To Make Long Distance Work, Couples Have to Find Ways to Close the Distance

“How romantic!” is the typical response my wife and I receive when we tell people about our six year long distance relationship (or LDR). 

At this point, my wife thanks them quickly and tries to move onto another subject. Because she knows I’m about to open my mouth and ruin this polite interaction with the truth. 

Perhaps the worst kind of social situation for someone in an LDR, is the friend who wants to share her own sob story to you over lunch. Between sips of rosé, she complains about being apart from her boyfriend for *gasp* a month. Sad violin music swells in the background. I mimic noises of empathy, while contemplating unspeakable acts of violence in my head. 

What Most People Don’t Understand About LDRs

Not to brag, but my wife and I consider ourselves black belts in the LDR. We are in the 99th percentile in saying good morning to the other’s good evening. In falling asleep together on Skype. The loud arguments and tears. The distrust and jealousy leading to counterproductive attempts to control each other from a distance. As far as LDR activities are concerned, we’ve done them all and tried everything. 

The biggest misconception people have about LDRs is that they imagine it to be a modern version of Romeo and Juliet, full of romantic misery, heartbreak and unrequited love. 

When in reality, LDRs are defined by the absolute drudgery and impotence of your days. I’m talking about the days, often weeks, when the two of you run out of things to talk about, as you stare blankly at each other through the computer screen, wondering why you’re doing this. 

You almost wish you could invent a grievance so there’d be something to fight about.

In these moments, no television show or music will do the job. You’ve probably exhausted those options already. You’re tired of staring at the LED screen, watching the Skype video of your partner freeze for the nth time. 

This is when the audiobook can truly shine. 

The books featured are available as audiobooks on Storytel, a subscription-based audiobook platform. RICE readers get a 30-day free trial, so download their app to get started.

When You Need to Feel Something. Anything At All.

Twenty-six-year-old Louisa Clark feels lost in her life, until she stumbles upon a job as caretaker for Will Traynor, a successful, wealthy, and once-active young man who became paralyzed in a motorcycle accident.

That’s the basic setup of Me Before You, by Jojo Moyes. Perhaps you already know where this story is going, but that’s not the point. The point is that when my wife and I listened to this audiobook together back in 2014, it reduced her to a crying, hiccuping mess by the end. 

And it was absolutely hilarious. 

Listening to a romance audiobook with a tragic ending is like taking a girl to a horror movie on a first date. You both know what you’re signing up for when you walk into the theater, but you still end up feeling closer by the time the end credits roll. 

And finding ways to bridge the physical and emotional distance is exactly what couples in an LDR need the most. 

For women, here’s your chance to see whether your boyfriend is truly as manly and emotionless as he pretends to be. For men, you can either find delicious entertainment in her tears, or provide supportive assurances that you’ll always look both ways for the barreling truck. That you’ll eat your vegetables so you don’t get flat-lined by a rare disease. 

For another fun little cry, I recommend One Day, by David Nicholls, a short and accessible listen for both sexes. Or if you’d prefer to get absolutely crushed and torn apart at the seams by the weight of your own existence, I recommend A Little Life, by Hanya Yanagihara (you can read our review here).

When You Need To Feel Okay With Doing Nothing

Dance Dance Dance is my favourite novel by Haruki Murakami. Murakami is known for a lot of things: Lazy metaphors. Uncomfortable sex scenes. The elusive feminine figure. The apathetic male narrator who takes absurd events in stride. 

Dance Dance Dance contains all of these Murakami tropes, but what distinguishes it from others in his bibliography is that for the first one hundred pages or so, absolutely nothing happens. 

From the opening pages, we know that the main character has been hurt deeply. He doesn’t leave his apartment for months on end, except to run the most basic errands. Then his cat dies. And the story begins.

Except it doesn’t. He flies to Hokkaido to do a freelance writing assignment for a women’s magazine. He checks into a swanky luxury hotel in Sapporo, where he spends his days shopping and wasting time.  

