. The optimists will comfort you with platitudes like “absence makes the heart grow fonder,” while the pessimists will come back with “out of sight, out of mind.” And for the duration of your long-distance relationship, you will most likely waver between these two trains of thought, alternately exhilarated and exhausted.

As someone who spent SIX YEARS in an LDR (that’s “long-distance relationship” from here on out, not Lana Del Rey), it has been my experience that the pessimists tend to outweigh the optimists. I had people give me sympathetic sighs as soon as I mentioned that my boyfriend (now my husband) lived hours—and, for a while, an ocean—away. “That’s too bad,” they would say, with more than a hint of doom in their voices. I’d hear stories from friends and acquaintances (and magazine articles and television shows) about LDRs gone horribly wrong: cheaters, people who simply stopped calling, people who became jerks after hanging out with a new and awful crowd, and people who just moved on. And all of these stories were completely valid: LDRs do not work for everyone. But they CAN work. The universe is throwing you a challenge, and if you choose to accept it, I have a few pointers for you:

Understand the obstacles.

An LDR requires you to set realistic expectations on how often you’ll be able to connect with your partner. When my dude and I were physically separated for those six years, we had to spend months at a time without seeing each other in person, which isn’t easy when all you want to do is make out or hold hands or just stare at someone’s face and say dumb things like “your freckles are perfectly distributed.” Staying in touch is imperative, but it can also feel impossible at times—life gets in the way, as do time zones, work, and school.

There will be days when dealing with all of this is easy: you’ll both be busy, you’ll have a sweet phone call, and you’ll feel good about things. And then there will be the hard days when you need a hug, when the phone call ends in tears, or when you simply doubt what you’re doing. Be prepared to be lonely, to crave physical contact, to get frustrated that things can’t be easier, and to miss someone more than you’ve ever missed anything in your life. (And if you are me in 2003, be prepared to repeatedly sob-sing “Transatlanticism” by Death Cab for Cutie on your bedroom floor.)

Your partner may be feeling the same way, and you both need to understand that the entire point of your relationship should be to make each other happy, not miserable. If finding the time to talk becomes more of a duty than a desire, or if the sad days outnumber the good days by a substantial margin, it may be time to reassess the situation. Even the loveliest things don’t always last. But you may find yourself feeling more secure as time goes on, and this is probably a sign that your relationship is getting stronger and adapting to the obstacles. And if you can plan trips to see each other with some regularity, you always have something to look forward to.

Keep in touch.

Unlike the lonely lovers of the past, you don’t have to send your beloved a letter via pony or pigeon or steamship and wait months for a reply. You’ve got texting, Skype, FaceTime, Gchat, iChat, Facebook, email, the good ol’ telephone, and even the postal service (sending a care package or snail-mail letter is a lovely and romantic gesture). So yes, there are more ways than ever to keep in touch, for better OR worse, because you have to be sure not to spend your entire day refreshing your screen or reading into silences when someone doesn’t respond right away.

The method of communication isn’t as important as the act of communication itself. Yes, you should talk about what you want/need/feel, but also remember to have normal conversations. It doesn’t always have to be super deep. Have fun! Be in love! Create in-jokes! Everything seems super dramatic at first, but after a while, you get used to—and look forward to—a silly pizza emoji.

You must, you must, you must increase your trust.

If you don’t trust your partner, or if they don’t trust you, it’s never going to work. This is true of any relationship. You may meet other people or decide that you need a constant physical companion. Things happen, but neither you nor your partner wants to spend all day and night worrying that those things are happening, and you can avoid that by being honest with each other.

Now, a HUGE red flag is someone who feels the need to “check in” every hour of the day. This is seriously uncool (and extremely unhealthy) behavior. If your partner has to know where you are, who you’re with, what you’re doing, and why you’re not Skyping with them at that very second, you’re dealing with someone who has boundary and trust issues, and if it escalates to the point where you feel threatened, please tell someone and find a way to end it.

On the other hand, if you’re the one who is constantly texting/calling/emailing your partner, you may need to check yourself. This is probably a sign that an LDR isn’t something you can handle, or that you aren’t secure enough in your relationship to allow your partner to live their life without constant surveillance. Love isn’t about ownership; it’s about partnership. If the person hasn’t given you a reason to doubt them, maybe you have your own self-esteem and trust issues to work on, and perhaps a relationship can wait until you are in a healthier place.

And if you find that you want to move on (or you’ve already done so), you need to tell the other person. Stringing someone along “just in case,” or holding on out of guilt, fear, or obligation, is only going to make the eventual breakup even more painful. If one of you messes up—because, like, you’re human beings—talk about it. Cheating is a tough thing to recover from, but if the relationship is strong enough to continue, great. If not, that’s OK, too. And if your ideas about the future start drifting from those of your partner, be upfront about that as well. You may be going your separate ways, and trying to ignore the signs is like trying to water-ski with your legs 20 feet apart (painful, perhaps impossible, and certainly not recommended).

Have a little faith.

One of the things that got me through the roughest times was a touch of faith (that sounds like a perfume that your grandma wears, no?). I’m not necessarily talking about religion, I just mean a general faith in the person, and love, and the universe, and yourself. My boyfriend and I never discussed breaking up when we had to be apart, because we loved each other, and we planned to take it day by day. Whenever we felt super bummed about the situation, we’d try to make each other laugh, or invent stupid personal jokes that kept us connected and made us feel like our connection was something the outside world wasn’t privy to. The fact that we led independent lives for so long has actually made us much stronger, because we know how to be a we and a set of mes. That is one of the benefits of an LDR: you can take the time to figure yourself out, as can your partner, and if the world brings you back to the same spot and you evolve together, then you’re both better for it. And if the distance makes you realize that you’re not meant for each other, have faith that the right person is out there, just waiting to make embarrassingly corny comments about your freckles.

Cherish your independence.

Perhaps most important: remember that your relationship is not your entire life. There may be days that go by when you don’t think about your partner that much—don’t feel guilty, it’s normal! You may find that you’re a different person when your partner isn’t around, and you may like that. Whatever the case may be, you need to hold on to YOUR life. See your friends and family. Focus on your schoolwork or other endeavors. Figure out what you like and who you are when you’re alone. Take your LDR as an opportunity to concentrate on yourself. When my boyfriend was away, I spent my time painting, writing, going to movies by myself, trying on different identities with hair/makeup/clothes, walking around strange cities just to people-watch, and doing a lot of bedroom dancing. I also kept two journals: one for myself, and one in which I wrote a dumb daily letter to him, telling him all of the fun stuff I’d done, because it confirmed for me that I was both thinking of him and living my life. When he finally returned, I gave it to him, and when we moved recently, I found it in one of his boxes. “Oh man, burn that!” I said, mortified by the gooey, emo writing inside. “No way,” he said. “You gave it to me.”

That’s the ultimate key, really: finding the person who sees your vulnerable center, and who shows you theirs in return. And if you do that, don’t let distance define your fate. Your relationship may grow or it may fall apart completely, just like everyone else’s—even the people who get to be together 24/7. But the two of you may also decide that some things are worth holding on to. ♦