This weekend I saw this fun idea for pillows from little mementos on A Beautiful Mess. I knew I could have some fun making them because in my hoarder tendencies, I’ve saved just about every single thing from mine and Ethan’s time together the past seven years. Because when you date long distance for four years, you learn to love the little things!
Ethan and I met in 7th grade in a stairwell at church (that has since been closed up with concrete blocks) and spent all of our middle/high school years as good friends. Ethan says he liked me ever since, while I had a more colorful adventure in dating other people… and spent six years not realizing how awesome he was for letting me vent to him on AIM and chat about any and every possible issue in my life. He even took me to my senior Homecoming as friends so I wouldn’t have to go alone. Poor guy.
The summer after graduation from high school, I came around and realized that Ethan was pretty incredible. So on June 15, 2008 we had a sweet conversation on the tailgate of our friend’s truck and something really great started. That summer we went to Idaho on our senior choir tour, worked at preteen and children’s camp as counselors, and spent the summer falling in love fast. We were both moving to Jackson (him Mississippi, me Tennessee) for college, but we decided to be flexible, give it a go, and see if we could make this whole long-distance thing work.
Over the next four years we spent about 32 of those 48 months apart, drove around 20,000 shared miles back and forth, and talked on the phone for so many hours that we contemplated purchasing those tiny bluetooth headsets Jim and Pam wore for easy chatting.
We went to 16 Chi O parties, 1789123740 movies, the Memphis Zoo, 4 flea markets, spent a month in South Africa, made homemade birthday presents, carved approximately 4 pumpkins, spent hours on the trampoline, worked on films for the MC film festival, went skydiving, drove to out-of-town weddings, saw 6 concerts, and spent countless weekends with me in Clinton or him in Jackson or us both in Birmingham whenever possible.
Ethan pretended to enjoy dancing, we quizzed each other when we were visiting but should have been studying, and we learned to love the little things. There were so many letters written that I am sure we probably ran out of things to say and just started repeating ourselves. But at the end of the day, those four years were refining, challenging, edifying, and full of so many lessons I may have never learned otherwise.
I saw some friends recently who are currently in a long-distance relationship, and she asked me what I had learned from long-distance. My first thought was how vividly I can recall the route from Jackson to Clinton, but even more importantly it made me realize how many things long-distance prepared us to handle in marriage.
1. Jesus first, Jesus always. Right before I went to college, God really impressed 1 Chronicles 22:19 into my life: “Now devote your heart and soul to seeking the Lord your God.” This verse came up over and over as we were dating. Even with Ethan in a different city, my instinct to run to him first and share everything was strong – good news? Call Ethan! Bad day? Call Ethan! Stressed out? Text venting. We love quick and immediate affirmation, encouragement and response when we experience new situations, but over and over again God kept reminding me that I must keep Him first, run to Him in every situation, and desire Him over a relationship with another human if He is to be glorified.
There were so many times when we messed the order up, put each other first, and found ourselves in situations of disappointment, frustration and tension. This played out emotionally, physically, spiritually. God is abounding in grace and I praise Him that He redeemed our mess and grew us through those four years, but even in marriage this lesson is a daily challenge. When we were first married, I had a really hard time finding daily moments to be in God’s presence. Since there was a person always at home with me, it was harder to draw away and read, pray, journal, study… I chose to watch movies at night and sleep late in the mornings because I lost sight of this lesson I spent four years learning while dating.
God comes first, always. No relationship is worth putting in front of obedience to the Father. When we do this, we run the risk of idolizing the person we value most and spend all our energy to glorify that relationship instead of praising and pursuing Jesus wholeheartedly.
2. Communicate well, and often. I learned quickly that speaking clearly about how I felt was not a talent I had mastered before college. If you let me write it down, then I could articulate my thoughts just fine. But speaking my heart, succinctly and without crying, on the phone each day was nearly impossible. We had one of our most difficult and ugliest arguments our first New Years together because of this. Ethan pointed out my lace-like feelings, how I was defensive and guarded and non-communicative when issues came up, and how I bottled things up to the point of exploding. While those were hard things to hear, they were so necessary and so good for me to recognize. Slowly, I learned to let my guard down, to joke instead of defend, and to accept correction and honesty without responding emotionally.
The whole lack of personal, face-to-face communication that you miss while dating long-distance really forced us to be honest, up front, and clear about how we were doing, what we were experiencing, and how the other person made us feel. This lesson is another one that is constantly ongoing in my life – but those years of nightly phone calls and having to “reorient” whenever we saw each other after weeks apart, really strengthened this quality in our communication. This is probably one of the most difficult, but one of the greatest lessons we learned that has impacted our marriage greatly. Just be honest, and listen with intention!
