How to make a long-distance relationship work and keep the spark alive

From navigating childcare to communication, we speak to married couples who live in different countries

'It was difficult when the kids were young, but we’ve reaped the benefits of being apart': Michael Wolfe and Lisa McKay, married for 13 years
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Long-time Hollywood couple Jason Momoa and Lisa Bonet shocked the world this month when they announced their split on social media. It has since been reported that the Aquaman and Game of Thrones star spent an increasing amount of time on the road filming that his 16-year relationship suffered as a result.

For a growing number of couples, though, living apart is simply more pragmatic. For some, it is even more romantic than sharing a bedroom, bathroom and permanent address.

So how can one make a long-distance marriages work?

Jason Momoa and Lisa Bonet announced their were separating after being together for more than 16 years, four of which were spent married. AP

UAE to Saudi Arabia

University administrator Miranda Roberts has been married to her husband, David, for 19 years, 11 of which have been spent living in different countries.

The couple, from Toronto, moved to Dubai 12 years ago, with David, an engineer, heading to Saudi a year later to work on tourism projects in the region.

“Pining doesn’t help anyone. You have to be happy and become your own person
Miranda Roberts, university administrator

And far from causing problems, Roberts says distance is key to their marital bliss.

“I couldn’t imagine having someone home every day,” she says. “We are individual people and we’re both very independent. We have a very strong marriage and when he’s home it’s like he never left.”

Usually, David comes back to Dubai every weekend to spend time with Miranda and the couple’s son Jacob, 17, but work demands mean the pair haven’t seen each other for five months.

“Pining doesn’t help anyone,” says Roberts, who has built a successful career and a close-knit group of friends in Dubai. “You have to be happy and become your own person.”

She and David both have a “sense of purpose” outside the marriage, which Roberts says is crucial to a successful long-distance relationship.

“We don’t have that day-to-day drag of coming home from work and regurgitating everything that’s happened,” she says. “We make the most of our time together.”

Luckily, Jacob is mature about the situation and is always excited to see his father when he returns to the family home. “Jacob is considerate and well-behaved, so I’ve never had problems with disciplining him alone,” says Roberts.

Currently, David has no plans to move back to Dubai and Miranda is happy to continue with her jam-packed independent lifestyle.

“It can get lonely at times and I do have to celebrate a lot of stuff on my own, but on the flip side, I get to do so much of what I want to do,” she says. “It’s all about getting the balance right.”

From Hollywood to Bollywood

'Our relationship is really fresh because we don’t take each other for granted': Neha Marda and Ayushman Agrawal, married for nine years.

Like Momoa, a demanding film schedule keeps Indian soap star Neha Marda, 36, away from the family home.

The actress spends Monday to Friday filming in Mumbai, while her husband of nine years, Ayushman Agrawal, runs a business 1,800 kilometres away in Patna.

And, like Roberts, Marda says that distance itself is what keeps the spark alive.

My husband and I are both ambitious and our work is endless, but we make sure that we make time for each other
Neha Marda, actress

“Our relationship is really fresh because we don’t take each other for granted and when we do see each other, it’s incredible,” she says. “Obviously you’re going to miss each other, but we value our time a lot more.

“The biggest difficulty is communication,” she continues. “It’s important to talk a lot and be present for each other. If you have a falling out, you have to make it up straight away or it can drag on when you don’t see each other to patch things up.”

For Marda, all relationships take effort, and long-distance marriages are no different, though she recommends making time for the other person whenever possible.

“My husband and I are both ambitious and our work is endless, but we make sure that we make time for each other,” she says. “I fly to Patna every weekend, so we can share a social life and spend quality time together.”

For the greater good

Lisa McKay, 45, an Australian psychologist, and Michael Wolfe, 45, an aid worker from the US, have kept up their long-distance marriage for 13 years and have two children, Dominic, 10, and Alex, 8.

The pair were introduced by a mutual friend online and began their relationship by writing letters to each other while McKay lived in Los Angeles and Wolfe lived in Papua New Guinea.

We’ve learnt how to communicate well over the years. It’s helped me become a better listener and a better human
Michael Wolfe, aid worker and growth coach

They got engaged after spending only 20 days in the same country, though much of their marriage has been spent on opposite sides of the world.

“We feel the way we started our relationship gave us a really good foundation and has helped us in our togetherness,” says McKay, who has published a book about her long-distance marriage. “It was difficult when the kids were young, but we’ve reaped the benefits of being apart.”

Over the years, Wolfe’s job has taken him to Laos, Indonesia, Sudan and the Solomon Islands for months or even years at a time, while McKay’s work as a psychologist supporting aid agencies has taken her across continents, too.

Currently, both McKay and Wolfe are in Sydney, Australia, with the pandemic wreaking havoc with international aid. However, when another humanitarian mission arises and travel is possible, Wolfe will inevitably be posted abroad again.

“We’ve learnt how to communicate well over the years and distance has really served our relationship,” says Wolfe, who also works as a professional growth coach. “It’s helped me become a better listener, a better coach and a better human.”

A transatlantic production

'Spending a lot of time apart in the first few years made us appreciate the moments we would spend together – but it only lasts so long': Jordan Murphy and Mariel Letourneau, married for five years

British theatre director Jordan Murphy met his American wife Mariel Letourneau in 2015 while working in a New York summer camp and decided to carry on their relationship when he returned to the UK.

Their love grew during long FaceTime calls and holidays, and in 2017, they married. Letourneau, a choreographer, moved to the UK in 2019, but the reunion was short-lived.

This move [of living together] felt right and we feel determined to make our life here
Mariel Letourneau

“Mariel moved to England and unfortunately just as she was settling, Covid-19 hit,” says Murphy, 30. “We tried to generate income, but because of the impact Covid had on our industry, we lost all our work and decided we needed a change.”

Letourneau moved back to Pennsylvania alone while the couple embarked on a second lengthy and exhausting visa process, which was finally granted earlier this month after another eight months of separation.

“After being apart for nearly seven years, I’m so happy and excited to be with Mariel again,” says Murphy. “This move felt right and we feel determined to make our life here.”

For Letourneau, it’s also been worth the wait, but getting to this point has been difficult. “Keeping the spark alive has been a challenge for sure,” she says. “I think spending a lot of time apart in the first few years was a great thing because it made us appreciate all the moments we would actually spend together – but I think that only lasts so long.

“Eventually, you need to be with that person, which is why we decided to make the commitment to get married and go through with immigration.”

Expert advice

Anne Jackson, life coach and therapist.

Letourneau's words of wisdom are echoed by clinical therapist and life coach Anne Jackson of One Life Coaching.

“Long-distance marriages are hard, but they can work if there’s an end date in sight,” she says. “You have to be invested in visiting each other and staying in touch by video call.

“Knowing their life, their routine and what makes them happy, and sharing their joy is very important.”

Dangers can arise, Jackson warns, when communication is lost or when there is an imbalance between the efforts made by each party.

“Staying in touch is the most important thing,” she adds. “A relationship is based on transparency, currency and intimacy, and you need to maintain all of those things to maintain a successful long-distance marriage.”

Updated: January 26, 2022, 9:49 AM