The most common reason to leave Peace Corps is because of a significant other (SO). I remember well taking the train to NYC to have my Peace Corps interview and having to fill out a special form to explain my relationship with my girlfriend and how we plan on managing living in separate nations, cultures, and lives. Since Laura and I had already managed along-distance relationship, I believe that we had a head start. Nonetheless, visits are few and far between.
During any long distance relationship, one has to learn how to maintain contact in a way that at least allows the relationship to be paused. That means letters or phone calls that communicate not just like the letters you send at Christmas, including the major events. You need to have a way to maintain contact on the mundane in your life -- how tired you are of the heat, the color of your washing detergent, letting your SO know when you're happy or unhappy.
Long distance relationships can truly take two forms:
- Relationships are maintained, but problems are solved only when the two see each other, as a plant without sunlight.
- Relationships grow around the distance, as a vine grows on fence.
The other type, where a relationship works well at long distances, means frequent phone-calls, long discussions about feelings about very minute things, and a partial detachment from wherever you live, as part of your identity is connected solely over phone lines and letters. The advantage is that when fights and problems pop up, you already know how to discuss your emotions with the other person. You have incorporated the distance into how your relationship works, and therefore you see a long distance relationship as a sufficient reward to maintain it. At the same time, once you return, your relationship has to adjust to the idea of seeing the other person on a daily basis, and you have to learn how "normal" relationships work.
If you're about to join Peace Corps or be very far away from your SO, you need to ask yourself some things:
- What parts of the relationship will you lose?
- Social Groups?
- Emotional Props?
- Sense of Identity?
- What parts of the relationship are you going to maintain?
- How often do you plan on communicating? Will that be enough to tell daily activities, or just major changes in life?
- What are your communication options in your host country? Internet? Phone? Mail?
- What does your SO expect? partial separation for two years? daily phone calls?
- What kinds of problems may erupt while you're apart? Infidelity? Arguments? Long-term Decision-making? Falling in love with another? How will you deal with that, short of quitting and running home?
- How do you expect your time apart to change you? Who do you expect to be when you return, and how do you think your SO will deal with it?
- How often do you plan to visit? every 6 months? Never? Every 4 months?
- How many time zones are you apart?
- Can you own a telephone? Can you afford it?
- Can you mail physical letters and packages? How much does it cost?
- Is Internet present? Where?
- Can you Skype? Can you bring a digital camera to your Host Country?
- Do you want to use your vacation time to see your SO, or to go travel?
- When is the first time you plan to see your SO after leaving the United States?
Before coming to PC and maintaining a relationship:
- Find out Internet options, bring Microphone and Web Camera if possible
- Don't expect much contact for the initial months: you won't know your mediums of communication, so just count on a few letters.
- Consider going to a"middle income" country, such as a Latin American one, Kenya, S. Africa, or Eastern Europe. Your communication and travel options will be much easier.
- Have long talks with SO on what you expect and don't expect from them.
- Discuss ugly hypothetical problems until you're sick of it -- falling in love with somebody else, hookups, lies, and mistakes.
- Take a few memorable photos together.
- Think of activities you can do "together" while still apart -- watch a movie, play a board game, listening to a CD, and what you need. Playing monopoly over the phone, costing $1.00 a minute, may be worth it in the end.
- Talk about who can afford to make trips, and who can't
- Unforeseen issues come up, making scheduled communication sometimes can't happen: international wires stop working, mailmen lose letters, the Internet can go down in an entire country for days. rem
- These are the hardest times the relationship will have: difficulty isn't a good reason to end a relationship.
- Be patient and clear when you're disagreeing. Tones of voice, body language, loud sighs, and facial expressions don't work in long-distance relationships. You have to spell everything out, and not blame the other person for not understanding. Likewise, you can't blame a person for not being able to communicate their frustrations easily.
- Many Peace Corps Volunteers reinvent themselves in their host country and forget entirely about their life in the US. You never will, and that's okay. Your experience will be much more grounded than theirs.
This post still seems to get a lot of hits, so it merits an update. I have since settled down with the person I was dating in the Peace Corps: we still often talk about how happy we are that we stayed together during the Peace Corps, as it made our relationship stronger. Also, I still think it was a good idea to enter the Peace Corps despite being in a serious relationship. When I entered the Peace Corps, about 10 in my cohort were in long distance relationships. Upon my return two years later, I was the only one. However, take a any group of people in their early twenties, and you won't see many relationships that last two years. In most cases, I don't think Peace Corps ends good relationships: it serves as a stress test for them. Good relationships can survive, and bad relationships quickly become apparent.
I no longer check comments here, but it may help you find others in the same situation. If you have any questions, my email address is still (written backwards for security):