You come to hate airports. And the juggling act forced on you by Christmas mayhem. And the thousand other tribulations that you’re heir to when you and your partner have been living apart for more than two years.
The post-doc opportunity of a lifetime took my wife to MIT in August 2005, leaving me in Vancouver with only a couple years of my doctoral degree under my belt. We weren’t even married at that stage. Engaged before she left, we distracted ourselves during our first year apart by planning our nuptials. W-day was in July 2006, including a honeymoon in New York. Then we reverted to our bicoastal ways.
Truth told, we’ve been very lucky. I’ve been free to work away from the lab at fairly regular intervals, cloistering myself with my laptop in her over-priced Cambridge hovel. That’s made things easier. So has Skype, at least in terms of my phone bill. But when I stop and truly reflect on our circumstances – and believe me, I try not to do this often – I shudder at what we’ve done to ourselves. I fear that we run the risk of losing the spark that made us great together.
What’s really stunning is that we’re nothing special. Long-distance relationships are incredibly common where two people are trying to build careers in science. One couple spends three years traversing the Australian outback, him in Melbourne, her in Perth. Another has to cross the Pacific and deal with arcane Chinese border practices to secure quality time only once a year. A third spends more than a year apart, her flipping her car on the way to Vancouver where a dream project is calling, a harbinger that maybe things won’t be that easy. We’ve all heard the stories of people living with their heart in one city and their head and hands in another.
And beyond the people who will ultimately sustain a long distance relationship while advancing their research bona fides, there are also the many who will not be able to make it work. Some will sacrifice great love before departing because they don’t want to allow the presence of any obstacle that may force them to betray the goals they’ve set for themselves. Others will fail because the distance – whether it’s transcontinental or three hours down the road – will defeat them over time. (Blame this scenario on the general absence of projects with fixed timelines.) Despite the best intentions, many a broken-hearted scientist knows that distance can stunt affection and would agree with Woody Allen’s comparison of relationships and sharks: both must keep moving forward in order to survive.
Precise numbers showing how many of the world’s hundreds of thousands of science graduate students and post-docs are trying to make long distance relationships work – and how many are succeeding – are thin on the ground. Even if these numbers were available, how many people who have committed to a vast stretch of time apart would really want to access them? Anecdotes about couples in research who survived time apart and went on to professional success are certainly heartening, but cold, hard stats about widespread heartbreak? Depressing.
The bottom line is that this kind of sacrifice is both exceedingly stressful and incredibly necessary. If you are signing on for long distance love in the name of advanced research, you have to embrace these two facts and find a way to preserve hope, lest you become like that bitter soul who works next to you in the lab. You have to find your joy in small, attainable things and these things must be enough to sustain you as you bust your ass in pursuit of your dreams. I’ve learned to look forward to the few days each year where my wife and I can walk around Boston, savoring the city’s character and watching our step around the R’s the locals drop in conversation. Back in Vancouver, I know of nothing better than the two of us waking up together and grabbing breakfast at the same places we used to haunt before she left. We live visit-to-visit, trying not to take the long view too often. Each rare day we have together keeps us going for just a little bit longer, bringing closer the day when we’ll have amazing careers and ours won’t be a cross-country love.
And, of course, it also brings us nearer to the glorious day when we can stop paying rent in two bloody places.