Unscrambling a Scrambled Egg

An algorithmic approach to sustain a healthy long-distance relationship
MAR 2019
Yong-Chul
Y.
Harvard-MIT Health Sciences and Technology

“We are pleased to offer you a spot for the HST MEMP program for Fall 2018….”

I freeze while my brain works very hard to process multiple emotions and thoughts. I send a message: “the HST program offered me a spot.”

Shortly after, my computer blinks with a response. “Can we talk?”

I minimize one screen and maximize the other. Click, click… ringtone.  

The FaceTime pop-up screen displays a familiar person, anxiously walking up and down a staircase. I am sitting at my desk with my palms sweating, thinking about what will happen next. After a moment of silence, she says, “you should pick what’s the best for you — we’ll make it work.”

“…Okay,” I reply, my voice filled with doubt, excitement, and fear. Who knew you could pack so much into a single word? It’s like a poorly made scrambled egg.

Such was the beginning of our long-distance relationship (LDR). To give you context, my partner had already graduated when I was a senior in college, and had moved to Tennessee to intern at Oak Ridge National Lab. Despite the gap, we kept in touch because we were best friends. We officially started dating ten months later.

Soon after, I received the offer from MIT. We weighed the pros and cons of each offer and ultimately picked the best one for us. I committed to MIT, and she stayed in TN. While I was glad we would both stay in the US, I was shocked yet again by how ridiculously big America was compared to my home country of South Korea. My partner and I were separated by a fourteen-hour drive. This vast distance begot unfounded worries: How were we supposed to sustain an LDR for 6 years? What about travel costs? What if she decided I wasn’t worth the effort? With questions and fear in our minds, we parted ways.

Fast-forward eight months to now, with the spring term about to begin. At this point, I can’t believe I had so many worries about everything! After some balancing acts, we have stabilized and found some good LDR routines. Here is the algorithm we have converged upon.  
 

Boundary Conditions — make a not-to-do list

Good communication strengthens any relationship: define what’s important to you and discuss it honestly! To us, that meant discussing Biblical principles to agree on what we shouldn’t do when we are together and when we are apart. We made a not-to-do list. We established interpersonal boundaries early on. During my first visit to TN, I asked my partner, “is hugging okay?” She said, “yes, if it’s less than 5 seconds.” Then, I asked a more challenging question: “is touching your face at night okay?” The answer was no since that may provoke sacrilegious behavior. We also hashed out a similar list for social interactions. Some were obvious, like not being in a room with a person of the opposite gender alone late at night. Some were tricky, however. When I found out my girlfriend liked swing-dancing, we clarified what dance was “not okay” given proper contexts. Surprisingly, devising the not-to-do list was a fun activity, and I enjoyed learning more about my partner.
 

Iterative Method — make a to-do list

If there is a not-to-do list, then there should exist a to-do list. Great logic. We promised to let each other know where we are heading or when we return home. I thought I was the protective one in our relationship — WRONG; she is equally protective. Safety matters a lot to us. In addition, we claimed Friday as our date night (although sometimes we get crafty and call irregularly during dinner or study-date when available). Last but not least, we save time for Bible studies. It does not apply to everyone, but finding something to do together on a weekly basis truly helps close the distance gap. Note that these lists are fluid so keep communicating honestly!
 

Optimization Algorithm — minimize the cost

Tactical visit planning is an acquired skill. When living on a tight graduate stipend, losing $100 is like losing $10,000. Horrendous equation but that’s how I feel. Once, we booked a flight way too late and ended up tearing a huge hole in my wallet. Ever since then, we have been booking flights at least six weeks in advance. Unfortunately, our academic calendars do not align, so we try picking courses that allow longer travel time. Looking at least two months ahead into the future has become my new habit. I must admit, though, I need to do a better job with flight mileage. Accumulating miles is easier if I am married to one airline. However, third party travel agencies like Expedia offer cheaper options. The issue is that they consist of multiple airlines, so mileage does not accrue efficiently! Relationships are all about optimization.  
 

Normalization — realize you are not alone

Nothing is more encouraging than seeing others engage in a successful LDR. One of my lab mates is about to graduate, and he has been in an LDR for a few years. I have met at least six other students who engage in LDRs. According to a study, about 75% of college students report being in an LDR at some point. I hypothesize LDRs have become more common as people pursue their dreams to the fullest, unlike in the previous eras when people settled down at a much younger age. Needless to say, technology is also helpful in supporting serious couples endure this phase of life.

My partner and I have overcome many obstacles, and our confidence grows daily. I know the trust and anticipation for the future we have built will help us surmount bigger obstacles later on. If you and your partner are honest, creative, and committed, you can definitely succeed in an LDR.