3. Contentment breeds joy. I have to relearn this lesson every. single. day. God really tried to get it through my big head when we were dating, but in my stubborn heart and desire for “the next thing” I seem to default to discontentment all too easily. When we were dating in different cities, I just wanted to be together. When we were together, I just didn’t want to leave. We traveled to Cape Town for a month, and I cried like a baby in the Atlanta airport when we got home because I didn’t want to go back to being apart (plus it was really stinking hot and it had been winter in South Africa). My heart always sought the next thing. I thought about marriage like it was my job. And Ethan graciously, patiently, and consistently reminded me that while yes he wanted that also, it wasn’t good to set our hearts on tomorrow. We had to find contentment in today.
Contentment in the right here and now truly breeds joy. It allows us to experience the moments we live in more fully, to enjoy what’s right here in front of us, and to avoid the anxiety that comes with the unknown as we wait for what we don’t yet have. This was the story of my life all four years – I would learn it, thrive in it, then fall back into the trap of wishing away today. If there is anything marriage has taught me, it’s that marriage is not the answer to life’s greatest secret – it is just a (wonderful) but different phase in which to practice contentment. I can spend these days of marriage wishing for a baby, a bigger house, a dishwasher, etc. or I can find joy and contentment today, Friday the 24th, and love the moments God has graciously allowed me to live. Find contentment in your heart, right now!
4. Value the pb&j’s. As silly as it sounds, that was some of the best advice I was given before we started dating long-distance. My friend Heather told me that the key to success in long-distance relationships was to value and appreciate the little things, like getting to make peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and watch tv together. Every weekend didn’t have to be full of adventure and new experiences – just do the little, everyday, mundane things together and enjoy those moments that you don’t get to have when you are apart.
This is so applicable in marriage. So many date nights we spend just eating dinner together, or watching a movie, or just walking around the Summit and holding hands. The exciting and spectacular experiences (like skydiving in Cape Town, or going to concerts, etc.) are moments I will treasure and never forget. But in my good friend Ben’s words…
life is not the mountain tops, it’s the walking in between (I Like You, Ben Rector)
Those moments of making pb&j’s and sharing secrets and holding hands, those are the moments that make this relationship strong. Those nights we spend home together, just laughing and enjoying each others company, those days strengthen our love and give us perspective when life is harder or busier or more stressful. Without all the pb&j’s we wouldn’t be able to appreciate the mountaintops together.
5. Selfless love is invaluable. I can’t count the number of times that Ethan danced with me at parties when he would have rather been watching a movie, or how many hours he spent in the car driving to see me when he should have been studying, or how many times he sat in girly conversations with my friends just so he could be with me at school. His selfless love for me pointed me to Jesus, over and over and over again. He demonstrated 1 Corinthians 13:5 “love does not insist on its own way” like it was his job. This is the only way we could have survived long-distance all those years. I always loved this quote on the days when long-distance was particularly difficult:
Despite what the cynics say, distance is not for the fearful, it is for the bold. It’s for those who are willing to spend a lot of time alone in exchange for a little time with the one they love. It’s for those who know a good thing when they see it, even if they don’t see it nearly enough. -Meghan Daum
We knew it was worth the hard times, because we loved one another and wanted to be married one day. But that didn’t make the sacrifice easier necessarily… worthwhile, yes. But it was a hard four years at times!
However, the grace, patience, forgiveness and flexibility that Ethan demonstrated while we were dating were the foundation of why it was so easy to yes to marriage. The selfless love he poured out in long-distance only grew tenfold in marriage. Daily he serves me with love, encouragement and a willing heart that reflect the love he’s been given by Christ. It can be so easy to think of ourselves first in relationships and to be stubborn until we get our way, but if we hadn’t learned to love selflessly in long-distance, I don’t know how we would have made it through the past three years of marriage. Jesus loves selflessly, and this is our greatest example for laying our pride aside and thinking of the other first, so that all glory can be to the Father! Practically, this looks like a lot of apologizing and repentance when we act selfishly, and a lot of honesty and compromise to love the other well. But I’m so thankful for the opportunity to do this each day!
I don’t have all the answers. I mess up daily, and I ask for forgiveness more often than I’d like to admit. Many days involve emotions and crying, and sometimes there are arguments and anger. But at the end of the day, God has used the past seven years with Mr. Milner to edify, strengthen, redeem and sanctify my life for the better. The relationship we’ve enjoyed together has been full of love and grace and laughter, but most importantly it’s been an incredible chance to look at the cross and ask Jesus to lead us as we grow closer to Him and closer to one another. I wouldn’t change a single day, and I definitely wouldn’t trade our long-distance relationship for the world. I’m thankful for those miles, those memories, and all the moments that have created a friendship that will last until death parts us.