This is by far the most mesmerizing and therapeutic part of the book. And listening to it in audiobook format can provide strange comfort to couples in an LDR, for whom a lack of forward momentum feels normal. 

It really helped my wife and I notice and appreciate the tedious minutiae of our days. 

When You Need to Feel Better About Delaying Marriage and Family

Following the passing of Toni Morrison last year, Norwegian writer Karl Ove Knausgaard is, in my opinion, the best writer living today. 

Knausgaard is best known for his six-volume autobiographical series My Struggle, which deals with every conceivable first-world problem that a white male can experience in modern life. This is a level of narcissism that would make the most avid social media influencer blush. 

But from the first line of Book 1, it is completely and utterly engrossing:

“For the heart, life is simple: it beats for as long as it can. Then it stops.”

There’s no need to read the volumes in chronological order because each book deals with a different theme. Book 2 (A Man in Love) talks about the inconveniences and conflicts of love, marriage and family. 

Knausgaard is in his second marriage; he and his wife have three young children together. He loves his family, but also resents their encroachment on his writing time. He wants to split the household responsibilities equally, but he can’t help feeling emasculated as he pushes a stroller down a busy street. 

At this point, some of you may be rolling your eyes, but here’s the thing: Knausgaard never tries to make himself out to be the good guy. Most of his revelations are downright embarrassing and humiliating, but Knausgaard gives voice to the thoughts and feelings that couples in any relationship can relate to—but can never bring themselves to communicate. 

For my wife’s part, it allowed her to gain a better understanding of the flawed and vulnerable male psyche. 

When You Need the Catharsis of Infidelity 

Back when I lived in Silicon Valley, I met many people, mostly male engineers, who have made a conscious decision to never read fiction after leaving university. Fiction is a huge waste of time, they say. It’s all make-believe. 

I can’t think of a statement that triggers me more for its sheer childlike naivety. 

Fiction is a waste of time? Tell me what feels false about this line:

“He stepped down, trying not to look long at her, as if she were the sun, yet he saw her, like the sun, even without looking.” 

That’s from Anna Karenina, by Leo Tolstoy

Another literary classic about infidelity is Madame Bovary, by Gustave Flaubert. Perhaps no novel has been misread by more people. That’s because the character, Emma Bovary, is so polarising, and her adultery still such a sensitive subject, that readers are quick to leap to judgment. They either tear her down for being a slut or put her on a pedestal as an example of female empowerment. 

But if you were reading Flaubert correctly, you wouldn’t jump to such easy conclusions. 

This is why the audiobook is the perfect format to consume this story. With a book, you can quickly skip over passages that offend your sensibilities. But in your outrage, you’d also miss the important nuances that an audiobook can help to illuminate.

In an LDR, where the risk of infidelity and breach of trust is always dangling over the relationship, fiction is a way for couples to work out their latent feelings, desires and thoughts. 

The key to a successful LDR is to always communicate—about everything. And a wandering eye is usually symptomatic of other issues within the relationship. With the help of fiction, this is something that should be discussed openly—without any unnecessary judgment. 

There’s a passage from Madame Bovary that’s stuck with me through the years, because it feels truer than anything Malcolm Gladwell has written in his entire career: 

“She was as sated with him as he was tired of her. Emma had rediscovered in adultery all the banalities of marriage.”

Audiobooks Can Close the Distance Between Us

In this pandemic, everyone is going through their own version of an LDR. As Singapore heads toward a gradual lifting of the circuit breaker, we’ve probably exhausted all of our go-to forms of entertainment.

How many more hours of Netflix can we watch? How many video games can we play before we find ourselves staring at our own reflections on a darkened screen? 

The need for human connection has never been greater—not just for LDR couples. 

For this, I recommend giving audiobooks a try. 

All the books featured are available as audiobooks on Storytel, a subscription-based platform. RICE readers get a 30-day free trial, so download their app to get started, and check out over 200,000 titles they have available for streaming or download.

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