Thursday, July 10, 2008

So you met an American Girl? (How to do Long Distance Relationships)

A young man I knew an eon ago Facebooked me for advice. He is Australian, and he is dating an American. They are followers of Jesus. They are keen for advice from someone who has been through the the whole trans-Pacific relationship thing. I met Dr Laurel in January 1998 in Atlanta GA, and married her in May 2000. I am excited for this couple.

But if there are others reading this, I want you to know for the record: I do not recommend the trans-Pacific relationship. We managed it by the Grace of God. If I may sound pagan for a moment, for a relationship like this to work, all the planets have to align at once. And that is not easy. But God is sovereign over the affairs of men.

Anyways, that being noted, I put this together and emailed them (I have tried not to include things that belong to every couple: prayer, love, good communication etc)
  1. Enjoy this time and each other as a gift from God.
  2. And yet overseas relationships necessarily take more time. It’s good to allow for that. So don’t make blithe promises you can’t keep. The Pacific Ocean is a serious body of water and a large barrier to overcome.
  3. Make the most of your time apart: It’s certainly easier to be pure, and also you are forced to express yourself almost exclusively in written words. (Less so now with Skype. Pity.)
  4. And yet, the best way to plumb the depths of your friendship is certainly face to face. You want to maximize that as much as you can. Don’t believe that sending an email is truly relating. The verse I'm thinking of is 3 John v13-14.
  5. Don’t believe the illusion that to marry someone from another country is ‘exotic’. It quickly ceases to be, and starts to be very, very normal. And the exotic thing is at first an attraction, but it can end up very quickly being a destructive illusion.
  6. Be aware that if you meet someone overseas, then it often has an ‘unreal’ element to it. Your guard is down, you are on vacation, or you are working in a new environment. People see you as different, and you usually have a lot to talk about. But back down on earth, things are far more ‘normal’.
  7. Home is always and only where you live as husband and wife. Never talk about ‘home’ as being the country of your origin or where your parents live. If you see home as being ‘back with the parents’, then it will harm your relationship. That’s in Genesis 2:24.
  8. I decided in my heart that wherever we lived at any one time was the place we would live until we die! (Or until God changes our mind). The reason for this is that if I say: ‘We’ll be here for 3 years’, then we’ll always pine for another place, and we will be less likely to put down good roots. I found that easier to decide in my heart than my wife did.
  9. Become international, by which I mean: don’t see yourself as particularly Australian, or as an American. That will only put distance between you both. I say this especially to Australians, who like to make loose and unfair distinctions between Australians and Americans. So American jokes are out. To me, it is far too insecure anyway.
  10. Your marriage does not mean that you have legitimate travel for the rest of your lives! It means that you will basically travel only one dark path: LAX to SYD. For us, it excludes the rest of the world. We can never spend money going east of New York City. It is almost irresponsible for us to do so.
  11. Get involved quickly in a church: both feet, and don’t hold back.
  12. Make your vows in one country, and a have decent celebration in the another one.
  13. You will face difficult choices if God gives you children: One of you will live further away from Grandparents than the other. There is not much you can do about that, except by persuading one set to move, or by moving to a third country denying both sets of parents. But living near grandparents may be very good and helpful for you (and for them), but it is not the Golden Calf. You’ll just have to talk about that with each other and with your parents.
  14. Obey all rules of immigration and do it quickly and thoroughly. Start on the path of dual citizenship as quickly as you can.
  15. If God gives you kids, register their birth quickly at the consulate of the nation that the child was not born in. Make sure that their dual citizenship is secure early on.
  16. Keep in touch with friends from both sides of the Pacific.
  17. Your true home is not your simple address. As Hebrews says: 'Long for a better country prepared by God.'
So, have you been in a relationship like this? Care to offer any other advice? Or critique mine? Which points are wrong or right?

You may be helping my new friends if you care to comment. And feel free to forward this post as an email to those you know in a similar situation.

Pic on FLickr by KyussQ.


Peter said...

Excellent thoughts. I like the point about not letting the "exotic" factor get in the way. I think that same sentiment can be applied to cross-ethnic relationships among Americans. Not that they're inherently wrong obviously, but wanting to date someone of another ethnicity primarily because of that reason is not good in my opinion.

Nathan T said...

Glad you married the exotic Dr Laurel... :)

David Ould said...

good stuff, Justin. I'm an Englishman married to the very exotic ;- Jacqui from Singapore.

I'd add one thing. Be aware of the massive cultural differences that exist and do your level best to understand them and accept them as far as possible. In particular work very hard on understanding what parents' expectations are.

Having said that, do be aware that the greatest cultural difference is not Australia/America or Britain/Singapore but Man/Woman.

Dr. Laurel said...

I'm not exotic, Nathan...Justin is. ;)

Ruth said...

Justin, you are a wise man. Thanks for that post. Very helpful for some chats I have with people.

Erin said...

Thanks Justin. I'm engaged to an Englishman and we're getting married in Sydney in November and coming back to London for a 'decent celebration' and to continue our life here. So it is a little different as we don't have the long-distance thing, but we certainly have all the other issues to contend with :)

I think you're right on the home thing - it is very difficult for my parents right now as I think they see me as rejecting them and not ever coming back to Sydney. (It's certainly not making the planning of a wedding in a different country easier!) This may or may not be the case - that we'll not end up in Sydney - but I have to get my head around England being my home as it is where we live.

