I've been a nomad since I was 19. My longing for adventure and travel trumped my desire to maintain close relationships. I chose to live like a gypsy but it's never been easy to live away from loved ones. For most of my life, I've lived apart from family, friends and love interests.
As I approach middle age, and all the mid-life clichés that accompany it, I find it harder than ever to live on the opposite side of the world to my family and my long-time friend, Gillian who lives in Canada, while I live in the Margaret River region of Western Australia.
Gillian and I are going through similar life challenges. We lean on each other as much as it's possible with 18,500 kilometres between us but it's not enough. When she's drinking coffee, I'm drinking wine. If I'm having a bad day at noon, she's asleep. A 12-hour time difference makes it hard to connect in real-time.
“Having good quality access to the important people in our life is key to our personal wellbeing,” says Dan Auerbach, director and relationship counsellor at Associated Counsellors & Psychologists in Sydney.
“Although technology goes some way towards closing the gap of distance, being in different time zones and different places makes it much more difficult to have a quality connection.”
Having good quality access to the important people in our life is key to our personal wellbeing
Considering there are 7 million expats living in Australia, long-distance, digital relationships are common.
Sydney resident, Zohra Aly, 47, and her childhood friend, Fatim met at their local mosque in Dubai 30 years ago. Back then, socialising in Dubai was not like it was in Western societies. There was no hanging out at shopping malls. No sleep-overs, no meet-ups. Outside of religious activities and events, there was little face-to-face socialising.
“We went to different schools too,” Aly tells SBS. “We bonded at a special girls' camp where we stayed together for a week. After that, we spoke for hours over the phone, many times after midnight. I had to whisper because my mum was asleep; I would call after she went to bed.”
The friends both left Dubai in early adulthood. They have not seen each other in 20 years. Although there have been gaps in their friendship, Aly says “we always pick up where we've left off”. Like many long-distance friendships, they stay in touch via social media. They joke about having a girls' holiday but Aly says that's not common in their culture.
“In our culture, holidays are family-based. It may be by coincidence that we see each other again in Dubai [when visiting family] but we would never plan a girls-only trip,” she says.
It's been four years since I've seen Gillian. In 2013, we met in Bali for a 10-day catch-up. Time, distance and financial commitments keep us from doing it regularly. The lack of physical contact with my friends (all my closest friends live in different towns, states, and countries) is depressing.
In a recent study about the psychological wellbeing and social support of friends, only support from face-face friendships was found to lower feelings of loneliness and increase life satisfaction.
The lack of physical contact with my friends is depressing.
“When we are face-to-face in real time, we are far better able to experience the other person's emotional state. Being proximal gives us far more information than phone or text information and more information than video chat,” says Auerbach. “Being physically present to each other means we are also relating in real time rather than sending messages in snippets.”
Although snippets may be enough for some friends. Aly and Fatim share meal photos to maintain a connection and for Gillian and I, chatting on Facebook will have to do until we can meet up again someday.
“Some people are more sensitive to disruptions in the attunement from their partner or friend while others are more robust and can more easily negotiate hiccups along the way,” says Auerbach.