A Successful Peace Corps Long Distance Relationship

Last week was a tough week to be away from home. Valentine’s day and our three-year anniversary. Yet it’s a time to reflect and be amazed at how lucky I’ve been to have Amanda’s support, love, and companionship all this time and how special our relationship is to have stayed so strong and close through almost 18 months apart. I miss and love her very much. This post will focus on our long-distance relationship and how other people who are in relationships and planning on joining the Peace Corps can think about what it means to be apart for this long and stay together.

Spending time together over Christmas and New Year's

I remember Amanda telling me before I left for the Peace Corps that she had done some research on the internet about how relationships in the Peace Corps tend to work out, and the results were not good. I think it’s safe to say that a majority of people who go into the Peace Corps in a relationship with someone back in the US end up breaking up before their service is over. So we went into this well aware that we couldn’t be sure of how things would end up, but sure that we wanted to stay together and confident that through good and open communication things would work out for the best. This week marks our third year of officially dating and it seems like an appropriate moment to contribute to the online record of Peace Corps relationships with a positive story about how we have maintained and even grown our relationship despite the distance. I can’t give a how-to for others, but I can share what has worked for us and hope that others find value or comfort in our experiences. I’ll give my thoughts here, and then I’ll ask Amanda to reflect and give her perspective too, so that both sides are covered.

Open and honest communication is a necessary but not sufficient condition for a successful Peace Corps long-distance relationship. You’ve got to be proactive about talking about things that you’re feeling, even though you may be embarrassed or frustrated at yourself for feeling them. Ignoring your emotions rarely makes them irrelevant. You can give yourself time to process them and understand them better before voicing them, but it’s almost always better to have things in the open rather than hidden. You’ve got to trust that if things are meant to work out, then they will work out, and if they aren’t, they won’t.

The three factors that I think have made the biggest difference in our staying close and committed, apart from intrinsic relationship things, are clear expectations, shared experiences, and the internet.

We began dating only four or five months before I was planning on going into the Peace Corps, so from the beginning we knew that this was something very important to me and Amanda understood that it was a deep part of my personality and values that I wanted to have this experience. Soon before my original leave date I injured myself playing sports and was deferred for a year. This turned out to be a happy twist of fate because it allowed our relationship to grow and deepen, but always with the same understanding that I would be going into the Peace Corps eventually. I think this helped set down clear expectations that made the transition easier than it might have been. To be sure, it was anything but easy, but still easier than having decided while dating to join the Peace Corps. We decided to stay together, but not promise each other anything about the future that we couldn’t be sure about. We only said that we’d always be open about what we were feeling and needing and if something changed for one of us, that we’d tell the other about it. This feels like the best way we could have begun.

Shared experiences are perhaps the most important and unexpected boost to our relationship, and are mostly a coincidence. This may not be encouraging to those reading this blog for advice on how to make their relationship work, but it could give you ideas about how to strengthen your ties. My sector is teaching English as a foreign language, and I work in a Spanish-speaking country. Amanda is a Spanish teacher, so essentially we both speak the same languages and we’re both high school foreign language teachers now. This is a whole area that we didn’t have in common before and gave us a new dimension with which to commiserate, exchange experiences and ideas, and connect. Without this connection we would have had much more trouble finding experiences in common and being able to put ourselves in the others’ shoes. I suggest that other couples find shared experiences that can connect them across the distance, be it tv shows, books, hobbies, or work-related topics.

The third factor is the internet. That seems like a bit of a cop-out, because it pretty much amounts to communication, but the advent of Skype, blogs, Flickr, YouTube, Facebook, and Gmail have made physical distance much less relevant. To stay connected we video chat about twice per week, email periodically, share links on Facebook, follow each others’ blogs, I upload videos to show what my house looks like, and create photo albums to make my life more concrete and accessible to everyone back home. In fact, as a side note, I feel closer to my parents now than at any time since high school because I Skype with them almost ever single week and share my experiences through this blog and photo albums. Sharing pictures and videos has been particularly powerful in closing the gap between our worlds, though nothing that can be communicated on the internet meant as much as Amanda and my family coming to visit me here and seeing everything with their own eyes.

Even with these strengths, the challenges are significant. My experience is that it is often easier for the partner in the Peace Corps to deal with the changes because there are so many new and exciting challenges to confront while the partner at home in the states likely has to adapt to the same life without their main support. It’s easier to build a life from scratch in the Peace Corps than it is to try to build a life around a hole in your daily routines and emotional well-being. The volunteer will be meeting literally thousands of new people while the partner back home will likely have much the same social environment. How each person deals with the social changes will have a lot to do with their social environment and personality. In many Peace Corps sites, technology will not be as accessible as it has been for me. And there is no smoothing over the fact that two years and three months is a really, really, really long time to be apart from the person you love. To make it work you will need to both look for opportunities to grow and challenge yourselves as individuals and share those successes and failures with each other. Make plans to visit each other, share as many details that will make your world come alive as possible. Admit when you’re having a lonely week. Talk about your jealousies, but take care that you’re not trying to manipulate the other into being more dependent on you. Encourage independence and branching out. See these two years as an opportunity rather than a sacrifice. Become the people you always wanted to be and then fall in love with each other all over again. It’s hard as hell, but not impossible. Be flexible, open, understanding, patient, and optimistic. It’s worth a try.

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5 responses to this post.

  1. Aww. I love you two much and I’m glad that your relationship has continued to grow while you are apart.

    Reply

  2. Just wanted to say you give me hope. I haven’t been with my boyfriend that long but he means the world to me and I just feel like I know he’s the one. I’ve been trying to figure out how I can really make it work and though as you said this isn’t a “how to” it’s better! 🙂 And I really appreciate it! Good luck to the two of you for a beautiful future.

    Reply

  3. Posted by Milagros on April 2, 2013 at 9:43 pm

    Hi. My name is Milagros and my boyfriend left a month ago to Costa Rica to work in the Peace Corps and I am very afraid of what will happen to us. I am very thankful for your words as I have only read negative things about relationships in this situation. I would like to know if you are still going through this and if maybe there is a possibility for us to talk more about this. Thank you

    Reply

  4. I have been with my boyfriend for 7 years this month and will be leaving in 5 months for Africa (fingers crossed), its really nice to read a success story as opposed to all of the negativity everywhere else, it gives me high hopes! Good luck to the two of yall 🙂

    Reply

  5. Posted by Malia on May 15, 2014 at 9:58 am

    You and Amanda are an absolute inspiration! I leave in October for Lesotho leaving behind my boyfriend of three years. It is nice to see if you just play by the rules of a good relationship, everything will turn out alright. Thanks for sharing!

    Reply

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