By Sarah Khan DDS MPH
My husband and I often jokingly remark that we spend more time talking when we are apart than when we are living together. As a second-year chief pediatric resident in Brooklyn, New York, I am grateful for the flexibility I have in arranging my schedule. This freedom makes it easier for me to coordinate weekend visits with my husband who currently lives in Maryland. We are not the only couple in my residency program confronted with managing a long-distance relationship. Four out of the 10 residents are in a similar situation.
When my husband, Bilal, and I first started coordinating our long-distance arrangement, I thought I was alone in this venture. Since that time, I have come to realize that young professionals—especially those involved in health care—are frequently adopting similar arrangements. Bilal and I find ourselves having to navigate increasingly stressful work environments in the context of COVID-19 while at the same time also needing to be mindful of the importance of nourishing our soon-to-be-three-year-old marriage.
My husband and I met at Stony Brook University in Long Island, New York, when we were in our second year of medical and dental school respectively. For the next three years, we were inseparable, spending countless hours together studying and getting to know one another. Currently, Bilal is a second-year GI fellow at the NIH in Bethesda, Maryland. For every step of his training, he keeps moving further south along the I-95 corridor, from Philadelphia to Baltimore and on to Bethesda. In the process, we have accumulated hundreds of Amtrak points and also know the best rest stops on the interstate.
I would be lying to myself if I said maintaining a long-distance relationship is easy. Doing so can be very challenging, especially during a global pandemic. I believe that this distance actually strengthens a relationship. However, it requires time, effort, and sacrifice. Furthermore, a long-distance relationship doesn’t always have to be with a significant other. Some of the tips below may also apply to relationships with parents, siblings, or friends.
Five tips for maintaining a successful long-distance relationship
When I started my first year of pediatric dental residency and my husband was in another state as a first-year GI fellow, I would get frustrated that I was the one traveling to see him. It took some time, but I finally realized that since my schedule provided more flexibility, it made sense that I would be the one traveling on the weekends. Keeping track of how many times each person travels is unhealthy and can certainly be counterproductive. It is important to maintain honest and open communication, discuss expectations ahead of time, and be open to the possibility of changing them in response to altered circumstances. Also, if you are traveling via Amtrak, plane, or even by car, make sure you are accumulating whatever points/miles may be available. They certainly add up!
2. Not all free time needs to be spent together
While we were at Stony Brook, “Sarah and Bilal” were always mentioned in the same breath. However, after moving to different cities, we struggled to find our own identities. We started off FaceTiming as soon as we got home from work and throughout weekends when we were apart because travel wasn’t possible. However, we were living in new cities—cities that needed to be explored. By focusing on getting to know our respective cities and making new friends, we discovered our relationship was being strengthened. Moreover, we were able to gather activity ideas for weekends when our schedules allowed us to be together.
3. Celebrate small victories/occasions
Only 100 more days of long distance—cause for celebration! Bilal’s first time doing an independent colonoscopy—let’s celebrate! My first independent dental rehabilitation case in the OR—definitely a time to celebrate! Simultaneous Successful Cookie Bakes—double celebration! We always prioritize celebrating the small things. Celebrating these events is a great way to feel involved in each other’s lives through acknowledging success in professional and personal spheres
4. Create a separate yet together routine
Without fail, around 7:00 am, just as I am getting up, I get a call from Bilal on his 12–15-minute drive to the NIH campus. It’s a great way for us to talk about our day’s activities and lay out a plan for connecting after work. In addition, we try our best to synchronize our laundry and cooking schedules so we can accomplish these activities together. I find that this practice helps the weeks pass by quickly and creates happiness in areas that would normally be quite mundane
5. FaceTime is not the only way to stay electronically connected
As self-proclaimed technology buffs, Bilal and I have definitely streamlined our digital connection options. Even as I am writing this blog post, I have Bilal on FaceTime as he is working on some research. This type of communication is absolutely not the same as when we would study together, but it comes pretty darn close. In addition, cell phone apps such as ToDoist help us maintain a joint to-do list. I am known to include not only practical tasks but also cute ones like “plan virtual date night for next week.” Another app we love to use is HoneyDue which is a great way for couples to jointly manage finances. This app proves extremely helpful as we manage two separate households with respective rents and groceries. Lastly, we do text one another throughout the day. Unfortunately, important texts often get lost in transmission. To counteract this problem, we both keep a list in a separate notes document of important things to text one another. As a result, we have an organized way to discuss these matters after work.
Some days I’m preoccupied with counting down the number of days until we are living together again. Other days, however, I value my independence and appreciate my growth during this time of separation. Needless to say, this chapter of our lives shall pass eventually. But while it’s playing out, we are trying to enjoy the journey—up and down I-95.