And there are small cross-cultural things that are just not even expected, I'm finding. So it takes a little patience to explain some of the things of your past that have no reference point in the life of my fiance.

But, meeting at church, and continuing to go to that church (by a twist of visa fate, I'm currently working there too) ensures a ready-built family - I'm so thankful to God for the blessing of my church in London.

Erin said...

One question that has just struck me and I'm interested to hear your thoughts: how did you make the change from your long distance relationship being your wife to it being your parents/friends in Australia?

(I almost typed 'back home' there but I stopped myself!)

Cameron & Alex Grey Jones said...

We have members of our congregation who were missionaries in different countries in Africa. He saw her across the room at a wedding they had both returned to England to attend.

Having spoken with mutual friends and discovered more about her commitment to Christ and desire to serve he began written correspondence and asked her to marry him.

The first time they met, and the first time they spoke to each other, was when he picked her up at the train station near his mission location on the day before the wedding.

Last year they celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary.

They were both English, however. Living in the UK we've found that the most dangerous thing is to assume that because we speak the same language we thing the same way...

.. actually, we don't even speak the same language (see Bill Bryson's Mother Tongue, and the cultural 'rules' that are really tricky are the ones every assumes you know, so don't tell you about, and assume you've consciously broken.

frenchcanadianmissionary said...

As an American from Oregon who married a French Canadian in Montreal, thanks for the great post Justin! We're from the same continent, but we grew up 5,000km from each other, and her parents do not speak English. We understand distance and cultural differences. It was not an easy union for us, we both lived through times of depression (her in Oregon, me in Quebec) though we thank God for it... and every year is better than the previous one (6 years and counting!).

#8 & #10 really jumped out at me. They are both down to earth, but if put in practice, lead to an emotional stability that is vital to a healthy marriage.

-Rob from Montreal

Scott said...

J Man

Good words.

for the others, i am an aussie who married a south african and now has been living and ministering here for the last 8 years.

If i was to add anything it would be that when you leave your country of birth it changes without you and therefore if you return - even for a visit - it is never the same.

people die, people move, people grow (in all kind of ways); all without your permission.

So if you can't let go of it (in a healthy way) you are left with no country of your own!

Having said that, I still love being an aussie, (and i think my SA friends love that i'm an aussie.) But it is in my passport, my memories and my heart, and that's about it.

but that is still a lot, and enough for me.

Mrs. W said...

Wow! This is obviously a subject very close to people's hearts, and you have great words, Justin. As an American wife about to embark for Canada with her husband (amazing how significant a border that can be), I would say that perhaps the most important things for us have been the encouragement of our church family here in NYC and the understanding that wherever we are for however long, that is home. It was absolutely lovely to have celebrations in both the US and Canada, as there are so many people who love us in both places. I even wore my wedding dress again, how many brides aren't just looking for excuses to do that?!

Justin said...

So great to hear all your thoughts. May I respond to one though? To Erin:

One question that has just struck me and I'm interested to hear your thoughts: how did you make the change from your long distance relationship being your wife to it being your parents/friends in Australia?

Erin -- great news and congratulations to you both.

Re your question. Wow, what a great question. I haven't thought of it like that.

May I suggest a regular use of Skype with video? That helps. I have a buddy in Australia who write actual letters to me. How great is that? And the third thing is that by living in London, you will get a few visitors I assume. Enjoy that!

It is hard, and it can't be any other way.

I tell you what -- when you are finding it difficult... remember that if you went to the Antipodes 100 years ago, you were basically saying that you quite possibly wouldn't see your family and friends in the 'home country' anymore. Thank God for current technologies, and use them!!

May God be near you.

Bruce Yabsley said...

Justin a comment about assumptions: you wrote "I decided in my heart that wherever we lived at any one time was the place we would live until we die! (Or until God changes our mind). The reason for this is that if I say: ‘We’ll be here for 3 years’, then we’ll always pine for another place, and we will be less likely to put down good roots." For those of us in certain kinds of international work --- say non-tenured researchers or research students in some of the sciences --- you are as likely to meet someone in a third (neutral) location where neither of you will stay; or to move to a different location later; or the like.

And while time spent apart (even for months) will probably diminish with time, it may remain part of the relationship long after you "settle". When I was a grad student, marriages (or as good as) like this among the postdocs or other students were my only viable model --- and honourably conducted among my own friends, let me say --- even though they were completely alien to my church friends.

This isn't necessarily to deny the spirit of your "seek for the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile" point, but to note that it can take a different shape to the one you mention.

Benjamin Ady said...


justin--thank you for writing.

I would add that it's going to be *hard*, maybe a lot harder for one than the other, and probably, in many ways, a lot harder than being married to someone more local.

Eddo said...

American girls...

There are quite a few of us now that have succumbed to this phenomenon. Great news though, My greencard was approved last week.

I would definately drum home how diffucult it is to move countries. And to be prepared for the foreigner to have to sit around, A LOT, as I did for 9 months.

I may also point out, I have met many more foreigners who are now divorced, than ones who are still together. It could be an Oregon thing, but I am sure it is more the cultural stresses and rush people get into when marrying a foreigner.

I get fantastic support from Megan and her friends, but have also found my own circle, through rugby, and that makes the biggest dent on any homesickness I happen to stumble on.

God has blessed our relationship, in some cases extremely obviously, without which I would still be in the Homeland.