August 5, 2008

Going the Distance

By ALEX BALDINGER

By Alex Baldinger

The Washington Post

In the 1988 hit "I'm Gonna Be (500 Miles)," Scottish pop band the Proclaimers famously declared, "I would walk 500 miles / And I would walk 500 more" - just to wind up at the door of some distant love interest. It sure sounded admirable, if completely unrealistic.

But as the price of oil keeps climbing, taking the cost of gas and airline tickets with it, walking might not seem like such a bad idea to those who find themselves in one of the estimated 3.5 million long-distance relationships in the United States.

Whether your partner lives across the state or across the country, the price of a visit is skyrocketing. To cope with the rising cost of long-distance dating, some couples are cutting back on trips to see their partners or booking flights only at off-peak times and away from convenient-but-pricey holiday weekends.

Others are spending more of their disposable income on relationship-related travel at the expense of the rest of their social lives.

And then there are those contemplating long-distance romances who are consulting their purse strings as often as their heartstrings to decide whether the benefits outweigh the costs.

For more than a year, Kassie Brown has been in a long-distance relationship, something she never expected when she made plans to move from California to Virginia with her boyfriend, Jason Rogers. But as Brown, 28, was settling into a consulting job in McLean, Rogers, 26, got a job offer near Boston he couldn't refuse. Suddenly, JetBlue became a third party in their relationship.

Because of busy work schedules and ratcheted-up ticket prices, many of the couple's monthly flights are of the off-peak variety. "I ended up having to get a ticket that came in at 10:30 at night because everything else was like $350, $400, $500, for the nice flights that actually get you in at a normal time," Brown says.

Rogers "was thinking about coming down for Memorial Day, but basically when we looked at tickets, it was unreal." The couple decided to plan a visit for a nonholiday weekend, which could mean burning a vacation day.

"I didn't blame him for (asking), 'Can we spend time with you and your family when it doesn't cost me $500?' It's totally understandable," she says. "But it does cause friction at the time because at that point you're kind of like, wait, am I not worth $500?"

Greg Guldner, director of the Center for the Study of Long Distance Relationships (yes, there actually is such a thing) and author of "Long Distance Relationships: The Complete Guide," says it's too soon to see the results of the current economic downturn in his ongoing research of long-distance couples. Anecdotally, however, what he's gleaned from couples recently is that increased costs have added another wrinkle to the complicated circumstances that long- distance partners face.

"From just talking with people who have been in long-distance relationships, ... as the prices for flights and gasoline start going up, it makes them all much more stressed," he says.

As if being in a long-distance relationship wasn't stressful enough.

Guldner studied the tendencies of 200 long-distance couples and compared them with those of 200 couples in proximate relationships. He also analyzed census data to determine trends in long-distance relationships based on population figures.

The average long-distance couple, according to Guldner's research, is separated by 125 miles, with visits one or two times per month and 30-minute phone calls every two or three days.

Fortunately for cash-strapped couples, the research shows no correlation between the frequency of visits and the probability of a breakup. "That's one of the myths that's out there, is that you need to see each other a certain number of times," Guldner says.

"People who buy into those myths who now can't afford to (travel) are now facing quite the dilemma. Because if they believe that the relationship won't work if they don't see each other once a month, they may be making decisions about either ending the relationship or ending whatever it is that's keeping them apart."

Couples who need to fly to see each other aren't the only ones feeling the crunch. Kristin Grigerick, a 28-year-old government contractor living in Arlington, drives 350 miles to visit her boyfriend, Christian Banach, 28, who lives in East Hampton, Conn.

She recalls a time during her first long-distance relationship when the 731 miles separating her and her then-boyfriend back home felt like nothing at all, at least to her wallet. The year was 1998, and a gallon of regular gasoline cost 98 cents.

Now, the six-hour drive costs about $75 each way with tolls, she says, which is time and money she might previously have spent on clothes or with her family in North Carolina.

"They'll ask me to come down, and I'll say, 'Oh, no, I can't spend the money to get down there,' " she says.

"And then Chris will call and be like, 'Oh, you want to come up here for this weekend?' and I'm like, 'Yup!' ...

"You make sacrifices because you want to see that person."

tips for keeping the flame alive

Seeing less of your far-away loved one than you used to? We chatted with Chris Bell and Kate Brauer-Bell, authors of "The Long- Distance Relationship Survival Guide: Secrets and Strategies From Successful Couples Who Have Gone the Distance" ($14.95, Ten Speed Press, 2006), and they offered some tips:

Don't: Try to hyper-schedule your visits.

Long-distance couples "focus so much on what they're doing that they forget the relationship that they're supposed to be nurturing," Brauer-Bell says.

Do: Build unstructured time - what true relationships are made of - into your visits.

Go grocery shopping, cook, watch a DVD, play a board game. "Not only are you going to have quality time together," Brauer-Bell says, "but you're going to save money in the process, and it's going to take pressure off the relationship."

Don't: Travel more than you can afford.

"People tend to get so caught up in activities (together), especially during summer months when there are lots of weddings, lots of parties and lots of holidays," Bell says.

Do: Stick to a travel budget.

"That's real life," Bell says. "If you imagined yourself five years from now being married and having to set a budget and raise a family and deal with all these things anyway, what better way to get that experience (than) with this other person?"

Don't: Assume any time is a good time to chat.

"If there's a certain time of day that you like to have to yourself, maybe one particular person, come 9 or 10 o'clock at night, they're just totally wiped out and they can't even focus, and they just want to go to bed," Bell says. "That's not the right time to start ... a phone call that might last an hour."

Do: Plan a virtual Saturday night together.

Order carryout from the same kind of restaurant, rent the same movie, and talk afterward. "As corny as it sounds, that is essential when you're just not seeing each other as frequently," Brauer-Bell says.

Don't: View the cost of travel as an obstacle.

"The long-distance relationships that last are the ones where you're willing to make an extra effort to bring it down to a real- world level where you're working through these problems," Brauer- Bell says.

Do: Use rising costs as an opportunity to evaluate the relationship's importance.

"You really learn whether or not this is the relationship that you want to commit yourself to," she says, "and so as painful and as difficult as some of these personal decisions have to be, they can really teach you how deeply you feel about the relationship you're in."

Originally published by BY ALEX BALDINGER.

(c) 2008 Virginian - Pilot. Provided by ProQuest Information and Learning. All rights Reserved.