For the holidays, I’ll head back to New York for only the second time this year and have plenty of catching up to do. With that in mind, I thought I’d explain how I keep long distance relationships strong and positive.
I’ve always dreaded two hour long conversations to bring a relationship back to life. It felt like I would add names to to-do lists then feel guilty for never taking action. As time passed and we never talked, my view on the relationship turned from fortunate gift to dreaded chore. My schedule around the holidays are hectic enough and the impending conversations made visits home feel less like a vacation than a business trip.
I want to share the way I manage the overwhelm: consistent, relevant communication.
This doesn’t require long video calls or scheduled dinners. It doesn’t demand life updates or annual recaps. These are all great aspects of a relationship, but they aren’t what keep a relationship healthy.
Consistent, relevant communication is.
What is consistent, relevant communication?
Communicating can be a well-timed emoji or timely joke. We’re in communication with friends and family more than we realize. At least we could be, but may not seize the opportunities. Social media, photo albums, group chats, and fantasy sports can be more than a side show.
The decision to interact consistently with someone sends the message that we’re thinking of them in our own lives. If a relationship is worth anything, it’s more than long meals and deep conversations, it’s the impact of those moments. The times we’re walking through the streets, recognize a friend in a total stranger, and get transported back to a different time. Those are the beautiful moments that make a relationship worth it’s weight.
Thinking is not doing
When you’ve realized that these relationships are both important and a burden, it’s critical to be honest. Does it feel like you’ve put in effort because you were considering picking up the phone or sending an email? It should come as no surprise that internal dialog does nothing for the relationship.
If you’re anything like me, the quality of your relationships lives on a spectrum. This certainly includes friends you haven’t spoken to weeks, months, and years. Take the time to identify who you’ve been ignoring but truly want in your life. It can be an uncomfortable process, friendship shouldn’t be such an active decision. Realistically, it’s unreasonable to expect a relationship to remain intact as it did during our childhoods. The structure of life changes and purposeful choices are necessary.
Next, decide on the best way to keep in touch. Most people I know are unwilling to share their lives through social media, and for good reason. Hundreds of people follow us. It makes us feel like part of the problem, highlighting the good parts with none of the grime. Rather than sharing every bit of ourselves to everyone we’ve ever met, look for the lesser-utilized tools to share with specific groups. Creating a photo album on Apple or Google and explicitly deciding who has access keeps friends and family up to date without the social media vortex. Instagram allow users to create specific groups. Create one for close friends and family. For my son, we have a WhatsApp chat where we share all his goofy moments. If someone wants to see more (or less) of him, they get added (or leave). We’re not spamming a family chat or showing private photos to the entire world. These choices reduce our anxiety about sharing and keep us in touch.
The journal of Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking earlier this year published a well-designed study that “Taking a Break from Social Media Makes you Happier and Less Anxious”. If you’re serious about improving communication, the actions and habits that make you unhappy must be avoided. Communication doesn’t have to come at a cost to your focus and mental health. It’s easy to convince ourselves we need social media to stay in touch, but it’s a mirage.
Short and positive
When rekindling with an old friend, purposefully keep communication short. Long, drawn-out conversations are taxing. Remove the worry by keeping the conversation short and specific. Small talk. Get the ball rolling without eating into your time or theirs. Most of all, by keeping it short, the interaction is positive. If they respond with a long paragraph, cut the conversation there and say you’re tied up. They’ll get the idea and appreciate you were thinking about them.
Put aside time
Time gets away from all of us. For me, I take time every morning between my routine (when I don’t want any outside thoughts) and the start of work. I see what’s happened overnight and respond with short messages. On weekends, my wife and I each schedule a few hours for ourselves to prepare for the week. I dedicate some of this time to communication. Deliberate communication blocks makes sure I’m not losing touch for too long.
The value of consistent, relevant communication
It’s no surprise we fall out of touch. We get caught in the whirlwind and then try to make up for it by expecting a once-in-a-decade conversation. People are with us all the time, though.
In high school, chatting in the halls and before class was a huge aspect of life. I’d anticipate that moment the night before while watching a game on the couch. I was always keeping my eye out for the little details, ready for the next day. We don’t need the hallways and assigned seats to keep up the banter. Instead, update your expectations for communication.
Life is better when we’re surrounded by friends and family, wherever they are.