At the party where I met my current boyfriend, I asked him a Sophie's Choice question of my own invention. Would you rather, I asked, spend the rest of your life on a deserted island, completely alone but with modern conveniences like a smartphone, laptop, and good WiFi? Or would you spend it wherever you want, with whomever you want, but without the ability to communicate with language—no talking, no typing? Both of us love to read, discuss our feelings, and make sense of the world through words. Both of us chose the island.
We didn’t know then that we would start dating, or that we'd fall in love, or that he’d move 5,000 miles away. We had no idea we’d end up spending the better part of a year in a transoceanic long-distance relationship, living on the islands of our separate lives, turning my thought experiment into a real-world trial.
Long-distance dating is hard. It baffles me that people have been doing it for centuries. Odysseus and Penelope; Romeo and Juliet; Harry and Meghan. But my boyfriend and I employ a secret weapon: the internet! (Yes, Harry and Meghan have this too, but can you imagine the levels of encryption their communiqués require?) Living in the 21st century means you can send love letters instantaneously over email, place long distance calls over WiFi. It’s possible to “like” the thing your beloved says even when they’re well out of earshot. No one is waiting on someone to send a raven.
But it goes further than chatting. If, for some inexplicable reason, you want to follow your loved one's location like a moving blob on a map, you can do that too. (Imagine Penelope tracking Odysseus through the Trojan War.) You can send presents that arrive the next day via Amazon Prime. You can stream the same movies, at the same time. My boyfriend is far away, but he is also always inside of my iPhone, the way Theodore Twombly carries around Samantha in Her.
Indeed, we have truly entered a Golden Age of Long-Distance Dating—a time of not-insurmountable geographic barriers and much less fear about falling out of touch.
People are looking farther away, too. The fact that my own beau and I met IRL, at the mercy of our mutual friends, seems almost quaint. Plenty of long-distance couples today met from far away, thanks to the internet. When you’re tired of the singles in your own city, you can look farther afield on a dating app. Tinder, originally meant to match people nearby, can now be toggled to anywhere you please, allowing savvy travelers to explore the local singles scene before ever setting foot in a new destination. We make friends with strangers on the internet; it only makes sense that some of them would become more than friends.
On r/LongDistance, a Reddit community of some 60,000 geographically challenged lovers, you see these stories all the time: the couple who met on Minecraft, or on Twitter, or on Instagram. I recently read a story about a couple that met on the anonymous chat app Omegle. She lived in Detroit; he lived in Wales. They got to know each other over Snapchat, took things further on Skype, confessed their love over Reddit. Now they’re engaged. This stuff happens. Hell, it happens in VR.
But are these stories outliers, or bellwethers? Some studies make the case that they’re the latter—that social media, and other forms of internet communication, give long-distance couples a common ground they haven’t had in the past. It’s easier to share a life from far away when so much of our living happens online.
"It appears that long-distance partners can engage in more partner idealization and enhanced levels of self-disclosure, which can result in even greater levels of intimacy and satisfaction than geographically close partners," says Natalie Bazarova, a communications researcher at Cornell who studies the way social media and technology change the way we communicate. "The combined effect of distance and multimedia access can even play to their advantage, and they engage in deeper and more meaningful conversations compared to more mundane everyday exchanges between collocated partners. "
And it’s not just conversations. When my boyfriend became obsessed with the British reality TV series Love Island, I found it on Hulu and started watching along with him—something I couldn’t have done without the streaming service. Once, after a coastal hike on a particularly cold and windy day, I complained about my ears hurting from the wind. Two days later, a pair of earmuffs showed up on my doorstep, sent from my boyfriend, delivered via Amazon Prime. I send him playlists on Spotify. He sends me links to what he’s reading. I have become the Pablo Neruda of email love letters.
It’s convenient to see the problem of long-distance love as solved, as if the internet has helped us transcend our physical needs. Maybe one day that will be true. If, by some fluke, we one day carry out all our business inside of virtual reality headsets, then maybe we’ll have defied the need to be near each other at all.
But for now, there’s still plenty that feels spoiled by being apart. There’s no technological solution to time zones. No way to send a hug from 5,000 miles away (though there are plenty of gadgets that try). There is no substitute for being close to the person you love. Until I can turn into a hologram—or, I don’t know, Doctor Strange—I can’t actually be there during the important stuff. Communication is valuable in any relationship, but so is sharing moments side-by-side. Technology fills in the gaps, helps us build stronger bonds, but it has yet to duplicate looking into someone’s eyes without leading us into the Uncanny Valley. Sometimes, it's not enough to love the one you're with. You also have to be with the one you love.